At 31, Blazers' Ainge gets fresh start with contending team and new outlook

October 21, 1990|By McClatchy News Service

PORTLAND,OREG. — PORTLAND, Oreg. -- Danny Ainge felt so good about life recently that he straddled a bicycle and rode 120 miles just for fun.

He went to see a college football game, Oregon vs. Brigham Young, pedaling through the green countryside from Portland, Ore., to Eugene, Ore., in about eight hours.

Ainge considered the trip a celebration of fitness, security and happiness. It wasn't the sort of journey he would have made a year ago.

"I just wanted to see if I could do it," Ainge said. "I wanted to see if I was really in shape. There were a few times when I thought about stopping and renting a car, but I made it all the way."

At the unlikely age of 31, Ainge is enjoying a fresh start in the NBA. After a brief interlude of frustration and defeat with the Sacramento Kings, Ainge has found himself back on top with the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Trail Blazers may not be the league's best team, but they are far from the worst. They won the Western Conference title last season before falling on their faces in the Finals against the Detroit Pistons.

Portland's championship breakdown exposed two fatal weaknesses in an otherwise solid team: lack of depth and experience.

To correct the problems, Portland pursued Ainge. It acquired him from the Kings in August for guard Byron Irvin, two draft picks and cash.

Ainge will meet his former club for the first time Saturday, when the Trail Blazers play the Kings in an exhibition game in Klamath Falls, Ore. The teams will play a second preseason game Monday night at Arco Arena.

"This is the best basketball situation I've ever been in," said Ainge, who spent his first 7 1/2 seasons with the Boston Celtics. "I'm really happy to be on a good team."

"Last year, when I went to camp with Sacramento, there were five or six guys who belonged in the league," he continued. "Here, there are 13 or 14 guys who can play. The level of athletic talent is amazing."

The absence of pure athletic talent has been a major problem for the Kings. Last season Ainge, Rodney McCray and free agent Henry Turner were the club's best athletes. Only Ainge and McCray combined athletic talent with basketball skill.

The presence of runners and jumpers is critical in the modern NBA, which is dominated by strong and quick athletic bodies.

Ainge was a role player with the Celtics, creating defensive problems with his long-range shooting and ability to penetrate. The Celtics haven't been the same since he left.

He was supposed to bring leadership and credibility to the Kings when he arrived halfway through the 1988-89 season. But the pieces never came together.

He was the star on a bad team in Sacramento. The pressure placed upon his shoulders by himself, teammates and fans was overwhelming.

As the player most eager to take big shots, he was an easy target for opponents. His shooting fell to 44 percent, his lowest proficiency since being a rookie.

And he struggled physically. His legs were often rubbery by the fourth quarter. He visibly aged at Arco Arena.

There were problems off the court, too. Opinionated and outspoken, Ainge disagreed with coach Dick Motta's half-court style and emphasis on practice.

As part of two NBA title teams in Boston, Ainge felt he had nothing to prove to Motta. In the end, there wasn't enough room in the locker room for both egos.

"Honestly, I haven't even been thinking about Sacramento," Ainge said. "It was hard to move on a personal level because I made a lot of great friends there and my family was happy in Sacramento. But it wasn't hard to leave on a basketball level."

He isn't under pressure to play the star's role with the Trail Blazers. He is one of five guards in a backcourt that includes Terry Porter, Clyde Drexler, Drazen Petrovic and Danny Young.

"I'm very comfortable," he said. "There is no pressure on me. In Sacramento, there was pressure to go out and make something happen. I pushed myself hard, probably too hard. Here, I just go out and play basketball. I love it."

As his bicycle ride suggested, he began the season in fine shape. In his first exhibition game last week, he scored 19 points in 17 minutes, hitting 7 of 10 shots, against the Los Angeles Lakers in Honolulu.

The Trail Blazers haven't quite decided how to use their guards. Petrovic is reportedly on the trading block.

These days, Ainge isn't worried about the delegation of playing time. The Eugene native is happy to be back in his home state, playing for a winner.

"I've always said basketball is supposed to be fun," Ainge said. "I'm having a lot of fun now."

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