In this penultimate installment of the Memorable NBA Draft Night series, we return to the Larry Bird era once again and the 1981 NBA Draft in which the Celtics improbably, and belatedly, acquired the reigning NCAA Player of the Year; Danny Ainge.
Celtic pride was surging in June of 1981. The team had just finished off the Houston Rockets in a six game NBA Final. The title was the culmination of a miraculous two-year turnaround from the depths of a 29 win season to the franchise’s 14th championship.
A few days after that, a record crowd attended the Championship Rally at City Hall Plaza and cheered as Larry Bird waxed poetic on the subject of Moses Malone’s dietary habits. Stock in the Green was on the uptick and everyone was buying.
While the turnaround was swift, it wasn’t a “quick-fix - short-window - take a shot at a title or two before we need to reload situation”. Red Auerbach had constructed a team with a young, solid foundation.
Bird was the bedrock. Only in his second year, he was already a two-time first-team All NBA player. Little doubt remained about his career trajectory. He was established as a perennial MVP candidate and the fulcrum that would provide the Celtics with leverage to compete for championships for the foreseeable future.
Acquiring #33 was Red’s master stroke, but his maneuver the previous draft to bring the twin towers of Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to Boston provided the frontcourt foundation. Parish and McHale weren’t yet established as future hall-of-famers, but the 1980-1981 season proved that they would form a formidable big man tandem for years to come.
That 1981 championship was also significant as it marked the redemption and transformation of Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell from talented enigma to reliable, battle-tested veteran. Once a promising young talent, Maxwell had been tainted by the malaise of those 1977-1979 seasons. Two seasons later, he was the MVP of the NBA Finals and a huge part of the Celtics identity.a
Heading into the 1981 Draft, the Celtic front line was relatively set. The backcourt was where the questions lie; particularly for the long-term.
The starters were a pair of 32-year olds; Nate “Tiny” Archibald and Chris Ford. Archibald was coming off of a solid 14/8 season at point guard. Once one of the most dynamic guards in the game (in 1972-73, he led the league in scoring AND assists with a remarkable 34/11.4 stat line) his athleticism was rapidly diminishing but his vision and basketball IQ allowed him to seamlessly transition into the role of steady veteran floor leader.
His running mate at the off guard was the 6-5 Ford. His role was to play tough defense and keep defenses honest with his outside shot. Ford was one of the earliest players to embrace the three-point shot and while he was no longer a primary option offensively, he had a knack for hitting big shots when the opportunity presented itself.
Beyond the starters, the only guard of note on the roster (sorry fan favorite Terry Duerod) was Gerald Henderson. The 2nd year combo guard averaged just under 20mpg and 8ppg. He would go on to play a significant role on the 1984 championship team but was not yet a clear-cut future starter.
The backcourt was undeniable thin and on its way to becoming even thinner as Ford would retire just one season later and Archibald three seasons later (after a year with the Milwaukee Bucks). Red needed to inject some youth and talent into the guard rotation if the team was going to continue to play at a championship level.
Unfortunately, the team no longer had the luxury of a high draft pick with which to add that talent. The Celtics held the #23 pick; then the last pick of the first round. However, thanks to a couple of trades with Detroit and San Diego (the former home of the now LA Clippers) they did have a couple of high second round picks; #25 and #31.
That 1981 Draft was one of the better draft in NBA history; Mark Aguirre, Buck Williams, Tom Chambers, Rolando Blackman, Kelly Tripucka, and Larry Nance were all future all stars drafted in the first round. The backcourt prize, and ultimately best player out of that draft was Indiana University sophomore guard Isiah Thomas.
The Celtics had no shot at Thomas but all three of those first and second-round picks would be used on the backcourt.
With the last pick in the first round, the Celtics tabbed a relative unknown; 6-5 Wyoming Senior Charles Bradley. The early 80s were the era of the monster guards. Prior to the institution of hand-checking rules in the early 00s, a big physical athletic guard could disrupt an opponent’s offense by bullying the opposing point guard and ‘redirecting’ them towards the sidelines with their hands. The Celtics envisioned Bradley in this role; a role that his cousin, Dudley Bradley, had carved out a nice NBA career playing.
In the 2nd round, the Celtics complemented the pick of the defensive-minded Bradley by going with the more offensively polished Tracy Jackson from Notre Dame.
Both of these picks would quickly become forgettable. Jackson didn’t even make it into 1982 as a member of the Green. He was sold to the Detroit Pistons in December of his rookie season. Bradley lasted a bit longer, playing two full seasons for the Celtics before being waived at the end of training camp before the 1983-84 season.
That #31 pick was another of Red’s masterful maneuvers.
Danny Ainge was the reigning Wooden Award winner as the College Player of the Year in 1981. Back then – unlike today – that meant quite a bit when it came to the draft. Four-year college players weren’t stigmatized the way they are in our current “One-and-Done” environment. Players’ numbers, rather than their measurable, were a significant factor in their draft stock.
Ainge was a two-time first-team All-American and had single-handedly put a little-known Mormon school – Brigham Young University – on the map (this was before LaVell Edwards’ football program began churning out quarterbacks with video game numbers). His last second coast-to-coast layup to defeat Notre Dame in the tournament had made him a household name and cemented his reputation as a leader, a winner, and big time clutch performer.
So, how was he available in the early second round? Simple; he had options.
Ainge had simultaneously juggled his NCAA Basketball career with a burgeoning Major League Baseball career with the Toronto Blue Jays. Before the draft, the Blue Jays sent a letter to NBA teams stating their intention to hold Ainge to his MLB contract and most GMs accordingly took him off their draft boards.
Most GMs but not Red.
The Celtics drafted Ainge with that #31 pick and then set out to convince him that his future was in the NBA and not chasing curveballs. Turns out that Ainge wasn’t the one that needed convincing.
After a legal ruling upheld Ainge’s contract with the Blue Jays, the Celtics were forced to negotiate a buy-out if they wanted to bring Ainge into the fold. Negotations were contentious at times, but the Celtics and Blue Jays agreed to deal in late September and Ainge signed with the Celtics a few days later.
Ainge struggled early in his career with the Celtics and endured a particularly rocky relationship with his first NBA head coach, Bill Fitch. The Celtics backcourt woes intensified in the 1982-1983 season and Ainge, in his second year and as a starter, bore the ire of the coaching staff and fans for the team’s playoff failure.
1983-1984 was also a difficult season but Ainge emerged during the playoffs, particularly in the NBA Finals against the Lakers as a key piece of the backcourt puzzle for the future. The following season he had established himself as a 30+ mpg starter and one of the most dangerous outside shooters in the game.
Things came full circle in 1989 when in the midst of a 42-40 season that saw Larry Bird miss all but the first six games, the Celtics looked at Ainge as the means to try and inject some youth and depth back into what had become an aging front court. Ainge was dealt at the trade deadline to Sacramento for Joe Kleine and Ed Pinckney.
He made a triumphant return to the franchise in May of 2003 when he was hired as GM and Executive Director of Basketball Operations; a return that eventually led to the franchise’s 17th championship in 2008.