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Danny Ainge was the rare athlete with legitimate ability
to play at the highest level in both baseball and basketball[/caption]
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Danny Ainge had just signed a three-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1980, and appeared sincere in his desire to make baseball his career. “I’ve had about 15 NBA teams contact me to see what my plans are,” Ainge said on the eve of the 1981 NBA draft. “I told them not to waste their draft choices because I have a commitment to baseball. My contract with the Blue Jays does not allow me to play pro basketball. But I guess somebody’s going to draft me anyway.” Using the second of two second-round draft picks, the Boston Celtics went for the two-time Brigham Young All-American. Under normal circumstances, the 6-foot-5 Ainge, who averaged 24 points as a senior at BYU, might have been the third pick in the NBA draft, after DePaul’s Mark Aguirre and Indiana’s Isiah Thomas. But his was not a normal situation. For four years, Ainge played basketball at BYU and baseball in the Toronto organization. He was the Jays’ starting third baseman at the time of his selection by the Celtics. To deter NBA clubs from trying to woo Ainge, the Blue Jays signed him to a contract that provided for a $50,000 salary the first year, $75,000 the second and $100,000 the third. He also accepted a $300,000 bonus for agreeing not to play professional basketball. Boston gambled on Ainge, but Celtics president Red Auerbach admitted he talked with him several times before the draft. “We think we have a shot at him,” Auerbach said. Ainge reaffirmed his desire to play baseball after being drafted by the Celtics. But he left the door open. “Had any other team but Boston drafted me, there would be zero chance of me playing basketball,” he said. “There is no question that Boston has the style and the mystique that appeals to me. But I still want to play baseball.” On June 12, just three days after the NBA draft, Ainge announced he had decided to play basketball. The ensuing tug-of-war over Ainge turned into a legal battle. Ultimately, the courts ruled in favor of the Celtics, enabling him to play basketball. Ainge played 15 seasons in the NBA, including eight in Boston, and won NBA titles in 1984 and ’86. He coached the Phoenix Suns for four seasons after retiring as a player, and became the Celtics general manager in 2003, building the 2008 NBA champions. Competition for Ainge’s services first began at North Eugene High. He was the only Oregon high school athlete ever named all-state in baseball, basketball and football, and he accomplished the feat twice. As in basketball, Ainge would have been a first-round pick in baseball in 1977 had he focused on the sport. The Jays took him in the 15th round. “We took a flier,” Jays GM Pat Gillick said. “If you’re faint-hearted, you better not run an expansion club. You’ve got to gamble, be it in trades or drafts.” Ainge signed for a bonus of $32,500, with the stipulation that he would be allowed to play basketball at BYU and would never be assigned to a classification lower than Triple-A. “I plan on playing college basketball and pro baseball, year by year,” he said. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen when I choose between them.” Ainge reported to Triple-A Syracuse in late April 1978. With no spring training and no minor league experience, he broke in with three hits in his first game and a home run the following day. He struggled the remainder of the season, hitting .229. A year later, Ainge earned his first playing time with the Blue Jays, batting .237 in 87 games as a rookie second baseman. In 1980, Ainge again rode the Syracuse-Toronto-BYU shuttle, displaying much more skill and success on the basketball court. By 1981, Ainge was ready to devote his attention to baseball. Or so it seemed. But a .186 average and the Celtics changed that. His legacy in Toronto: 211 games and a .220 average.
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