MIAMI — One of the strangest parts of Billy Donovan’s rookie season as an NBA coach is running into the guys he coached as teenagers, seeing them now as grown men who are some of the best in the world at what they do and realizing that these are now his adversaries.
He met up with Joakim Noah on an early-season trip to Chicago, got a surprising locker room intrusion by Al Horford in Atlanta this week and now will coach against one of his all-time favorites, Udonis Haslem. He sounds paternal when he reminisces about those players, but there is a unique sense that they made him as much as he made them.
“They look a lot older than when I had them,” Donovan joked after Oklahoma City’s practice Wednesday afternoon. “Look where they’re at now in their career and what they’re doing. I’m really happy for those guys because, quite honestly, if I didn’t have the opportunity to coach some of those guys, I may not be standing here right now.”
Where he stood at that moment was the court at AmericanAirlines Arena, and he will be back Thursday when the Heat host Oklahoma City (7 p.m., TNT). It is Donovan’s 19th game as a pro coach since ending his legendary 19-year run at the University of Florida.
For nearly two decades, the pull of Gainesville overpowered the lure of jumping to the NBA. The attachment was so strong that he backed out of a signed contract with Orlando in 2007 and asked athletic director Jeremy Foley for his job back.
“I don’t think any of us knew or Billy even knew, but we all accepted it was a real possibility that he would do it eventually,” said Mike Hill, the UF administrator who oversees men’s basketball. “The fact that Billy never closed the door on that publicly is to his credit. He never wanted to say something that would later be false.”
This spring, after a 16-17 season with the Gators, there was no thought to leave, and former assistant Matt McCall said Donovan was regularly in the office until midnight working to get UF back on course. There was a 13-hour staff meeting dedicated to mapping out a master plan for the offseason.
“You wouldn’t have found another person more locked in than he was,” McCall said.
When the Thunder job came open in late April, though, it seemed like a move that would tempt Donovan. General manager Sam Presti thought as much and quickly made him the top target. As Hill mentioned, Donovan never denied his interest in the NBA. The topic arose with the media about once a year at UF, and he was always upfront.
“I didn’t know what situation it would be, but I knew it was a matter of time,” said Haslem, who played for him from 1998 through ‘02. “Obviously, there’s a heap of talent at Oklahoma City, so you’re definitely starting off with a championship-caliber group of guys.”
It might be an easy choice for most, but Donovan saw a huge cost. His bond with Foley and other staffers helped create an ideal workplace, and his family was rooted. His wife Christine was happy, two of his four kids were still in school and his father hung around the team like an unofficial assistant.
Regardless of what he might gain professionally, there was great personal risk. However, the change turned out to be what the Donovans needed. He likes seeing his two younger children stretched by the challenge of adapting to a new environment, and staying in Gainesville as long as he did gave them a permanent hometown that many coaches’ kids lack. The move also sparked something in his marriage.
“You’re at a place for 19 years and in my relationship with my wife, it’s so easy for her to live her life because she’s comfortable, and I’m working at Florida,” he said. “It’s actually forced us to evaluate and look at ourselves as we continue to grow in our relationship and try to evolve as a husband and wife, where maybe you wouldn’t have had a chance to do that if you would’ve stayed there.
“There’s been a lot of interesting things. There’s an opportunity for great growth for me as a coach and as a husband and father, and for my kids and my wife. If you look deep, the experience is very valuable beyond just coaching basketball games.”
His dad continues to live in Gainesville, but has made it to a few games and tentatively plans to be in Miami for this one.
There are obvious difficulties going from the SEC to the upper tier of the Western Conference, starting with a rapid-fire schedule that barely leaves time to practice and continuing with handling multi-millionaire talents. Donovan is grateful to have veterans such as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison, who know NBA personnel and schemes better than he does.
That adjustment was never much of a concern. The bigger question was whether Donovan could establish anything close to the work atmosphere that made UF so endearing.
“That was probably the part where I had the most uncertainty,” he said. “You’ve got these incredible relationships that you’re bonded into and you’re leaving all of that and walking into an environment where I don’t know these people at all. How are these relationships going to flourish?
“But after dealing with Sam and people in the building and the coaching staff, it’s been unbelievable. That’s the hardest part for anybody in a job that requires a lot of hours is to go to work every day and not enjoy the people, or you’re working with people where you don’t feel like you have a common vision. I didn’t know if I was ever gonna recapture that again.”
It helped to have some carryover. Former UF staffers Mark Daigneault and Oliver Winterbone left for Oklahoma City a year earlier, and Donovan brought in quality control coach Billy Schmidt. He also hired longtime assistant coach Anthony Grant.
That group is working to get the Thunder (11-7) back where everyone thought they would be. Since losing to the Heat in the 2012 Finals, Oklahoma City has reached the conference finals once and missed the playoffs last year when Durant and Westbrook both battled injuries. Now healthy and thriving again, both seem to embrace Donovan.
There is no reason to think Donovan, 50, will struggle with the transition from running one of the most successful college programs in recent history to coaching an NBA team with title expectations. He has long been respected among coaches at all levels, and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra sought his insight repeatedly when the two coached in the same state.
Spoelstra attended Donovan’s coaching clinic in Gainesville three times, once as a guest speaker, after building a friendship through their connection with Haslem. When the Heat won in 2012, Spoelstra went to Donovan over the summer to learn what he could about UF’s back-to-back titles.
“It was fantastic,” Spoelstra said. “We spent a whole afternoon at his house, and he brought out all of his notes and talked about the challenges he went through trying to motivate guys the second year. I always loved getting together with Billy because he’s a forward thinker.”
Perhaps that mindset is what moved him along from the Gators to the Thunder. There is little doubt Donovan would have kept UF nationally relevant, but it was time to press forward into a new world. Not just in basketball, but in life.
— Written by Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post