PORTLAND – Ask Austin Ainge about the long hours of a minor league coach either by a basketball court, on a bus or plane, or at his desk. Ask him about the time spent away from home and family.
At 29 he is still a very young man doing an older man’s job. He understands the pressures and the rewards that are hard-earned. You want to know how he juggles it all and still maintains balance in his life.
That’s when Ainge fixes his unblinking, unflappable eyes on yours. “I grew up in this life. It’s all I’ve ever known.”
He’s normal. It’s the world outside professional basketball that’s off kilter.
Ainge sat on a couch in the reception area at the Maine Red Claws’ office on Congress Street in Portland. All around us, Red Claws personnel seemed to be on missions. Hey, the season opens Nov. 19 against the Austin Toros at the Portland Expo.
The Red Claws do not have a single player under contract. That’s why Ainge left his home in the Boston area for day-long meetings in Portland with Jon Jennings, the team’s hands-on president and general manager, and other staff members. The D-League draft is Monday and the first team practice about a week later.
Player after player has been watched on tape, their statistics scrutinized, their character strengths and flaws discussed. “Because of the tough travel, I learned that tough players are more valuable than skilled players,” said Ainge.
Hard men who can play hard after a Sunday game in the Expo followed by Tuesday in Provo, Utah, and Saturday in Bakersfield, Calif. “It could be worse,” said Ainge. “We fly commercially. We’re not on a bus.
“Although if you’re 7 feet and trying to sit in a seat in coach, that can be difficult.”
Ainge all but shrugs. He grew up watching his father, Danny, pack travel bags for his cross-country trips with the Celtics. Travel is all about getting to where you want to go, literally and figuratively.
He was the kid coach last year. Mature enough to know he had a lot to learn. Young enough to shoulder the physical and mental fatigue.
Twenty-six men played for the Red Claws last season. As an expansion team, the many comings and goings of players was expected. Basketball doesn’t have as many moving parts as football, but some continuity is desired. Better to call a teammate by his name than his number.
“I learned simple is better in our league,” said Ainge. “You chop it down to 10 percent of an NBA playbook.”
He learned that the skill levels in the D-League were much higher than he anticipated. Forty players were called up to the NBA last season.
He learned that it was tough to say goodbye to some players, even if he treated their relationship in a business sense.
He learned that you can learn a lot more about your players during the hours together in airport terminals.
He learned that playing in the hothouse setting of the Expo made everything seem very personal.
“All the coaches I talk to want to play here because of the crowd and the noise. We go into some rough places with really bad crowds. In the end, players and coaches want it to matter.”
Basketball matters very much to Ainge. In that respect he is not unlike Kevin Dineen, the Portland Pirates’ head coach, whose flame burns hot and is 18 years older.
The only life Dineen has known is hockey. Thursday, Ainge said he didn’t know Dineen. They haven’t met, not even at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast. Their seasons run parallel and there aren’t enough hours in their days.
The Red Claws just missed the playoffs last spring, finishing with a 27-23 record. Good but not good enough. Ainge got away to start planning for this season.
“I went from thinking about basketball 20 hours a day, sometimes, to two.” He played a lot of golf this summer. He and his wife took their children, ages 4 and 2, on trips.
Celtics Coach Doc Rivers asked Ainge to coach their summer league team in Orlando, Fla. He jumped at the chance.
“I never stop learning.” He stood. Another meeting beckoned.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: