Danny Ainge Returns Home To Elevate Utah Basketball

Ryan Kostecka
Digital Content Writer

A local legend is coming home.

As announced on Wednesday afternoon, former BYU great Danny Ainge has accepted the position of CEO of Basketball Operations and Alternate Governor for the Utah Jazz. 

“I’m grateful for this opportunity,” Ainge said at his introductory press conference. “Ryan (Smith) and I have known each other for a while, but had I not had an opportunity recently to spend a lot of time with Dwyane Wade, Quin (Snyder), and Justin (Zanik), and felt their enthusiasm and excitement to bring me on board. … They sold me to take this opportunity.”

After retiring from the game of basketball following his role as President of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics in June, Ainge noted that he wanted a break from the 18-hour days that come with running an organization. He wanted to spend more time with his family and invest his time in other hobbies, including golf. 

It turns out that golf was at the top of Ainge’s mind — as well as that of Jazz majority owner Ryan Smith. Smith invited Ainge out to the Bahamas two weeks ago, where Smith was serving as caddie for PGA Tour pro Tony Finau. During that trip, Smith convinced his good friend to join the organization, a move that could pay massive dividends as Utah looks for its first NBA title.

“This is a really unique role, it’s an unprecedented role. .. It really hasn’t existed for us in our ownership group,” Smith said. “He’s been in the league for over 40 years, he’s been to the NBA Finals, he’s succeeded as a player, a coach as well as an executive for 18 years. … He brings championships to this organization.”

Utah general manager Justin Zanik echoed a similar sentiment when meeting with media following Ainge’s introductory presser. 

“I’m really excited about this,” Zanik said. “When you get the chance to add someone with all that experience and time in the league with that perspective to make us better, I welcome that. Our first goal here is to be the last team standing, and however we can accomplish that and do that together, I have great respect for Danny.”

According to Smith, Zanik and Ainge, Zanik will still oversee the day-to-day work for the organization and remain the primary point of contact for the Jazz. But Ainge will also be a part of that process — combining for a multi-headed decision-maker to help elevate Utah on and off the court.

Ainge has won everywhere he’s been, beginning in Eugene, Oregon for the North Eugene Highlanders. 

An elite athlete, Ainge was named a Parade high school All-American in football, basketball, and baseball. One of the state’s elite football recruits, Ainge elected to go with basketball out of high school, where he signed on to play at BYU. He starred for the Cougars for four seasons, being named the NCAA Player of the Year as a senior.

Still an incredibly talented baseball player, Ainge played in the Toronto Blue Jays organization for three seasons at BYU. He made it to the major leagues in 1979 and is the second-youngest player in Blue Jays history to hit a homer. 

After graduating from BYU, Ainge elected to pursue basketball full-time, where the Boston Celtics selected him. He spent nine years with the team, winning titles in 1984 and 1986 while being named an all-star in 1988. He also played for Sacramento, Portland, and Phoenix before retiring in 1995.

One of the greatest basketball minds of his generation, Ainge returned to the court in a different capacity in 1996 — serving as head coach of the Suns before his retirement in 1999. 

He once again returned to the game in 2003, joining Boston as the Executive Director of Basketball Operations for the Celtics. During his 18-year career in Boston’s front office, Ainge helped bring a title to the Celtics in 2008 while also named NBA Executive of the Year.

“My 26 years in Boston were an amazing experience, I’ll always be grateful,” Ainge said. “One of the greatest things I’ve learned in this business is the relationships you build. The championship rings are our goals, and that’s where you really build a bond when you’re trying to work for a championship.”

With a professional and college basketball career that dates back to 1977, Ainge has returned to the snow-covered mountains of Utah where it all began for him. After a short break where he got to spend time with his wife and family, the itch to return to the game started to grow stronger — and Smith was all too happy to help with that.

“I’ve taken six or seven months off, gotten a good break, and I feel like I’m energized and ready to come back and get back to work,” Ainge said.