It has taken a long time for Oregonians to forgive Danny Ainge. When he came out of North Eugene High in 1977, it was no secret that Danny knew basketball. Danny knew baseball. And Danny knew football.
But Danny also knew he wasn't going to Oregon.When he left to attend BYU, his name wasn't the most honored along the Willamette River. But 13 years later, Ainge has returned home, and Oregon has embraced its wayward son.
These days, Ainge is a popular figure with the Portland Trail Blazers, who host the Jazz tonight at Memorial Coliseum. The game will be aired at 8 p.m. MDT on Channel 13.
Ainge's return has been impressive. Though he hasn't started any games, he is a key figure in the team's 11-0 start on the season. (The Blazers were 12-1 going into Saturday night's game at Seattle.) As Portland's first player off the bench, Ainge has produced some fine nights. He scored 13 points in just 20 minutes against Golden State and had 14 points and five rebounds against Phoenix. He is shooting .581 from the field, ranking among the NBA's top 10 shooters, and is fourth in the league in three-point shooting (.590).
"I thought he was a very good competitor who could make big shots at the end of games," Coach Rick Adelman told The Oregoinian newspaper. "But the thing that's impressed me is that he's such an intelligent player. He's really a lot better all-around player than I thought he was."
Added superstar Clyde Drexler, "I always thought he was a very good player. When we added Danny and (rookie) Alaa Abdelnaby, we added two guys who can really play."
After more than seven years and two world championships with the mighty Boston Celtics, Ainge's luck seemed to turn sour. He was sent to the hinterlands of Sacramento, a place where tradition means having a 10-year-old Burger King in the neighborhood.
Although his scoring average of almost 18 points a game for the two Sacramento years was the best of his career, neither he nor the Kings were happy. At 31 years old, rumors circulated that his perimeter shooting touch was fading.
Ainge was disappointed enough at the situation in Sacramento that he even considered a feeler from the Toronto Blue Jays last spring about returning as a utility player. "I seriously considered it for about a month, but I think that's only a sign of how badly things were going for me in Sacramento," Ainge told the Eugene Register-Guard. "The whole time I was in Boston, I never thought once about going back to baseball, but when they came to me . . . it was pretty flattering, but I think if things hadn't been going so badly, I would have said no right away."
Sacramento and Ainge parted ways amiably last summer, when Ainge became property of the Trail Blazers.
Since coming to Portland, it has been nothing but a fast ride. The Blazers got off to an 11-0 start before finally falling to the Phoenix Suns, 123-109 last Tuesday. But that was followed by a Thursday night win over Minnesota (107-92).
The Blazers, who lost in the NBA Finals to Detroit last spring, are hungry and intent. They are outscoring opponents by a whopping 13.4 point a game, by far the largest margin in the league. If they continue on that pace all year, it will mark the largest average winning margin in league history. The Blazer backcourt of Drexler, Terry Porter, Ainge, Danny Young and Drazen Petrovic averaged 63.5 points and shot 62 percent in the past eight games.
"They're a great team," said Jazz guard Jeff Malone. "I'm looking forward to playing them and I'd like to beat them."
Portland's 117-103 win over San Antonio featured an astonishing first quarter in which the Blazers took a 49-18 lead, making 22 of 25 shots (including 5-of-5 three-pointers). "The best quarter of basketball I've ever seen," was the quote used by everyone from media to players to coaches from both teams.
While nobody accused the Blazers of lacking talent to begin with, Ainge has given them something they were short on last year - perimeter shooting and strength off the bench.
"You saw Portland last June," said Malone. "They needed some outside shooting to take the pressure off, and Ainge does that. Ainge has been around. He's experienced and he has leadership. They were already great, that's why they've done so well."
Adds Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan, "Ainge is very talented. He's been in a lot of games and he knows how to play. He seems to kind of be the spiritual leader for them."
GAME NOTES: The Jazz are above the .500 mark for the first time since the third game of the year when they were 2-1 . . . Utah has held three teams under 90 points . . . Utah is 41-33 overall against Portland, but only 10-27 in Portland . . . Last year Utah was 2-2 against the Blazers, winning both games in Salt Lake and losing both in Memorial Coliseum.