The guy was tall. He was wearing a golf cap and jacket and appeared to be in his early 60s.
Shortly after the Celtics closed out Milwaukee in Game 7 of the NBA‘s Eastern Conference finals Sunday night, the gentleman managed to walk through the series of backstage perimeters designed to prevent such things. He then entered the Boston dressing room.
“Yeah, we’ve got to do a better job with security around here,” said Celtic vice president of basketball operations Mike Zarren through a bit of a smile. “I’m not even sure if the guy had a ticket to the game.”
“The Guy” proceeded to congratulate the players and greet others. All were happy to see The Guy.
Two weeks shy of a year prior, The Guy had been their boss. Danny Ainge was the reason many of those people were in the room, having drafted four of the five players who started against the Bucks (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Grant Williams) and another who played a key bench role (Payton Pritchard). The former Celtic president of basketball ops also drafted Robert Williams, who will almost certainly be back as a starter when his recovery from a bruised knee allows. Ainge signed free agents Al Horford and Daniel Theis, though they had left and were brought back in trades by Ainge’s successor, Brad Stevens — whom Ainge had hired as coach in 2013.
Ainge: ‘I’ve Been Proud of This Team’
There’s no question what happened after Ainge stepped down and Stevens took over (choosing Ime Udoka as coach, dealing for Derrick White and other moves) has improved upon the foundation and set the club up well for this year’s run that continues with a conference finals series against Miami. But the connection remains. Stevens and Ainge still communicate regularly, even as the latter has taken the position of CEO with the Utah Jazz, a transition that was fairly seamless for the former Brigham Young star with his friend Ryan Smith now owning the team.
Still, Ainge carries a measure of pride for the Celtics after spending seven and a half years with them as a player and 18 years deciding basketball matters from the front office.
“I’ve been proud of this team all year,” he told Heavy.com. “I really liked watching guys develop when I was there, and it’s been great watching guys like Jayson and Jaylen and Marcus and Rob and all of them take another step this year. They just beat a great team, the defending champs.”
It was through a set of fortunate circumstances and Ainge’s continued tie to Boston that he was able to take in Game 7.
He was planning on making the trip to town to play in benefit golf tournament Monday and Tuesday, and he was hitching a ride with a friend who had access to a private jet Sunday.
“I asked the pilot, ‘Could we leave not at 1:30 Utah time, because it was right in the middle of the game?’ And he goes, ‘No, but I can leave early.’ So I came to the game,” Ainge said. “I was able to get tickets. I knew somebody.”
Ainge’s Ties to Celtics Still Strong
Among the people he knows is his son Austin, the Celts’ assistant general manager who’s in his 11th season with the organization. And Danny helped elevate Zarren on the basketball ops side after he’d joined the club in an analytics role.
So, yeah, ties.
“Sure. I mean, you know, with Brad and Mike and Austin and Dave (Lewin, player personnel) and all the guys in the office, too, you know, all the players, we’ve all invested a lot of time and built relationships,” Ainge said. “So, definitely, from a distance or up close, it’s fun to root for them.
“It’s a little bit different, obviously, not being in it every day. You’re not QUITE as invested. But I’ve still got some very important relationships here. So it was really fun to see this and to see (owners) Wyc (Grousbeck) and Pags (Steve Pagliuca) and their enthusiasm and excitement. That was fun to see too.”
Ainge said it was possible he’ll make it to other Celtic games this postseason — rooting for a band he helped put together.