Bulpett: Danny Ainge has been an expert at handling criticism since high school
LAS VEGAS — Everyone seems cool with it now that they’ve seen Jayson Tatum tearing up the summer league courts, but such wasn’t the case less than a month ago. When Danny Ainge traded the No. 1 overall draft pick to Philadelphia for No. 3 and a future first, screams from Celtic fans were so loud, Logan Airport called to complain about the noise.
But Ainge didn’t care. He’d been programmed to deal with that kind of thing — and worse — long ago.
His father was a star athlete who played football and basketball at the University of Oregon, and his older brothers were players of note, as well. Then Danny came along and another Ainge became a hated rival, especially when he and North Eugene High won two straight state basketball titles and he was All-Oregon in football, basketball and baseball.
“I think that at a young age I got used to all that,” Ainge said. “I remember having death threats when I was playing quarterback for our high school football team.
“One time I was dating a girl who was a cheerleader for one of the schools in our city that we played, and she called me to warn me that there was a $1,500 bounty on taking me out of the game.
“So I grew up in this world. And then when I went to BYU, we were rivals with Utah, Utah State, Weber State. We were sort of the team that no one liked in the state of Utah and in our conference, because we had all the football and basketball success. So I felt like I was always everybody’s opponent, and the same thing with the Celtics. You get to the Celtics, and they either love you or they hate you, and I was a guy that got booed in different arenas after I’d been in the league a few years. It honestly doesn’t bother me.
“I actually get a kick out of things that are said publicly. I get a kick out of things that are in a notification that I read on Twitter. It makes me laugh.”
Ainge’s confidence in his decisions is annoying to some of his peers. But you also have to ask how many of them would have had the stones to trade away the first pick in the draft. Likely not many.
“I think some would and some wouldn’t,” said Ainge. “I agree with that. It’s the same thing in any world of business. Some people are more willing to take the criticism if something doesn’t go right. It’s like being a player. If you’re a leader on a championship team, I mean, you’ve got to take the responsibility for the good nights and the bad nights.
“If you’re Tom Brady, you’ve got to take more responsibility than other people, and if you’re afraid of that responsibility, then what’s the point in playing?”
Ainge insists, as well, that he’s not worried that the player he passed up will make him look bad.
“As a matter of fact, I’m actually rooting for Markelle Fultz,” he said. “I love Markelle Fultz as a kid. I really root for his success. I’m a big fan of his, as I am with Josh Jackson. I like him.”
But what if Fultz runs away with the Rookie of the Year race while Tatum deals with a more limited role on the Celtics?
“Heavens no,” said Ainge. “Heavens no. I’m not afraid of that. Listen, like I say, time is our judge, so this transaction should be judged on how well the two players that we end up with do versus Markelle’s career.
“But, again, like I’m not rooting against Markelle. I anticipate Markelle to have a terrific summer league and an amazing rookie year in Philadelphia. I think he’s going to get a great opportunity to play. He’ll get a chance to play probably more than our rookie will get a chance to play. And that happens all the time. I mean, Michael Carter-Williams was Rookie of the Year in Philadelphia (for 2013-14). That stuff doesn’t bother me, and I like Michael Carter-Williams, too, but I don’t necessarily think he was the best rookie.
“And like last year, there’s very few rookies — I don’t even remember the whole rookie class last year — but there’s very few kids I would trade Jaylen Brown for, and yet I think most of the world would say he’s like not even in the top 10 of rookies from last year’s class. But we wouldn’t trade him for almost any of those guys.”
Ah, yes, Jaylen Brown. Ainge took heat for that one, too. But he didn’t waver as the Celtics citizenry was profoundly underwhelmed. There were more interesting names available — Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray, Kris Dunn — but the C’s weren’t looking for a safe route.
“I don’t really ever think about how people are going to respond,” Ainge said. “Those are decisions where I listen to what my staff says, I listen to what they think and what they think is best, I talk to Wyc (Grousbeck), I talk to Rich Gotham, I talk to Brad Stevens, Austin (Ainge), Mike Zarren. And when all of us come to the same conclusion, it’s not really that hard. It seems like it’s something that we all believe in, and I think that makes my job more enjoyable.
“If I’m fighting against everybody or trying to convince people of my way of thinking, that’s different. There are times and places where I will fight to the death for my view, but those are very rare where I have to do that. When you sit down calmly and rationally and look at the facts and look at the information that we have ahead of us, I don’t believe those decisions are only unanimous within our organization. I think if I added 10 people randomly from a jury, they would see it the same way, too. So I don’t feel stressed about a lot of our decisions. I mean, there are some very difficult decisions to make, and some aren’t so clear and some aren’t unanimous. For example, there are many where we’ll be discussing something and it’s not clear cut, and Wyc sill simply say, ‘Danny, whatever you think. We don’t see eye to eye on this, but whatever you think, do.’ ”
For a guy who has been booed in nearly every gym into which he has stepped foot — and relished it — this is fun.
“I don’t get nervous,” Ainge said. “I enjoy difficult decisions. I enjoy being part of a process with the (management) team we have now, because I think it’s so functional. We know every decision we make isn’t going to be the right one, and time is our judge.”