ASK DANNY AINGE which was better, the Celtics teams he played on with Bird, McHale and Parish, or the Trail Blazers team he's playing on now with Drexler, Porter and Kersey, and he says slyly, "Let's put it this way. Boston had better starters. Portland has a better bench.
"Covers me both ways, right?"He's 32 can-you-believe-that years old and still looking for an edge; still looking for the call. It's been a decade since he broke Frank Arnold's heart and graduated from BYU. It's been a decade since he fielded his last ground ball for the Toronto Blue Jays. It's been nine years since Tree Rollins bit him. It's been five years since he won his last championship in Boston. And now here he is with Portland, looking to win another one.
Not that he looks older. Not that he doesn't still have the baby face that's always gotten him in trouble with referees and with guys like Rollins, the one his own mother said was "too facial." By all accounts, he is as competitive as he ever was. He says he'd like to play at least three more years and reassess after that, to see if he can beat the aging process, too.
"There's no question fewer minutes is lengthening my career," he says.
Besides, why quit? Who would want to? Adversity came and went quickly enough, in the form of Sacramento. From the Celtics to the Kings to the Blazers. It doesn't get any more topsy-turvy-topsy than that. If nothing else, those two seasons and 148 games of banishment in Sacramento taught Ainge the value of teammates. Statistically he was the best he's ever been as a King, but the team went nowhere. "If I'm the best player here, then we're in trouble," he said at the time, screwing up his face as he said it.He was traded last August 1st to Portland, 90 miles from his hometown of Eugene. Even for someone who signed a professional baseball contract as a teen-ager, who won the John Wooden Award as the best college basketball player in America, who dribbled through Notre Dame, who won a lawsuit in a New York federal court that got him out of a Blue Jays uniform and into a Celtics uniform, who played in four world championships with the Celtics, and won two of them, who was an NBA All-Star in 1988, this may have been the happiest day of all.
And not just because he was coming home to Oregon green; but because the Blazers, fresh off their appearance in the 1990 NBA Finals, were winners.
"That's the bottom line. Winning. I learned a long time ago that's what brings happiness to a basketball player," says Ainge. "There are a lot of times here I'd like more minutes, sure, but the main thing is I like to win."
He was more contented in Boston, where he started in the backcourt with Dennis Johnson, got all those minutes, and still won. "I'm not sure it gets any better than it got there," he says.
But with Portland, as captain of the bench, as ace of the bullpen, he has no complaints. He averages about 22 minutes and 11 points a game, has the green light for three-pointers, has finally been forgiven by his fellow Oregonians for once defecting to a college in Utah, and won't be at all surprised if by June he'll be sized for his third NBA title ring.
"I think, one through 12, this is the best team I've been on," he says of the Blazers. "Is it better than Boston? That's a difficult question. In Boston, we were so dominant. Now, there seems to be so much parity. Nobody's dominant.
"But any team we match up with, I feel we can beat them. We don't have any one glaring weakness. And we have a great homecourt advantage. That's a big edge. No matter who we play (in the playoffs) we'll have one more game at home."
That's the Blazers' hole card in their current playoff battle with the Jazz as their second round series continues today in the Salt Palace. After two opening wins in Portland, the Blazers have the luxury of losing all three games in Utah, and still moving on to the third round.
As he thinks about this, about the prospects of more winning, Ainge can't quite suppress a grin. He always has been facial.