Kerry gets a new aide with game

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jon jennings knows a thing or two about the transition game. And not just the kind he helped direct during eight years with the Boston Celtics, the last four as one of the NBA’s youngest assistant coaches. The 43-year-old Indiana native has also managed to move smoothly between the worlds of sports and politics, recently becoming point guard in Massachusetts for US Sen. John Kerry.

“Here’s a guy who used to be an assistant coach for the Celtics—any red-blooded guy’s dream job—and he gave that up to work in public service,” said Kerry in a statement. “Jon has been terrific. Everyone in Massachusetts knows him, so he was able to hit the ground running.”

After leaving the Celtics in 1994, Jennings enrolled at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, from which he moved on to a stint as a White House fellow and acting assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration, afterward making a failed run for Congress in Indiana two years ago. In his latest post, which he started in December, Jennings serves as Kerry’s state director, cutting through clogged bureaucratic channels for constituents and keeping the lines of communication open between Kerry and state leaders on Beacon Hill.

“It’s good for me that I met people at a high level in sports at a young age, because I haven’t been starry-eyed or intimidated by working for the president of the United States, or for a United States senator,” says Jennings.

Jennings started out on the sports track as a 22-year-old Indiana University student, compiling and editing videotape for one of the most combustible sports figures in the country, former Hoosiers men’s basketball coach Bobby Knight. As a White House Fellow, post-Celtics, Jennings was asked to prepare a scouting report for President Bill Clinton on Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, on the occasion of the Washington Wizards christening the MCI Center.

“I still had my [scouting] software in my computer, so that wasn’t a problem,” says Jennings. “I could tell he really went over it, too, because when ESPN interviewed him after the game, he went into an incredible amount of detail.”

Even as a young Celtics assistant, Jennings felt the pull of public life. He often made the short walk from Boston Garden to the State House and introduced himself to state legislators. He was known throughout the league as the 27-year-old assistant coach who could quote Winston Churchill, one of his early heroes.

When the Celtics presented Nelson Mandela with a Celtics jersey during a 1990 Boston visit by the South African president, Jennings was chosen to do the honors. Jennings also founded, along with the late Reggie Lewis, Team Harmony, a foundation that promotes racial understanding and public service among local students. When the Celtics star died in 1993, Jennings carried on the project with the help of Leonard Zakim and the Anti-Defamation League, which continues to sponsor Team Harmony.

In 2004, Jennings parlayed his passion for politics into a run for Congress in his native Indiana. Fellow Hoosier Larry Bird and former Celtics president Arnold “Red” Auerbach sponsored fundraisers, highlighted by a golf tournament that helped Jennings raise $1.5 million for his campaign.

“I couldn’t care less about politics,” says Auerbach, in his trademark growl. “But I wanted to do something for Jon.”

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Democratic leaders held out hope that Jennings might be able to topple six-term Republican US Rep. John Hostettler in an Indiana district known for close elections. In the end, however, Hostettler held on easily, winning 53-45.

With his sleeves now rolled up tending Kerry’s Bay State outposts, Jennings is in a place that has long been fertile ground for sports and politics alike, and he feels the tug of both. He says wouldn’t mind, at some point, coaching a college basketball team. Should Kerry mount a second run for the presidency, however, Jennings would want to be on board, and he hasn’t ruled out running for office again himself.

“He’s got the bug,” says Auerbach.

Mark Murphy is a sportswriter for the Boston Herald.