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Danny Ainge's balancing act

GM rebuilding Celtics with determination, drive that defined him as a player while remaining true to his spiritual roots

POSTED: Feb 17, 2015 4:05 PM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen


Danny Ainge has been GM of the Celtics since 2003, building the team that would eventually win a title in 2008.

"I had the flu," Danny Ainge was recalling. "I was sitting here in my office, I had a cold, I was stuffed up, so I decided to go home.''

From the car he phoned his doctor, who advised him to swing by for tests and medicine. The doctor then sent him home to bed.

"And then that night my chest was hurting,'' Ainge says. "And I woke up, like 5 in the morning, and man, my chest is still hurting. My left arm feels like there's a numbing. My wife gets her iPad out, she immediately gets aspirin. I take aspirin. She goes, `Let's go to the hospital right now.' She had looked online and she said, 'That's a symptom of a heart attack, so let's go.'

"I said, 'No, no, no, I'm not in that much pain.' I got up, took a shower, got dressed, and by that time now the pain felt a little bit worse. So, OK, let's go to the emergency room. We were in the car, it's 10 minutes from my house, and I couldn't wait to get there. The pain was more and more and more.''

It was April 16, 2009. Ainge, the 50-year-old general manager of the Boston Celtics, had not been taking care of himself. His responsibilities were exhausting him. If he had been alone, without the help of someone who loved him, would he be alive?

"So I guess I was glad that my wife was there, and she had the foresight to give me a little nudge,'' he says. "Because I probably wouldn't have gone on my own.'

He was going to have to make sense of his own life if he was going to keep doing right by everyone who was counting on him -- his family, his loved ones and friends, the Celtics and their owners and employees and fans, and the Mormon church, which had been honoring him with ever-increasing roles of leadership over the years. What was most important? What was he trying to accomplish?

He had been successful in every phase of his life.

Those successes were now threatening to kill him.

Overweight and overwhelmed and vulnerable to his family history of heart disease, the GM needed to create a strategy for himself. One conversation that helped him begin to make sense of his own riddle was launched by Austin Ainge, the eldest son of his six children, who was working with him in the Celtics' front office and who had seen his father wearing down beneath his neverending to-do lists.

"When I had the heart attack, his thought was, 'What are you doing being a Bishop? You've got to stop that. You've got too much going on,''' says Ainge, who in 2008 had been promoted to Bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "In my perspective it was the exact opposite. If I need to stop anything, it was not being Bishop. It was everything else.''

The NBA trade deadline is coming up Thursday afternoon, and Ainge is pursuing multiple deals, big and small. This is one of his favorite times of the year. His rivals throughout the league can sense it.

"He's probably the best GM in the game,'' says Daryl Morey, who became GM of the Houston Rockets after working with Ainge at the Celtics. "Look at the roster in '03 when Danny took over, and his ability to win a title five years later -- that transformation is unheard of, I've never seen anything like it. Now you look at the way he's set up the Celtics today, and it's the best I've seen someone go from losing a core to creating lots of future picks and flexibility to turn it around quickly. People don't see it yet because it hasn't turned the corner, but they will see it.''

He's probably the best GM in the game.

– Rockets GM Daryl Morey

Ainge has reacted to the newest alterations of the collective bargaining agreement in the same way that the best players take what the defense gives them. He traded the rights to coach Doc Rivers for a first-round pick from the Clippers. He traded Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets for three first-rounders and assets that have turned into another two -- five first-round picks in all, plus the right to swap places with the declining Nets in 2017. Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green and other recently-moved Celtics have netted more picks and youth and flexibility. Over the next five drafts he could have access to 26 picks, including as many as 12 in the first round.

"He's pretty much set an NBA record for draft picks, which is the way you have to do it because teams won't trade you their good players anymore -- nobody is in financial distress,'' says Celtics principal owner Wyc Grousbeck, who has faith in Ainge's ability to maximize those picks. "If you look back, we ended up having the building blocks for the championship from guys that were all drafted from the 15th spot on up. Al Jefferson was an important piece in the (Kevin) Garnett trade, and Tony Allen and (Kendrick) Perkins and Rondo -- these were not guys in the top 5. We had one top 5 pick, and we used it to trade for Ray Allen.''

