Celtics want to retire Ainge's number

Celtics want to retire Ainge's number
March 4, 2014, 1:00 pm
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Last weekend at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck was asked a question about Danny Ainge and responded in the most complimentary way possible.
“I plan to put (Ainge’s) number in the rafters one day for all he’s done,” Grousbeck said. “He’s not going to accept that, but…”
There was nothing after the “but…” Instead, Grousbeck just sort of trailed off and moved on. But here’s what he meant to say.
“He’s not going to accept that, but . . . Rich, I’d love to know: What are your thoughts on the Celtics retiring Danny Ainge’s number?”
Glad you asked, Wyc.
First of all, I think this is great. Ainge deserves a spot in the rafters. I’d argue that he’s more deserving than Kevin Garnett. I’d say that he’s almost as deserving as Paul Pierce. KG and Pierce couldn’t have done what they did here if Ainge hadn’t done his job first.
Then again, if Pierce and KG never won that title, Ainge’s job wouldn’t have been finished, so I don’t know. Maybe it’s a bizarro chicken-or-the-egg kind of thing. Either way, Ainge is definitely worthy of this honor. And don’t just take my word for it. Last night, I reached out over e-mail to Mike Gorman, who’s been broadcasting Celtics games for more than 30 years, and asked for his opinion:
“I'd just say,” he wrote, “with four finals appearances as a Celtic (two ending in championships) and then to come back years later and take a moribund team to Banner 17, Danny should see #44 raised before anybody else enters that discussion.”
I mean, check out some of these photos from Ainge’s playing days.
Mixing it up with Magic and Bird. On the bench, between five future Hall of Famers. Partying on the podium. That blurry little speck over Isiah’s shoulder, floating in the air as DJ finishes the layup off Larry Bird’s legendary steal. Doing . . . something with Kurt Rambis in the Finals.
This was a great and incredibly important time in Celtics history, and Ainge was an important part of it. In the 1986 playoffs alone, he played 36 minutes a game and averaged 15.6 points, 5.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 steals. He shot 55 percent from the field and 41 percent from three-point land. He may have been more of a role player, but he played it damn well. And to this day, he’s the only member of that legendary starting five whose number isn’t retired.
Of course, he’s also the only one not in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Between him, Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson, Ainge undoubtedly had the least historic career. Not to mention, after seven and a half years in Boston, he went on to play another six and a half with three other teams and appeared in two more NBA Finals. Maybe that erased some of his Celtics mystique, but once he came back, none of that other stuff mattered.
And it wasn’t just that he came back, but it was when he came back, and why he came back and what he’s done since.
“The reason I'm here is because it's the Boston Celtics,” Ainge said after taking the job in 2003. “There are better rosters, better cap room, better circumstances around the league. But it's not the Boston Celtics.”
He came back because he loved the Celtics. Because he loved Red Auerbach.
And Red loved him. “In the tradition of the Celtics family, it's a coup to get this guy,” Auerbach said when Ainge was hired. “This guy will get it done.”
Ainge did get it done. He hasn’t been perfect, but he got it done. In the 11 years since he took over, only six different franchises have won an NBA title. The Celtics are one of them. And they’re already in a favorable position to build towards another. What more can you ask for?
Bottom line is, regardless of whether you personally like Danny Ainge, there’s no denying his success. There’s no denying how much he still loves the Celtics. Ainge embodies Celtic Pride in its most classic sense. With Red gone, Pierce in Brooklyn, Brad Stevens still getting comfortable and Rondo still figuring things out, Ainge is one of the few members of this organization that we can still say that about. That’s because he lived it. And for all he’s done, he deserves to live on forever in the rafters.
But why won’t Danny accept it?
“I plan to put (Ainge’s) number in the rafters one day for all he’s done,” Grousbeck said. “He’s not going to accept that, but…”
From that quote, we can infer that Grousbeck’s brought this up to Danny before and that Ainge hasn’t been responsive. So, I did some digging and it’s true. Those close to Ainge say that he truly doesn’t believe that he’s deserving. That he needs another title to crack a spot in the rafters.
This is great news if you’re a Celtics fan. This is the exact mindset that you’d want any GM to have. It’s also the mindset that you’d expect from someone who understands Celtics history — and the players behind those numbers — as well as Ainge.
After all, he’d already made peace with not making it on his playing career alone. Ainge is nothing if not brutally honest in the way he evaluates things, and I’m sure he has the ability to do that with own life and career. He knows he wasn’t in the same class as the other four starters on that team. Even before he came back to Boston, he used to joke that he’d only make a stink over his number not being retired if the Celtics retired Bill Walton’s number first.
And maybe there’s something about that number itself. It’s not like No. 44 was Ainge’s number the same way No. 33 was Bird’s number or No. 34 was Pierce’s number. Ainge was No. 22 in college and only took No. 44 (22 x 2), because No. 22 was retired for Ed Macauley. When he left Boston, he was No. 7 with the Kings, then No. 9 with the Blazers and then went back to No. 22 with the Suns.
In the meantime, six different players have worn No. 44 with the Celtics. At this point, the average fan’s more likely to associate it with Brian Scalabrine. If they retire No. 44 for Danny, what will they do for Scal?
Actually, in that case, they could just put SCAL on a banner, which would be unbelievable. And brings up another option. Who says they have to retire Ainge’s number? LOSCY’s already up there. They have a microphone for Johnny Most. Why not retire AINGE? Or something else that better encompasses the depth of his contributions to the team. That way they can keep No. 44 in the rotation, which is good because once Pierce, KG and (maybe) Ray Allen are up there, the Celtics will be another few steps closer to running out of numbers. After those three, 24 of the Boston’s first 36 uniform numbers (00-35) will be out of commission. It won’t be long before the Celtics have to switch to Roman Numerals.
But hey, they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it. In the meantime, it’s good to know that Danny Ainge doesn’t care. That he still needs that next title. It’s good to know that, if by some chance that next title never arrives, Wyc Grousbeck doesn’t care. He’s putting Ainge up there anyway.
Where he deserves to be.
And here’s hoping that enough happens between now and then for Ainge to believe that, too.
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine