In the days that followed his resignation a year ago, Danny Ainge heard all the rumors floating around the Valley of the Sun as most everyone dismissed his stated reasons for abruptly leaving the Suns.
When he departed, Ainge said he had to choose between a job he loved and a family he loved more.
Simple as that.
Of course, nobody believed it. Theories abound: He was forced out by guard Penny Hardaway. He was pushed out by Suns Chairman Jerry Colangelo. He was undermined by his assistant, Scott Skiles.
And those were the least cynical.
"I heard that my kids were in drug rehab, that I was having an affair and that I was going through a divorce," Ainge said. "I've heard just about everything, and I just have to laugh at it."
Well, maybe he hasn't heard everything yet. A caller to The Arizona Republic this fall suggested he knew the real reason that Ainge quit last year Ainge, he said, has a second family secretly living in Utah!
But Ainge understands that people are skeptical. Even Suns President Bryan Colangelo asked him if he was sure there wasn't something more. It's "human nature to wonder," Colangelo said later.
The Suns were 13-7 when Ainge stepped down a year ago this week (Dec. 13), which made it all the more curious.
"We hear all the time, 'I'm not doing this for the money,' or 'I'm going to this city because this is where I want to play,' and then we find out about that other contract," Ainge said. "It's just hard to believe a lot of things we hear and read. Usually, the good things are embellished and the bad things are embellished.
"But I don't know how much simpler I could have made it. Was I frustrated coaching? Yeah, for four years I faced some frustration. But the biggest frustration I faced had nothing to do with the way we ran our offense or whether we played hard enough.
"Ultimately, I felt that what I was doing coaching basketball had no redeeming value.
Pastimes, real life
Ainge's golf handicap has dropped by about 2 strokes, to 5. He's doing NBA analysis for Turner Sports. And soon he will begin hosting a two-hour sports talk show on Wednesday nights.
But those are pastimes. Ainge, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a father of six children ranging in age from 5 to adult, has immersed himself in family and faith.
"Before, we knew that if something was happening in the family, you couldn't depend on Dad being there," said Michelle Ainge, Danny's wife since their days at BYU. "If there was a special occasion or a trip planned, you knew you couldn't count on him being there. He'd end up flying in for a couple of hours, and then he'd be gone. Now, he's there."
During the last year, Ainge not only was there for the wedding of his oldest daughter, Ashlee, he was actually involved in the planning sort of.
He was able to see his oldest son, Austin, in his final high school basketball season, help him through the college recruiting process and preparations for the Mormon mission he began in August.
He became a soccer dad.
He's writing a chapter for a book on Mormon athletes, and he learned how to surf the Internet.
He even took a ballroom dancing class with Michelle and his kids.
"Ah, I only did that once," Ainge said. "We put an end to that. I didn't like it, but my kids thought it was fun."
Michelle said she'd like to play doubles tennis with her husband and maybe take some more of those dance lessons, but she's happy just having her husband at home.
"Those are my dreams," she said. "But I'm really happy with the status quo. The decision he made has been pivotal in his life, and our life. I don't think a day goes by that I don't laugh, because it's a new Danny or because I'm just grateful to have him around helping and being a part of us.
"He actually knows who the kids' teachers are and what grades they're getting. "
And Ainge still finds time to coach, officially and figuratively. He coached son Tanner's summer league teams, and he also is working with the youngest Ainge, 5-year-old Crew. Coaching NBA players was simple in comparison.
"He's a hard child to deal with," Michelle Ainge admits. "I believe he has a behavioral disorder, and that's not just an exaggerating mom. He's made a miraculous turnaround because Danny is so good with him. I just feel for single parents, because when I'm ready to die, Danny steps in and helps, and he's really creative about it."'
That creativity has meant going to the golf course in clashing clothes and ducking an occasional airborne cereal bowl.
"He just turned 5, and he's been very difficult for my wife," Ainge said. "He is by far our hardest child to raise to this point, and what a difference it makes to have me there to help. He'll wake up in the morning, and you say, 'OK, Crew, it's time to get ready.' He says, 'No, I don't want to get ready. No, I don't want to eat. No, I don't want to take a bath.'