Ainge tried last summer to leverage draft picks in a trade for Kevin Love, with the hope of pairing him with Rondo in the same way that he joined Allen and Garnett with Paul Pierce. But Rondo turned out to be not so magnetically attractive as Pierce had been. "The hardest guys to find in this league are scorers at the ends of the games who can finish,'' says Ainge. "Paul was one of the top five or six in the NBA at the time, and he was our best go-to guy even with KG and Ray and Rondo.''

The plan is to keep investing in young talent until the Celtics can execute a blockbuster trade to hasten their rebuild. Ainge is able to focus on this strategy more coherently than ever, in spite of his young team's 45-88 record over these last two seasons. His clarity is one outcome of the heart scare he overcame six years ago, when "he wasn't 100 percent healthy for a while,'' says Austin Ainge, the former two-time captain at BYU who is now the 33-year-old director of player personnel for the Celtics. "There were a couple of things lingering, a couple of heart problems, and people on both ends picked up the slack on the church side and on our side of the office, and they were able to help him through it.''

What matters most to the Celtics? As Ainge sits in his suburban Boston office, the squeaks and thuds and shouts of a team scrimmage clattering from their practice facility downstairs, he finds their championship goals easy to define and more difficult than ever to execute.

"We can't force it,'' Ainge says. "We can't just wish it or force it to happen, because that's when mistakes are made. I've seen people that took advantage of opportunities; and I've seen people that settled. It could be a matter of the stamina that we collectively have as an organization between management, ownership, coaching and so forth. Building a championship team, you need patience. And I'm patient. It's my job to sell my owners and coaches on doing the right deals, and not just trying to find some shortcuts to success.''

Grousbeck and co-owner Steve Pagliuca and coach Brad Stevens all appear to be on the same page. They are counting on Ainge to transform the losses of today into championships tomorrow, to turn potential into results, to see the best in everything.

This is a story of balance.

"My mother didn't want me to participate in sports because she saw what happened with competition,'' Ainge says. "My father was a great athlete and he had a severe knee injury that pretty much ended his career in college, and she saw my brother have death threats with rival high schools in football season. So my mother tried to protect me from all that.''

The conditions of elite basketball have changed since then. If Ainge had been born three or four decades later, if he were coming up as a teenager today, then he would be ranked nationally among the best players. He and everyone else would know where he stood in the hierarchy. Back in his day, however, no one quite knew.

"I knew I was a pretty good high school player, but I didn't know how good I was,'' says Ainge, who would grow up to become a 6-foot-5 shooting guard for 14 NBA seasons. "When I left high school, I felt like I was part of a great team -- that I was a little bit better player than the rest of the players on the team, but that I could not have done it without the other guys. Then I go to BYU, who had four returning guards on their team, and they also had recruited the player of the year in the state of Utah. And I was really not doing much in my first month of playing with those guys, and I honestly wondered whether I would even play as a freshman. I didn't know. I wasn't separating myself in the scrimmages. I was down here in the third string, the second string. I never was playing with the starters. And I really had doubts. I was struggling in school, it was the first time in my life I'd ever gotten a 'C' grade, and it was affecting me. And then we had a varsity preview, with 18,000 people in the Marriott Center to see us scrimmage. And I think I scored 10 points in the first half or something, and I played a little better but not great. And then in the second half of that game the coach played the incoming freshmen -- there were five of us against the returners -- and in front of 18,000 I scored 32 points in the second half.''

He started in a season-opening 75-73 loss at UCLA, and by Ainge's senior year he was dribbling the length of the court in five seconds for a 51-50 win over Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament. During his collegiate summers he was playing baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays, for whom he would hit .220 over three American League seasons before signing with the Celtics in 1981 and switching permanently to basketball.

He didn't begin to make sense of his own story until he returned to Oregon for the 25th reunion of his North Eugene High School state championship team. The game films were being replayed. He kept glancing over to watch his old self from the perspective that would define his new career. He could not believe what he was seeing.

"That was when I really realized how much better I was than them,'' he says laughing. "Just by watching the film. Coming from where I'm coming now, I was like, wow, I was really good. And I honestly did not know that.''

