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October 12th, 1981

The Courting Of Danny Ainge

 

A jury ruled that his contract with the Toronto Blue Jays was binding, but Danny said baseball was out, and if Red Auerbach has his way the Boston Celtics will be in

Anthony Cotton

 

Given his last memorable foray on a basketball court, was there ever any doubt that Toronto Blue Jay Third Baseman Danny Ainge would perform some last-minute sleight-of-hand and deftly emerge from a U.S. District Court in New York last week as a Boston Celtic point guard?

Well, nobody's perfect. Let the record show that the jury hearing the case between the Blue Jays and the Celtics for Ainge's services, wasn't the least bit impressed by Boston's argument. Last spring his endline-to-endline, last-second sprint and layup eliminated Notre Dame from the NCAA tournament, but last week's 180-degree turn, full-court dash failed to carry the day. And now Ainge finds himself not a BYU star, not a Toronto phenom—nor, alas, a Celtic rookie—but just Danny Ainge, homebody.

While the Blue Jays were finishing their season in Seattle and the Celtics were opening their training camp in Brookline, Mass., last week Ainge's physical exertions were restricted to swatting imaginary racquet and golf balls in the halls outside Judge Lee P. Gagliardi's courtroom. And because of last Friday's decision, for now there will be little more than that. The four-man, two-woman panel decided that the Toronto contract Ainge signed in September, 1980 hadn't been orally rescinded by Blue Jay President Peter Bavasi or Vice-President Pat Gillick, as Ainge claimed, and that the Celtics, who made Ainge their third pick (the 31st player overall) at the NBA draft on June 9, were guilty of contract interference for negotiating with Ainge.

How long Ainge continues to play imaginary games instead of real ones depends upon how long it takes Boston to whittle down Toronto's settlement figure—the Blue Jays had asked for $1 million—that would release Ainge from his three-year, $525,000 contract. Even with the Jays' improved bargaining position, the buy-out should be closer to half a million.

The Blue Jays officially cling to the slim hope that Ainge, who voluntarily retired from baseball on Sept. 24, will change his mind and report to the club next spring. But Ainge has already scotched that notion. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm not a part of the Toronto Blue Jays," he says. "I'm going home to Utah to get in shape for basketball. I'm retired from baseball."

 

To be sure, the finality with which these words were spoken echoed Ainge's previous commitment to baseball right up to June 10, when he told Bavasi he wanted to switch back to basketball.

What happened? "When I signed the contract I was sure I wanted to play baseball, but it was too early," Ainge says now. "I should have waited until after my senior year. I never imagined I would have the kind of year that I did [24.4 points per game]. My thinking was that I was stuck in a bad situation for three years and I should try and make the most out of it. I know I told a lot of people I was going to play baseball, but there's a difference between saying, 'I have a contract to play baseball,' and 'I have a contract to play baseball but I really don't want to,' which is how I felt."

As long ago as last March, Ainge had hinted that he would play basketball again. During the NCAA finals in Philadelphia, he told SI's Jack McCallum: "I've failed at things before. I think I've failed at baseball the last three years. I've set goals for myself, and I haven't come close to them. If I keep failing for a certain period of time, I'll definitely try something else. Basketball? Probably." If Boston president and general manager Red Auerbach needed additional incentive to pursue Ainge, that kind of talk could have provided it.

The Blue Jays then sent letters to all 23 NBA teams before the draft in an attempt to dissuade them from wasting a draft pick on an athlete who obviously wanted to play baseball.

Auerbach, of course, wouldn't take no for an answer. He has a recent reputation for drafting expertise which rivals that of the Dallas Cowboys' Gil Brandt, and he saw in Ainge a perfect Celtic: a quick, tenacious guard who could run all day and shoot all night. Even though the Celtics won the NBA title last year, starting guards Nate Archibald and Chris Ford were perceived as being the team's weak link, and they aren't kids anymore, either.

