The family man and former Blazer is glad he gave up coaching
GILBERT, Ariz. Ñ Kids, kids everywhere. Scooters, skateboards and basketballs turn the yard into a playground for Ainge offspring and friends on this sunny winter day in the desert.
In the kitchen, Michelle Ainge waits for husband Danny to return home. Nothing new there, except this time, he will back in a few minutes. It used to be days É or weeks.
'It's a whole new life,' she says. 'A way better life.'
Two years ago last month, Danny Ainge stepped aside from the head coaching position with the Phoenix Suns for a novel reason Ñ he wanted to be a father to his children, a husband to his wife.
Ainge, 42, was consumed by the job, and he realized that he was not only forcing his wife into a dual parenting role, he was missing out on times with his kids that he could never regain.
So Ainge walked away, and his family has not been the same since.
'A whole lot more joy'
The two oldest of Ainge's brood of six are out of the house. Ashlee, 22, is a graduate of her father's alma mater, Brigham Young University, is married and will make the Ainges grandparents in July.
'Like I told Michelle: The only thing I can think of that's bad about being a grandpa is I have to sleep with a grandma every night,' Ainge says, grinning. 'She doesn't look like a grandma, though.'
The oldest son, Austin, 20, is on the second year of a two-year church mission in the Dominican Republic and will be a scholarship freshman basketball player at BYU next fall.
The rest of the clan is at home: Tanner, a senior and starting guard on Highland High's second-ranked basketball team; Taylor, 14; Cooper, 8; and Crew, 6. They get to see Dad a lot more than their older siblings did.
'You know how people think coaching or playing in the NBA is so exciting and wonderful?' Michelle says. 'This is a much better life, and I think Danny would agree with that. There is a whole lot more joy in Danny's life, and it makes a very big difference to have a father around in our home.'
Michelle hasn't been to a Suns game since Danny resigned, 'and I don't even care. Things I used to think were important or mattered? They don't.'
The Suns were 13-7 when he quit after 3 1/2 seasons in December 1999. He didn't like the direction his career was taking him.
'Coaching is addictive,' he says, relaxing on a couch in his living room. 'It's kind of like what gambling must be. I have friends who can't even watch a game if they don't have money on it. That is how I had become as a coach. I had totally become addicted.
'As a player, I never felt that way. But as a coach, I had to watch more film, find ways to get our team better, find ways to psychologically get through to the players, to play harder, to compete. I didn't like who I was becoming.
'At the same time, as I watch basketball, I feel like I'm a great coach. I'm not perfect. There are things I could do better if I ever do it again, but there are a lot of bad coaches.
'But at the same time, I can't imagine getting into coaching right now. I have really grown to appreciate other things. I'm just as busy now as I have ever been, but I am involved in more worthwhile things than just coaching a basketball team, winning and making money.'
Ainge was one of the finest prep athletes in Oregon history when he starred in three sports for North Eugene in the late '70s. He's now a volunteer assistant coach for Tanner's team, which has a shot at winning the Arizona 5-A championship this winter. He coaches Cooper's grade-school team. He is heavily involved in work with several charities, spends 15 to 20 hours a week with church activities and keeps a watchful eye over his varied business interests.
He plays plenty of golf, carrying a 3-handicap ('I can't win with a three, though'), swims four to five days a week to stay in shape and is readily available to watch his kids' athletic, school and church activities, plus give Michelle a hand around the house.
All that plus working a game a week as an NBA analyst for TNT games.
'If I didn't have the broadcasting, it would be really hard,' Ainge says. 'I need something in basketball. I see games and talk to coaches and players, and it keeps me really involved in the game. But it takes 20 hours a week instead of 20 hours a day.'
If Ainge is to ever return to an NBA club, it might not be as a coach but as a member of a front office.
'I feel like I would be better at running a team than I would at coaching,' he says.
Ainge thinks it's a fallacy that the work ethic of today's player isn't the same as that of the player from his era.
'Some of the players are lazy,' he says, 'but I see a lot of players with better attitudes who work harder than the guys did when I played.'
Still, he worries about the health of the NBA.
'It is overexposed,' he says. 'There are barriers between players and fans. The average fan is priced out of the game. As time has gone on, I see a lot of kids coming into the league without any fundamentals.'
Washington rookie Kwame Brown 'is so talented, but he has no idea what he is doing on a basketball court,' Ainge says. 'It's a shame. Yet I understand why he came out, and three years from now, I think he will be a terrific player. It destroys college basketball and it's not good for the NBA, but I don't know what you can do about it.'
Exorbitant player salaries are central to the league's problem.
'The players don't understand the NBA is showing problem signs, and I don't know how that will happen when they are making $10 million a year,' he says.
'Guaranteed contracts and the huge money, it ruins the game. Players have so much clout Ñ that is why management-coaching relationships are so important.
'If a coach doesn't have control of a team Ñ and a lot of coaches don't Ñ he has no chance.'
Ainge read Bonzi Wells' quote on fans in Sports Illustrated, 'and it shows that players don't care about the state of the league,' he says. 'But it's not just Bonzi, it's the whole mentality of the players of today. I don't care what he said; I care what he thinks, that that's in his mind.
'It would be great if today's player understood the value of what Dr. J and Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird stood for when the league was not very good and they made it for the players of today. Those guys had something at stake because they were trying to build the league. Now it's all built, and, with today's players, it's all about them.'
Ainge's brothers, Doug and David, live in the Portland area, and he follows the Blazers closely. He doesn't like what he sees.
'Portland fans have been so loyal for so many years, they are probably very frustrated with the organization and with the team, and they have a right to be,' he says. 'This Portland team is not nearly as good as the Portland teams of the past. It is boring, and there is no chemistry. There is no accountability with the players.
'Bonzi ought to get with his teammates and say, 'Hey, we are losing our fans. They don't want to watch us play because we're selfish, we're prima donnas, we make excuses and we point fingers.' '
Ainge read the SI report that Rasheed Wallace passed on wearing a Santa cap and paid more attention to his cellphone than the kids at the team's annual Christmas tree giveaway.
'Would Clyde have put a Santa hat on? Kevin Duckworth? Buck Williams?' Ainge asks. 'Of course, they would. Those guys had a connection with the community in the early '90s. It's up to the players to create that.'
Ainge says he doesn't understand the direction taken by Bob Whitsitt, the team's president and general manager.
'Bob traded for J.R. Rider, and actually he played good for a while,' Ainge says. 'He beat (the Suns) in the playoffs one year. But the Rasheed thing has gotten worse, not better, over time, and the Shawn Kemp thing is a nightmare that really hurt the franchise.
'Paying Scottie Pippen that kind of money after the best years of his career were over. É Ruben Patterson's circumstances off the court. É Did they bring in Shawn and Ruben to make Rasheed look better?
'I felt sorry for Mike Dunleavy, and I do now for Maurice Cheeks. Maurice has no chance to succeed in that job. He might be a great coach and he might not, but I don't think there's a chance with that group. Mike has to be cracking up right now at the Blazers. Mike had a very smiley Christmas looking at the Portland Trail Blazers.'