Danny Ainge kept talking Tuesday about "burning the midnight oil" at "until 2 (a.m.)" and you could tell by his eyes that after pulling off the biggest Boston Celtics trade since Red Auerbach was making deals, he meant it.
Ainge's most famous play as a player came when he was at Brigham Young in the 1981 NCAA tournament when, faced with a one-point deficit and a dwindling clock against Notre Dame, he took the ball, dribbled down court and laid it in just before the buzzer.
So the last-second save? No problem.
As a pro, even as he won a couple of titles with the Celtics, Ainge was best remembered not for his outside shooting but his fiery competitiveness that always seemed to be getting him into fights.
One time he tackled a guy named Tree Rollins, who at 7-foot-1 and 235 pounds got his nickname for obvious reasons. Ainge should have been pummeled, but he got so under Tree's skin that Tree bit him (headline in the Boston Herald the next day: "Tree bites man").
Of course, Ainge being Ainge, the story is often remembered backwards with Ainge biting the Tree.
Regardless, standing up to a tough fight and battling his way out? Yeah, no problem there either.
And make no mistake, just under those exhausted eyes, the tiniest glimpse of that old cocksure grin of Danny Ainge could be seen Tuesday.
Seated with him at a press conference was Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and the hopes of this old, historic franchise that banner No. 17 was still possible. And because of that, this was about the old guard turned executive, too.
This, more precisely, was about the redemption of Danny Ainge.
"This is going to be a lot of fun this year," he smiled.
Ainge was on the brink until Tuesday, until in a route more circuitous than even that long ago NCAA tourney drive, he rebuilt the Celtics into contenders at last.
After years of starts and stops, peculiar picks, terrible trades and fruitless free agents, the Celtics somehow in the last five weeks managed to turn seven players and three draft picks into Allen, Garnett and rookie Glen Davis.
The first two are the ones that count, the serial all-stars in search of a chance to team with Pierce and make a run at the NBA finals out of the ever-winnable Eastern Conference. Landing Allen on draft night didn't seem to mean much – an aging shooter coming off injury wasn't going to turn anything around.
But getting Garnett, one of the 10 best players in the league and still very much in his prime, made the whole recipe perfect. Now Boston has a Big Three to die for, although, as Ainge pointed out in an effort to curb expectations, it still isn't the Big Three he knew – the trio featuring Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
"I've heard a lot of comparisons already to the Big Three," Ainge said. "The Big Three isn't the Big Three until we win. These guys can't be mentioned with the Big Three until they win.
"Nothing has been accomplished by this team."
For Ainge to be dousing the excitement of long dormant Celtics fans was a new one. He spent his first four-plus years on the job trying to drum up excitement about the team, forever trying to put a positive spin on various disastrous moves and long losing streaks.
When the 2006-07 season was essentially tanked so the Celts could land Kevin Durant in the lottery, only to have Boston wind up with the fifth pick, the franchise looked doomed. Many people figured Ainge would be fired within a year.
But like he was as a player – dramatic and determined – Ainge somehow pulled the entire franchise around. Suddenly, a gut-punch night in May was replaced with a glorious one in July. And Ainge wasn't about to let the occasion go by without a subtle shot to all the critics that this was part of a potential plan.
"Without Paul Pierce we don't get a deal for Ray Allen," he reminded. "Without Ray Allen we don't get K.G."
Yes, the Celtics lack depth and cap room and, with the three stars in their 30s, the window of opportunity will shut soon. But prior to this, prior to prying Garnett out of Minnesota, Boston didn't even have a window to open.
So the tough old guard delivered again for the Celtics. It wasn't smooth. It didn't always make sense. He had to stare down a final loss (his job) to somehow, someway pull this off at the end, but then again, isn't that Danny Ainge's way?
- Danny Ainge