Ainge re-routed Harter’s career path (twice)
Posted On June 15, 2021
Danny Ainge announced his retirement as Boston Celtics president a bit ago, and for most folks who spent a lot of time in Eugene back in the 1970s – that’s me – it’s impossible not to relive some of the occasions that brought Ainge renown in Oregon, and inevitably, his relationship with Dick Harter.
It was Harter, of course, who orchestrated the Kamikaze Kids, documented in my recently released book, “Mad Hoops,” on the quirky, crazy, chaotic seven-year basketball run at Oregon from 1971-78. Ainge, I believe, had a mammoth effect on Harter’s career, even as he disappointed the hell out of him when he announced, on an early-April night in 1977, he would take his prodigious talents from North Eugene High to Brigham Young instead of Oregon.
Ainge was a fabulous athlete, a high school All-American in both basketball and baseball. How select was he? He’s one of a mere 15 players to play in both major-league baseball and the National Basketball Assn. You can make a strong argument that he’s the best athlete ever produced in Oregon, although you’ll get a debate from those who support Terry Baker of Jefferson High in Portland, who won the 1962 Heisman Trophy and started at guard for a Final Four team at Oregon State; and Ashton Eaton of Mountain View in Bend, a two-time Olympic decathlon champion.
As it happened, Ainge’s reputation was growing at a time when the fortunes of the Harter regime at Oregon were waning. Guard Ronnie Lee, the definitive player of the era, was a senior at Oregon in 1976. The other Duck All-American of that period, forward Greg Ballard, was done in 1977.
It was in 1976 and 1977 when Ainge led North Eugene to a pair of Oregon state AAA championships. In the first of those, he made an insane 37 of 51 field-goal attempts, or 72.5 percent.
The Ducks had targeted Ainge from his days as a middle-schooler, when he took part in their summer camps. As much as Lee was the transformational player that fueled the program, it’s possible Oregon coveted Ainge as much or more, as the local kid it had to keep home.
Ainge was around practice at Oregon and frequently, at games. He played pickup ball with the Ducks. On those occasions, Ainge told me in 2018, Harter and his assistant coach, Jim Haney, would seek Ainge out and chat with him.
But perhaps they sensed that they had to do some convincing, even as Ainge lived only a few miles away from the Oregon campus.
“I do know that I think he (Harter) was worried of what I was watching,” Ainge told me for Mad Hoops, referencing the physical, grabby style of the Kamikaze Kids, not exactly a match for Ainge’s quickness-and-speed makeup.
In Ernie Kent, one of the flashier Oregon players, Ainge saw sort of a template for his own attributes, and it worried him that in his mind, Harter didn’t let Kent shine.
Oregon State, just beginning a precipitous rise to national prominence, also recruited Ainge hard, and Ainge told me if he had chosen either, “That was not gonna be pretty.”
So Ainge found the perfect compromise in BYU. It matched his Mormon faith and it played a fast-breaking game.
I believe it hastened a soul-searching career change for Harter. As it played out, a year after that decision, the coach departed for Penn State, sort of a curious move seemingly touched somewhat by desperation. A booster/confidant at Oregon, when he was pondering the decision, took note of the declining talent among the Ducks and encouraged him to do it, telling him, “You’ve got no players.”
Penn State turned out to be little more than a five-year waystation. Harter had one NIT team there but overall, middling success, and when that string ran out, he was left to map his future. Keep in mind, this was an era – unlike today – when coaches didn’t often recalibrate and drop to a less-competitive NCAA level or league, a la Steve Alford. So Harter embarked on an NBA assistant’s life, something that he would do with success over the next quarter-century (save for a fraught year and a half as the first coach of the Charlotte Hornets).
What might have happened if Ainge had thrown in with Oregon? Well, it’s hard to envision Harter leaving as he did in 1978. He probably would have stayed through Ainge’s college days, taking him to 1981, and no doubt Oregon would have been more successful than it was after the Harter-to-Haney handoff. That likely would have carried Harter to 1982 or 1983 before he might have moved on – but probably to another college job, perhaps even a more high-profile one.
I’m operating on the assumption that Harter was bound to leave the Ducks rather than stay there for the long haul. His regime was so mercurial, it never seemed destined to endure for decades.
Who knows? Maybe Ainge’s move to BYU only delayed for several years Harter’s gravitation to the NBA. But as luck would have it, the coach and the kid he recruited in middle school would meet again. Harter was an assistant for Jim O’Brien with the Celtics in the early 2000s when, after the 2002-03 season, the club announced a new basketball operations guy – Danny Ainge.
Pretty soon, that bared philosophical differences between O’Brien/Harter and Ainge, who sensed that the team needed to begin a rebuilding process, while the coaches wanted to stay the course.
“There was nothing personal,” Ainge told me. “Other than they didn’t want to be on the same wave-length.”
After a losing season, O’Brien was out, and Harter went on to other NBA ports of call and finished out his career.
“It had nothing to do with Coach Harter and our history together,” Ainge said.
As the Celtics’ recent front-office changes reinforced and recalled: What a history it was.