Ainge basketball saga still going strong at BYU

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Few BYU basketball players know what it is like to play beneath the four retired Cougar jerseys that hang from the rafters of the Marriott Center — and have one proclaim your name — except perhaps Cooper and Austin Ainge, the sons of legendary player Danny Ainge.

The Ainge brothers grew up under the reputation of their father, whose name is not only remembered in BYU crowds as one of the greatest college basketball players, but also as a successful NBA player, coach and executive. The spotlight shone on Cooper, who is redshirting for the Cougars this season, as soon as he mentioned his intention to play for the Cougars.

“It’s hard to have that much expectation coming into BYU,” Cooper Ainge said. “But it’s motivating too, because I want to be the best I can, and I learned a lot from my dad and brothers growing up.”

Cooper Ainge dribbles down the court during the Cougar Tipoff in the Marriott Center. (Photo courtesy BYU Athletics)

Austin Ainge played for BYU in 2002–2007, receiving All-Mountain West Conference honorable mention for his time in Provo, as well as leading the MWC in 3-point percentage during his final season with a 52.5 percentage. Austin Ainge felt the heat of the spotlight shining from the rafters, as he was able to watch the retirement of his father’s jersey during his playing time.

“It was fun, but a lot of it was annoying, to be honest,” Austin Ainge said. “Everyone who was over 45 in the community would always tell me stories about my dad. I was here the night they retired it, so it was special.”

Following Danny Ainge’s legacy at BYU, he played as a member of the 1984 and 1986 NBA championship teams with the Boston Celtics, served as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns (1996–1999) and is currently the president of basketball operations in the Celtics organization. This professional basketball environment served as a springboard for Cooper Ainge to learn and progress as a basketball player.

“It was really helpful for me basketball-wise,” Cooper Ainge said. “I learned a lot growing up from my dad and from my older brothers.”

The Ainge brothers followed their father in his professional basketball jobs, spending a lot of time in the Phoenix area while Danny Ainge was coach of the Suns. The brothers learned a lot while in the professional environment, but the majority of their learning experiences came from playing with each other.

“Dad was around and would give us pointers, but in the end it came down to you working on your game with your friends at the playground, at the park, at the church, in the backyard,” Austin Ainge said. “That’s really what it’s about.”

After moving to the Boston area, where Danny took an executive position with the Celtics, Cooper was left to work on his game individually, with a few pointers from his dad. Cooper finished his high school career at Wellesley High School before coming to redshirt for the Cougars.

“Cooper has worked really hard,” Austin Ainge said. “It was the hours that Cooper spent on his own that has made the difference. He’s quick and strong and can make shots. The amazing thing with Cooper is how much better he’s gotten. He’s put more work in than I ever did. He’s really a hard worker. And I think that will lead to success for him.”

Part of Cooper’s decision to come play at BYU was based on the family legacy; however, the standards and the basketball environment in Provo, along with the leaders already in place at BYU, made his decision easy.

“I really like the coaches here, and the atmosphere of being in a Mormon environment,” Cooper Ainge said. “And the guys are like a really good family. Other colleges would have more stuff going on. This is just a good place for me to be.”

Cooper Ainge announced he will serve a two-year LDS Church mission at the end of this season then return to the Marriott Center to officially make his Cougar debut after his Church service. Despite what he has learned redshirting this season, he knows the team will be radically different when he returns to the floor.

“It’s just hard to know what to expect,” Cooper Ainge said. “I don’t know who’s going to be on the team, what circumstances I’m going to be in. It’s hard to predict. But we have a lot of good players coming up, and I’m excited to play with them.”

Throughout BYU basketball history, the Cougars have usually been guard-oriented, with several fantastic guards running the offense, starting with some of those jerseys hanging in the Marriott Center, including Danny Ainge’s. Cooper took this redshirt season to learn from the current BYU guards in order to prepare himself to excel on the floor.

“I’ve looked up to the other point guards I’m playing behind,” Cooper Ainge said. “I’ve learned a lot from Matt (Carlino) and Craig (Cusick), and (I’m) just trying to learn a lot from them.”

The Ainge legacy started when Danny Ainge left Provo with records galore in his wake. It continued when Austin Ainge stepped on the court and then followed his dad’s footsteps to the Celtics front office, where he serves as director of player personnel. And the basketball saga is waiting to continue with Cooper Ainge. There will always be a little hype when a player who already has his name displayed in the arena takes his first shot on the floor. But Cooper Ainge is already preparing himself for that moment.

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