As the National Basketball Association approached the quarter post in its 82 -game season, attendance was up a reported 9 percent; most of the league's rookies were performing well; and Boston Celtics General Manager Red Auerbach was smiling. Maybe gloating is a better word.
But it wasn't only Boston's fast start this year that has Auerbach looking like an investor who sold his Sambo's stock just in time; it was mostly the signing of 26-year-old All-America guard Danny Ainge. At Brigham Young the past three seasons, Danny had become a kind of folk hero for all the wonderful things he could do on a basketball court.
Even though Ainge, a multigifted athlete, was still under a three-year contract to play baseball with the Toronto Blue Jays, Auerbach made him Boston's No. 2 pick in last June's college draft. By this time Ainge, who was having trouble hitting big league pitching and was riding the bench in Toronto, had changed his mind and decided he wanted to give basketball a try. But problems occurred immediately when it was discovered that the Blue Jays had included a clause in Danny's contract forbidding him to do so.
When Auerbach began negotiations with Ainge anyway, the baseball club went to court and got an injunction to stop the Celtics from talking with Danny. The only way Toronto would let Ainge go, according to Blue Jay officials, was if Boston paid them $1 million in compensation.
Eventually that figure reportedly was lowered to $500,000. Now there are wild rumors that Boston actually paid the Blue Jays nothing - that instead the Celtics gave Danny such a lucrative, long-term contract that he was able to buy his own way out of Toronto.
The reason Boston wanted Ainge so badly is that Boston's starting guards, Tiny Archibald and Chris Ford, are no longer kids. Even though Archibald was a second-team All-League selection last year and Ford is still a fine floor general, Auerbach knows it's time to start getting another backcourt leader ready - and Danny has those unique qualities.
Ainge fits the Auerbach mold of being able to run all night; of not being a ball hog; of knowing when to pass and when to shoot; and of being willing to work hard on defense. Danny will also draw customers - not just at Boston Garden , but all over the league.
The question at this point is how quickly Ainge, without the benefit of a training camp with his new teammates, can help the Celtics this season. Even though Danny has been working daily as an assistant coach at Brigham Young, including going one-on-one against varsity players, this is not the same thing as NBA competition.
Nevertheless, a wide sampling of NBA opinions indicates that Auerbach and the Celtics did a wise thing in signing Ainge, no matter what the cost.
Said free-lance NBA scout Larry Creger, currently working for the Detroit Pistons: ''Ainge is a terrific basketball player who was better than his element in college. He might not be that good at first in the NBA, because everybody needs a training camp to know their teammates. He will probably have his toughest time on defense. That is, until he gets used to the league. But Boston's great players will make him look good offensively by getting the ball to him where he can do something with it.''
Said Los Angels Lakers' offensive coach and Hall of Famer Jerry West: ''Ainge , in my opinion, was no worse than the third best player available in last June's college draft. In fact, he may have been the best. I don't think he'll need much of a break-in period because so much of what he does is instinct and because he is fundamentally sound. This kid is no one-dimensional player, who is only capable of shooting the ball; he can also play defense.''
Said Del Harris, head coach of the Houston Rockets whose team lost to the Celtics in last year's NBA playoff finals: ''Any team in this league would like to have Ainge. What will really help him is that he is coming into a situation with Boston where he won't be expected to help right away. The Celtics can afford to give him the time he needs to learn their system and by next year he'll probably be a starter.''
Two of Boston's No. 1 draft picks in earlier years, center Bill Russell and guard Jo Jo White, both reported to the Celtics well after the regular season had begun and played well.
Russell's NBA debut was delayed because he was in Australia in 1956, helping the United States win an Olympic gold medal against the Soviet Union; White was unavailable until late 1969 because he had not yet been mustered out of the US Army.