EYES WIDE OPEN
Why did Danny Ainge leave the Suns? He took a hard look at his
Here's some free advice for those of you hell-bent on unearthing
the real reason Danny Ainge abruptly resigned as coach of the
Suns on Dec. 13: Get a life!
That's what Ainge did when he left the consuming world of
coaching to spend more time with his wife, Michelle, and their
six children, ages four to 20. Since his announcement, which
shocked everyone--Michelle included--rumors have been flying.
There was an Internet report that Ainge's successor, Scott
Skiles, had plotted a takeover. Wrong. There was speculation in
Phoenix and Utah that Ainge quit the NBA to coach his son Austin
at BYU, where he will be a freshman next fall. Wrong again. A
Phoenix TV station received an anonymous phone call in which it
was claimed that Ainge left because he was tangled up in a
torrid affair with a dancer. "What a joke!" says Timberwolves
vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale. "Nobody
has stronger morals than Danny. People are just sick."
But then, the NBA's image has been so tarnished lately that it's
easy to imagine that intrigue or sleaze played a role in Ainge's
choice. One day there's a report that the Knicks were
entertained by strippers from Atlanta while the team was
attending a minicamp in Charleston, S.C., before the '97
playoffs. The next, Hornets owner George Shinn is being sued for
sexual assault by a woman he met in Charlotte, with the civil
trial and lurid details of Shinn's liaison airing for two weeks
on Court TV. (A jury in Columbia, S.C., ruled in Shinn's favor.)
"I know some people don't believe this, especially if they don't
know me," Ainge says. "They think I'm the whiny guy who
complained to the refs all the time."
In truth Ainge is a devout Mormon who says he has never taken a
drink and who, during his championship years with the Celtics,
used to stay at the team hotel reading scriptures while some of
his teammates were out looking for action. He tried, both as a
player and a coach, to be a positive moral influence. "The
single hardest thing in coaching for me was dedicating so much
of my time trying to set an example for a great work ethic and
character, and the players' not caring enough," Ainge says. "But
that's not why I quit."
His obsession with coaching, which led to extensive film
sessions, late-night meetings and hours and hours of reading
psychology books in hopes of better understanding his players,
left him little time or energy for his family. All summer he
contemplated resigning. The Suns started this season 13-7, but
Ainge was frustrated by his team's lack of chemistry, and there
were rumblings that the front office was unhappy. Were those
factors in his resignation? Ainge says they were merely "little
pebbles you put on the scale."
His kids' reaction confirmed his decision. "Right after I told
them, my daughter Taylor said, 'Does this mean you can finally
come on daddy-daughter camp-outs?'" Ainge says. "My son Tanner
said, 'Can you come to our basketball tournament in Las Vegas?'
I heard, 'You know, Dad, you have been kind of distant.' I said
to myself, Oh, my gosh. Why did it take so long for me to
Some have called Ainge a quitter. That's preposterous. He chose
his flesh and blood over a basketball and a chalkboard. How
could anyone see that as giving up on what really matters?
"Listen, I'm no hero," Ainge says. "I know there are plenty of
homes that have two working parents with no other options. I'm
very, very lucky I can do this."
The morning after Ainge resigned, he drove four-year-old Crew to
and from preschool, helped 12-year-old Taylor with her homework
and then saw Tanner, 16, and Austin, 18, play hoops with
six-year-old Cooper at his side. Watching the Skiles-led Suns
beat the Pistons that night was gut-wrenching, but no one said
his decision was an easy one. It was just the right one.
Polynice and the Jazz
SO FAR, IT'S GOLDEN FOR OLDEN
Last summer, when center Olden Polynice was a free agent, he
sized up the possibility of joining the Jazz. "When I was young,
nobody wanted to play in Utah," says the 35-year-old Polynice.
"They didn't like the strong Mormon influence or that Salt Lake
closed up before 1 a.m. I used to listen to all that. Now that
I'm older, I just want to play for a team that is professional."
Polynice, who had been talking with the Lakers, let Karl Malone
know he was interested. Since Polynice had been branded a
malcontent in his last two stops, with the Sonics and the Kings,
he was pleased when Utah responded by offering him a two-year
deal. His union with the conservative Jazz and its coach, Jerry
Sloan, raised more than a few eyebrows.
Sure enough, in late November, when Sloan noticed Polynice
bossing around a couple of young teammates in practice, he
blasted him. That night Polynice, near tears, called his agent,
Dwight Manley, and said, "I don't know if I can play for this
guy. He hates me."
While Manley talked to Utah management to explain how Sloan's
approach was affecting his client, Polynice fretted. He had
already clashed with Sonics coach Paul Westphal and Kings coach
Eddie Jordan. "I'm still angry about [the past two seasons]
because I felt like it gave me a bad rap," Polynice says.
But Sloan never cared about Polynice's past. He has put him in
the starting lineup, ahead of Greg Ostertag. "Olden's still
adjusting to our team," Sloan says, "but he's done everything
we've asked." During a seven-game winning streak (which the
Pacers snapped last Friday) Polynice provided opportune offense
and 2.4 blocks a game. "Olden's made a big difference," Malone
says. "Now Greg knows if he wants to play, he better come ready
because we've got someone else who can do it. It's been a
win-win for both guys. Olden gets minutes, and Greg doesn't have
to deal with the pressure of starting and hearing all the
negative stuff if he doesn't perform."
Polynice is starting to feel as if he fits in. Two weeks ago
Sloan walked up to him and said, "Olden, can you stop putting
that towel over your head? When you do that, you remind me of
Latrell Sprewell, and I don't want anyone to ever associate
anything in this organization with Sprewell."
Polynice happily obliged, then called Manley the next morning.
"He likes me!" Polynice said.
A Not-So-Fine Line
Bulls forward Ron Artest, Dec. 18 versus the Magic: 41 minutes,
0-of-13 FG, 7-of-8 FT, 7 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists. It's
getting harder to find the silver lining in Chicago; in rookie
Artest's case, hey, at least he got to the line.
For the latest scores and stats, plus Marty Burns's NBA power
rankings, go to cnnsi.com/basketball.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Coaching required so much of Ainge's energy that he had little left for his wife and six children.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Polynice has given Utah a lift in the middle.
Around The Rim
Agent Bill Duffy confirmed late last week that his biggest
client, 7'6" center Yao Ming of China, will play this April at
the Nike Hoop Summit, a showcase for top high school seniors and
international prospects 20 and under. Ming flirted with
declaring himself eligible for the draft last season and is
considered one of the most tantalizing young big men in the
world. The 19-year-old Ming will let his performance at the
Summit in Indianapolis dictate whether he will come out in
Asia is forming a Super League this summer with entries from
China, Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines. Each team will be
allowed up to two foreigners....
League sources say Michael Jordan has not abandoned plans to
purchase an NBA club nor has he given up on buying a piece of
Timberwolves vice president of basketball operations Kevin
McHale, responding to those who point out that his club doesn't
draw many fouls, says, "Getting to the line is a mind-set, not
just a matter of muscle. But I will say this: We've lost some of
Last Friday's win over the Bulls marked the first time that
76ers coach Larry Brown had all his starters from last season
available. Until then, he had gone with 14 lineups in 24
Contrary to reports, Kobe Bryant did not become the first active
player to own part of a pro basketball team when he bought 50%
of Olimpia Milano of the Italian League. Luc Longley, the Suns'
Australian center, has been co-owner of the Perth Wildcats since