"He just goes crazy emotionally . . . kind of like some of the players I coached.
Faith and family
Michelle Ainge said her husband has poured himself into his faith as much as his family.
"When he was coaching, I lived with him but didn't see much of him," she said. "I'm guessing it's typical of coaches in the NBA.
"Even when he was here, he was on the phone working on some personnel problem, or he was working on plays or watching tapes. In that job, it's always something.
"It's not really a job, it's a life. It's a great job, great perks and he worked for a great organization and for good people. But there's still more to life than basketball, and I think he's finding that.
"The biggest change I've seen in him is the effect it has had on him spiritually. He's leading our family better than he ever has that way.
"He's involved with us in the church. He's really on the same page with us now."
Dr. Lothaire Bluth, the bishop in Ainge's ward of the LDS Church, said he never saw evidence that Ainge was unhappy coaching. But he sensed that a change was coming.
"I've known Danny for a number of years," Bluth said. "He never talked about leaving professional sports, but I had a strong impression that a change was needed in his life."
And he said Ainge has embraced his role with the church with the same fire he had as a player and coach.
"He is such an enthusiastic, positive person, and he has jumped into everything with that same drive," Bluth said. "He's done a lot of great things people will never know about."
Ainge now is part of the "bishopric" structure of leadership in the church and serves as a counselor to Bluth.
"The bishop is like the head coach," Ainge said. "So, I'm like an assistant coach. It's very time-consuming but very rewarding."
Among his responsibilities, Ainge oversees Boy Scout and Cub Scout programs, plans and leads weekly activities for the 11-and-under age group, organizes Sunday activities for 12- and 13-year-olds and teaches 16- and 17-year-old boys.
A fresh focus
Ainge said he used to sit in church thinking about his team. And he had become so consumed he found himself diagramming plays on napkins while at the movies.
"I'd leave the theater not even knowing what the movie was about," he said. "And when I was in church, I'd hear the lesson, and instead of asking myself how I could apply that principle to my kids, I was wondering how I could apply it to those 12 players.
"I'd read self-help books and think, 'This is awesome stuff,' but I'd apply it to my players. I realized I ought to be applying it to my kids at home, and that just killed me. I had a hard time balancing it all."
Then he had a conversation with Tanner.
"He asked us if anybody thought he had become distant," Tanner said. "I told him, yeah, I think so.
"At the time, it seemed like he wasn't really part of the family. I can tell you that coaching took a lot more out of him than playing did.
"He was so into it, his brain was fried."
John Perkinson, chairman of the Phoenix Open, is a close friend of Ainge's who plays in his regular golf foursome. He said Ainge rarely talked about his attempts to balance family and coaching. Still, his friends knew.
"Danny Ainge is the most fierce competitor I've ever encountered," Perkinson said. "What I saw was a guy who knew what it was going to take to be successful as an NBA coach, and at the same time, a father of six with some of those kids in a crucial time of their life.
"He was working hard at both angles. You could see he was struggling to rectify the two. Now that it's past, you can see it more. I personally see a big difference in him. He's at ease; happier.
"Maybe if it was a team that didn't need as much attention, it never would have come up. I probably shouldn't say it, but he was always worrying about Jason Kidd and Penny Hardaway getting along, or worrying about the personal problems his players were having.
"There were so many demands to make that team successful, and that made it really hard. He realized something had to be sacrificed."
So, Ainge walked away from coaching and hasn't looked back. At least, not much. He said it is "highly unlikely" he'll coach again, although his name often comes up regarding coaching jobs. Ainge said he's been asked by other teams if he's interested. So far, the answer is no. But he might consider a job in some other capacity with a team.
"The guy still drives me crazy, calling me all the time," Colangelo said.
Ainge tries to stay in the loop because he loves the game, but he insists there are no second thoughts.
"There are things about it that I miss," he said. "But I was consumed by it. As a player, I could let it go. I didn't have that luxury as a coach. And I thought, 'I'm not a lifetime coach. I've got other things in my life.'
"It's been a dramatic change, and I don't regret it at all."