He was assessing himself objectively, in the same way that he has assessed thousands of young players over his last 12 years in charge of the Celtics. He could see who he used to be and where his talent was leading him more clearly than when the ball had been in his hands.

"And I never felt it from anyone,'' he says of his athletic exceptionalism. "I never felt it from my parents, I never felt it from my coach, I never felt it from my friends.

"I did have a friend one time,'' he says, sneaking a grin, "when we were at a party in high school. There was a lot of stuff going on at the party -- a lot of pot, a lot of alcohol. All of my friends were partaking, and I was not one that was partaking. And the guy came up to me and was trying to get me to partake of the joint that he had, and my friend who was drinking -- and was half-gone -- came up and said: 'No! You have way too much of a future. Your future is way brighter than the rest of us.' It was the only time I ever had somebody say something like that.''

His athleticism earned him a place in the NBA, and what set him apart thereafter was his lifestyle. As a practicing Mormon, he abstained from alcohol and drugs. The champagne would be spraying around the Celtics lockerroom after their two championships, and Ainge's big plan for the night would be to go home to his wife and young family to celebrate over a glass of orange soda. He was different in so many ways.

Would he have been the same player -- the same person -- if he was being scouted as a teenager today? If he had known how talented he was, would he have gone on to become so good? "Maybe the humble part of me kept me working,'' he says. "I felt every night when I played in the NBA that I've got to really prepare, that I've got to know what Isiah Thomas is doing because he can embarrass me, that I've got to play against Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. That fear of failure makes you work harder and prepare harder for everybody else. So I just am wired that way, I guess. To this day I still have a fear of failing.''

And then: If he had lived the same lifestyle as everyone else, could he have earned the responsibility of leading the NBA's winningest franchise? It had not been easy to be so different from everyone else and to stand by his beliefs, to not give in. That integrity, he can see now, helped stake out his worthiness for his professional life after basketball, when he worked his way up from a TV commentator to become coach of the Phoenix Suns on his way to GM of the Celtics.

"Obviously the success that I had as a player had something to do with it, but there were a lot of players that were just as successful as I was,'' Ainge says. "So I don't know what else it could be, other than how I live my life, why I got those opportunities.''

The Celtics had won three playoff series in 15 years when they hired Ainge, who arrived with no front-office experience. Within five years he was winning the 2007-08 NBA championship while making his own way on a number of fronts:

1. Brain-typing. Ainge's first hire as GM of the Celtics was Jon Niednagel, known as the "Brain Doctor,'' who believes that people are hard-wired in a way that can be diagnosed, and that their wiring predisposes them to certain behaviors. His analyses have provided Ainge with a unique point of view that has helped him to gauge the potential of teenaged draft picks. "Every person is different, and not every button is the same to be pushed for everyone,'' says Ainge. "I wouldn't say that I have a tolerance for different personalities. I actually value different personalities. I love the fact that everybody's different.''

2. Video. When he was a coach in Phoenix, Ainge developed a relationship with Suns video coordinator Garrick Barr, who would go on to start Synergy, a web-based service that provides video breakdowns and data to every NBA team. Ryan McDonough, a recent North Carolina graduate, had no background in basketball when he began to study video of college prospects for Ainge in 2003; by 2013 he had become GM of the Phoenix Suns. "He really enjoys seeing Ryan McDonough doing well, and the same for our players -- he gets so much pride in thinking that Perk and Tony Allen and Al Jefferson can become leaders on their teams,'' Austin Ainge says of his father. "He gets as much joy out of that as anything.''

3. Analytics. "He was the first GM in basketball to use it for sure,'' says Morey, who worked for both the front office and the business side of the Celtics after helping Grousbeck's ownership group define the financial value of the team. Morey was soon joined by Mike Zarren, a lawyer and Freakonomics-styled data analyst who has risen to become Ainge's assistant GM.

"As a former player, you just don't see this -- he is so forward thinking,'' Morey says of Ainge. "Immediately he saw the value in the analysis we were doing, and he was able to integrate it into his decision making. He obviously had his own opinions on players. Myself and Mike were working on a draft model, and when the analysis confirmed what Danny believed, it allowed him to be more confident in what he believed in; and when it didn't, he used it to ask more questions -- am I missing something? He went on to quickly understand how to use it.''