The added intangible of Ainge's skin color is perhaps more important in Boston than in any other NBA town. Boston was the scene of some ugly racial confrontations in the middle '70s, and the racial makeup of its sports teams is watched as closely as the box scores.

Apparently Ainge had been reading his own line in the Jays' box scores just as closely and saw the need to try another sport. Entering the '81 season, Ainge had hit but .239 in 419 major league at bats over parts of three seasons. However, Gillick and others felt that the numbers would improve over the course of a full season. They didn't. Ainge finished this year hitting .187 with no home runs, 14 RBIs and only eight extra-base hits. What with his season-long slump, minor injuries and the legal situation, Ainge has been ineffective since early September. "It's obvious I wasn't having a successful career," he says.

 

 

While the consensus among major league scouts is that Ainge was rushed to the majors by Toronto, there is doubt that things would ever get a lot better. "I don't like him too much," says Rick Ferrell, a scout for the Detroit Tigers. "I don't think he'll hit enough. He doesn't throw too good at third base. He doesn't have power."

Ferrell and other scouts concede that Ainge has speed, which, along with an accurate jump shot, heads-up play and light pigmentation, is what has NBA people practically drooling. "We use a scale of five in grading a player, and Ainge got a four in field-goal shooting, free-throw shooting, ball handling, passing, speed and aggressiveness, a three-plus in rebounding and a three in defense," says NBA scouting consultant Marty Blake. "To give you an idea of how good a four is, we gave out only one five all last year." ( St. Louis University's David Burns got a five for speed and was drafted by the New Jersey Nets.) Blake says that no one received a four for his defensive work, which doesn't surprise Pete Newell, who coached a national champion at California and is now the talent consultant of the Golden State Warriors. "He plays D like most college kids—very little," says Newell. "But there's no doubt that he has a tremendous future in the league, especially compared to baseball." The baseball/basketball conflict has occurred before, most recently in the cases of the Celtics' Gene Conley and the Knicks' Dave DeBusschere, both of whom gave up pitching careers. But that was before the NBA season lasted until Father's Day, as it does now.

According to testimony at the trial, Ainge told Bavasi of his intention to pursue basketball on June 10 in Toronto—and asked for permission to join the Celtics. Ainge said Bavasi told him, "You have to do what you have to do," and that "no contract could make a man do what he doesn't want to do." The next day, Ainge said, Blue Jay Coach Bobby Doerr and Gillick repeated those sentiments and said he shouldn't worry about his contract, which includes a clause banning Ainge from playing pro basketball. That clause was sweetened by a $300,000 bonus, of which Ainge collected the last payment, $120,000, in August. Ainge offered to return the entire bonus.

The two conversations, the Celtics contended, were tantamount to the Blue Jays' giving Ainge his release from baseball. Toronto, on the other hand, countered that the things told Ainge were merely personal statements made by stunned men, who, according to Bavasi's testimony, likened the situation to "an ailing wife being left behind by her husband for some blonde floozy from Boston."

After 1� hours of deliberation, the jury ruled that there was no rescission and that the contract was still valid. After the trial Bavasi lit up a large cigar, mocking Auerbach, and said, "There's one minute to go and we're 20 points ahead. As far as I'm concerned, Danny Ainge is a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, and until I'm absolutely convinced he's not, I'm not speaking to Auerbach or anyone else in their organization."

Right now the Celtics aren't too thrilled about dealing with the Blue Jays, either. "The thing is, they don't even want him and he doesn't want to be there, but we shouldn't have to buy their franchise to get him," says Boston Vice-President Jan Volk.

As Danny Ainge sits at home in Provo, the only question seems to be which team can hold out the longest: Boston, which would dearly love to have Ainge's skills at point guard, or Toronto, which claims it won't have to pay the remainder of Ainge's guaranteed contract if he doesn't play. One person who probably doesn't care either way is Austin Daniel Ainge. Austin was born the day after the Blue Jay-Celtic trial started and didn't get to see his daddy until after the jury's decision four days later.

 

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