Red Auerbach was so happy to have Danny Ainge back, he didn't need a victory to light up his cigar.

The Celtics made Ainge executive director of basketball operations yesterday in Boston, just hours before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Nets.

"In the tradition of the Celtics family, it's a coup to get this guy," said Auerbach, who drafted Ainge in 1981 and lured him away from major league baseball so he could help Boston win the last two of its NBA-record 16 championships. "This guy will get it done. He's very bright, and he's lucky, too."

Ainge became a legend at Brigham Young for his full-court drive that beat Notre Dame in the 1981 NCAA tournament. Auerbach drafted him with the 31st pick of the 1981 draft and then bought out Ainge's professional baseball contract with the Blue Jays, for whom he batted .220 in 211 games.

"I might never have played basketball if it wasn't for Red," Ainge said after playfully hiding the matches the Celtics' patriarch needed to light his ever-present cigar.

"The reason I'm here is because it's the Boston Celtics. There are better rosters, better cap room, better circumstances around the league. But it's not the Boston Celtics."

Ainge, 44, was the head coach of the Suns for parts of three seasons before stepping down in 1999. This season, he was an NBA analyst for TNT.

In 14 seasons with the Celtics, Kings, Trail Blazers and Suns, Ainge appeared in six NBA Finals, four with Boston. He averaged 11.5 points and four assists in 1,042 games, and ranks third in NBA history with 193 playoff games.

* MOURNING CLEARED TO PLAY: C Alonzo Mourning, 33, was cleared by doctors to return to the NBA next season for another comeback from kidney disease.

Mourning missed all of the past season. His seven-year, $105 million contract with the Heat expired at the end of the regular season, and he will become a free agent July 1.

-- From News Services