4. A small staff. While other franchises have extended their scouting departments in order to cover the expanding global market for players, Ainge has kept his staff small. In consultation with the owners, player personnel decisions are made by Danny Ainge, Mike Zarren, Austin Ainge, director of scouting Dave Lewin, coach Brad Stevens (who as a recent college coach has insight to many of the players in this year's draft), scouts Jake Eastman and Remy Cofield, and David Sparks and Drew Cannon in basketball analytics.

"I want them all to see everybody,'' says Ainge. "I don't want to have regional scouts that are sold on the guy they see, and who are not comparing him to the guy they didn't see in Spain.''

All of his scouts understand that Ainge is going to demand their opinions on every player.

"But then Danny makes the ultimate decision,'' says Grousbeck.

5. A coach from college. This was taboo until Stevens was hired by Ainge to replace Rivers in 2013. They discuss all kinds of things in one another's offices and homes, on long walks around the hills of their suburban Boston office, and on the golf course. When the Celtics play on the road, however, Ainge rarely joins them. He believes in giving the coach space, and Stevens makes a point of returning the favor. "I absolutely hate bothering him on Sundays, and I do it very irregularly, as little as possible,'' says Stevens. ``He doesn't talk about it much, but he is very devout.''

"The second I walked in to watch Chris Paul play, there was no doubt in my mind he was ridiculously special,'' Ainge says. "I saw him play at Duke, as a freshman for Wake Forest, and he did not have a good game. It was just his talent level -- athletic, smart, tough, physical. He was just confident in what he was doing, in spite of the fact that he wasn't making shots and everything else. There was just something about him, that he put a smile on my face as I watched them play.''

In 2005, Ainge tried to trade Pierce to Portland for the No. 3 pick in order to draft Paul. The trade fell apart and Paul went No. 4 to New Orleans, behind Andrew Bogut, Marvin Williams and Deron Williams. "Chris Paul was clearly the No. 1 pick in the draft that year, in my mind,'' says Ainge. "I was very confident in spite of my own staff, in spite of my own coaches and my own people not sharing that opinion.''

Ainge's self-described fear of failure rarely, if ever, prevented him from taking the biggest shots, even when he was in the company of future Hall-of-Famers Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson in Boston. He was as bold in his career: Shortly after he had been hired by the Suns as an assistant coach in 1996, he remembers recommending Steve Nash for the No. 15 pick in case the Suns were unable to land Kobe Bryant, who was their priority.

"I was sort of a lone soldier on the Steve Nash idea,'' says Ainge. "Jerry [Colangelo] asked me a question one-on-one at that time, he said: 'The rest of the staff thinks you like Nash because Nash reminds you of him and him of you, and that's typical of the way ex-players think.' So I wondered about that. Do I like Steve because he reminds me of me? Are these guys right?''

Ainge was quickly elevated to head coach after the Suns started 0-8 in 1996-97 and, in line with his own point of view, he changed the rule for the team plane: Wives were invited to travel with players, but not girlfriends. "The guys (on the Suns' staff) that were against us drafting Steve Nash were thinking that as I became the head coach, I was playing Steve Nash just because I need him to do well. I never compared Steve to myself anyway; throughout the next 15 or 20 years of basketball I've never seen another player that was like Steve or like myself ... and then (before the 2006 draft) I was accused by couple of guys on my staff of liking J.J. Redick. They said, 'You like him because he's like you.' I just sort of found that interesting, that that's what the perception was.''

(Colangelo remembers the details in a different way. "That wasn't a new player that we were considering,'' he says of Nash. As for the comparisons, he agrees with Ainge that there was little of substance in common. "Maybe a little bit in terms of temperament and work ethics,'' says Colangelo. "But there was no comparison skill-wise. Different players.'')

He believed he had a talent for judging players. But he also came to recognize that there were a lot of players in the draft of whom he was never quite sure. He had the confidence to invest in his own certainty. Too many times, however, he was lacking that confidence, even with the assistance of Niednagel and the data analysts and the opinions of his staff.

"There are times when it's murky, when I don't know, and it's not clear to me,'' says Ainge. "There are where I'm drafting 17 or 18, and it's between three guys, and seriously my staff is all over the place. And then it's a flip of a coin; or I may trust the person that is seeing the most of that player, who has a very, very strong view, where my view isn't strong. It may be relying on them to make the choice, because those are tough choices sometimes.''

Boston Celtics: Danny Ainge Presser

Danny Ainge details some of the decisions made leading up to dealing Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks.

The decision in December to trade Rondo to Dallas (in a five-player deal that netted Boston a couple of picks and a $13 million trade exception) was, according to Ainge, unanimous among the leaders of the Celtics. He focused his owners and staff on two questions as Rondo, who turns 29 on Sunday, played out the final year of his contract. "Is the team good enough to keep him here? And is he somebody that we want to pay $110 million to going forward?'' says Ainge. "Rondo knew that, and he had the same questions: Is Boston where I want to stay, and what am I going to get on the open market?

"It's hard, it's challenging, to get a point guard that doesn't score, that's not a great defender, but that is a master passer -- and to pay him that much money,'' Ainge goes on. "That's how we debated it. And now he has a team that the guys he passes to are going to make a higher percentage of the shots; and his passing, his intellect and his experience in winning a championship, those are all assets for Dallas.''

Ainge could not be sure that a max contract in Boston could prevent Rondo from signing with the Knicks to play with Carmelo Anthony, or with the Lakers to join with Kobe Bryant. The best decision, as Ainge saw it, was to take what he could get for Rondo while focusing on the development of his replacement at point guard, Marcus Smart, the No. 6 pick who has the potential to become a better defender and shooter than Rondo.

"I loved my time with him, though he was never as easy on my coaches as he was with me in one-on-one settings,'' Ainge says of Rondo. "I loved his intellect. I loved his desire to become better. He did create some of his own challenges himself. But he's grown up, and I've seen him mature in his time in Boston, and I feel good about that.''

He finds himself sympathizing with players like Rondo, who has admitted to having trust issues after being abandoned by his father at a young age. "I look at where some of these kids come from, and I often wonder if I would've made it from some of the circumstances that they've come from,'' he says. "So I'm very sympathetic to the players.

"Some of them have a lot of demons to overcome in their childhood that are completely understandable, and I think that in my life I sort of gravitate to some of those guys that have challenges, and some of the life stories like Tony Allen's, and Delonte West and Marcus Smart. They've got some rough lives. Those guys are very impressive to me, that they are making it in spite of some of their families; and they are products of their environment to some extent. But I love to see their success. I love to see them overcoming the challenges they've had to overcome.''

One player he wishes he could have helped was Robert Swift, a dynamic 7-foot-1 center from Bakersfield, Calif., who in 2004 was picked No. 12 in the first round by Seattle. "I really liked that kid,'' Ainge says. "I often wonder, I still believe to this day, no one will be able to convince me that Robert Swift wasn't going to be a dynamic NBA player. And in a different environment in a different setting, if he stays healthy ...''

Swift played 97 NBA games in four seasons before his release by Oklahoma City in 2009. Last year, following his arrest on a gun charge, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer summed up Swift's story in a way that made Ainge's heart sink: King County prosecutors describe Swift, 28, as a heavily armed heroin addict who admitted to helping his drug dealer-turned-roommate collect a drug debt.

"It's a sad story,'' Ainge says. "We will never know ...''

"We are all called to serve in some capacity in our church,'' Ainge says. "I was what is called a High Priests Group Leader. Before that, I taught on Tuesday nights at the church to college kids in the area, and about 25 would come in. And before that I was a Sunday school teacher for the 15 and 16-year-olds, which I loved also.

"So when I was called to be Bishop, I was like, oh my gosh. That's more responsibility, and more time-consuming than all those other things. And so I wondered, can I do this? It's probably 500 people in our congregation. The basic responsibilities of a Bishop are to watch over and strengthen the families and individuals, and to take care of the needy. To watch over the flocks, so to speak.

"Why I was able to do it and manage my time through it is because we have all of these auxiliaries and great people around. I had to really organize my time. I spent most of my Sundays going from church to homes, to minister and visit the needy and the sick, and visiting hospitals and those that were sick. And I spent time counseling people, usually on Wednesday nights and most of my Sundays.

There is a greater purpose in life than basketball, and there is much more going on in the world than whether the Celtics win or lose.

– Danny Ainge

"Some people look at it, from the outside, as a role of power. What you come to find out is that you're called to serve, and to spend your time serving others. You become a servant to the people. You become their father.

"You're just helping those in need, and there is a great satisfaction in life that comes from that. And the great perspective of life that you learn from that. And a great gratitude, to see so many people that can still be so happy through all of this. It helped me understand that Christ lives. And that His priesthood is here on earth. And every time I laid my hands on someone's head to give them a blessing, I could say I felt really inspired every time; but that's not true. There were times when things came out of my mouth that were not mine; but there were also times when the human side of me probably didn't do as well communicating.

"But every time I felt this increased amount of love toward the person that was receiving the blessing. Whether they were going through a struggle in their marriage, whether they were going through addictions. Whether they were sick or getting ready for a major surgery or cancer or whatever it may be. There was this amazing increase in love for that person. And you really come to understand that love is endless. I remember the feeling when I had my first daughter, like, how could you love someone more than that? And then having my son: How am I going to love my brand-new son as much as I love my first daughter? But then as you get older you realize there's no limit on love. Love is for everybody.

"There is a greater purpose in life than basketball, and there is much more going on in the world than whether the Celtics win or lose. And my happiness is not predicated on whether the Celtics have won or lost. But I do believe in doing your best. And I do believe in winning, and that you have to do all you can to succeed at what you're doing. Because there is relevance.

"I want to be a great Bishop. And I want to be a great basketball general manager. And I want to be a great friend and a great father. That's what I'm trying to accomplish. But I also want to be and strive to be a great disciple of Christ. If you want to do good and have positive influence, then you have to be successful at what you do -- it helps.

"Winning gives credibility to one message.''

The new owners had a short list of candidates to become GM of the Celtics in 2003. "So we asked Red,'' says Grousbeck.

Red Auerbach, who was 85, and who had taken a risk in drafting Ainge while he was playing baseball for the Blue Jays, told them they were on the right track. "Red said he would put Ainge at the top of any list,'' Grousbeck says. "He said he's a winner. He's just lucky. He's a lucky guy who wins everywhere he goes and he gets things done.

"Not that Danny didn't earn what he got. But I think he did believe in the leprechaun somewhat, and that some guys are just lucky. I think Red was saying this guy is lucky.''

Is it luck when you create the environment for success?

The Celtics, with their timeless insistence on teamwork and their old banners as white as ghosts, have a reputation for being connected to the past. And here is this former player from Red Auerbach's past who refers to brain-typing and data analysis and every other new perspective that he can get his head around.

"But he doesn't like formal meetings,'' says Austin Ainge. "His idea of a meeting is to walk into somebody's office or cubicle and ask them a question and pick their brain, from interns all the way up. What do you think and why? We tease him because he will take a position we know he doesn't believe, just to be adversarial, to stem his boredom and to see why we believe certain things.''

I'll take our Basketball Intelligence Agency over anybody's in the league.

– Danny Ainge

He has lost 35 pounds and is seeking to lose more still.

"A lot of the interactions have that playful tone,'' Austin Ainge says. "He's there till 10 at night watching film, and there will be a group of interns in the office watching games with him, all arguing over the four screens that have games on -- two live games and Synergy clips on the others, and he's in there arguing with his people on the staff. It is a lot of fun.''

On the door to the basketball office is a large seal. Instead of CIA, it reads BIA. The motto reads, In Red We Trust.

"I'll take our Basketball Intelligence Agency,'' says Ainge with the same big boyish grin that he wore as a player, "over anybody's in the league."

His five-year term as Bishop ended in 2013, moving him on to a less demanding position of authority in the church. He is 55 years old with grandchildren numbers 12 and 13 on the way. The Celtics are losing, but has their GM ever appeared to be happier? It's as if he knows where he is going and how he is going to get there. Amid all of these conflicts today over the role of analytics in basketball, and the risk of burning out by trying too hard, and whether commitment to professional success must come at the expense of life's larger joys, there is this idea of Danny Ainge pursuing a single message. It is simple and everything else makes sense and all of it is wonderful.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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