But in this one moment, he stood back on the edge of the court, hands in his pockets and a huge grin split across his face as 28 of his former players convened at mid-court. On a night that was all about Billy Donovan, the under-12 timeout wasn’t and that was a testament to his legacy more than any other praise and adulation.
"I think about from my first year all the way through to my 19th year and just the amount of people that helped me. My name is down there but a lot of people really, really helped me. And that's really to me what's so humbling, that everyone worked so hard,” said Donovan.
The NBA All-Star break allowed Donovan—now the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder—to return to Gainesville for the weekend. It’s also what allowed former players still in the league like Bradley Beal, Chris Chiozza and Mike Frazier to return. The 20+ other guys joined them and sat court side, cheering along with fans as the Gators defeated Vanderbilt 84-66 and giving a standing ovation for the coach that brought them all together.
The Stephen C. O’Connell Center will now feature Billy Donovan’s name on the floor, but it’s always been his court. His presence is lingering and palpable. It’s in the National Championship banners that hang in the rafters, the result of Donovan’s patience and coaching and ability to bring more out of a team than even they thought possible. It’s in the Gator logo where four seniors knelt in 2014 and gave it a kiss after he brought them together, developed them and had them stay for a final year to do something special. And on Saturday night, it was in the 28 players (and many more who were unable to attend) who share a common link—their love, admiration and respect for Billy Donovan.
So in the spirit of Billy Donovan and the motivation behind so much of what he did, we turn this over to those players. This was the night through their eyes.
Bradley Beal, rocking a vintage Gators sweater and hat mind you, sat in the middle of the players row and threw up the three sign every time a Gator hit from downtown...which happened 10 times (six alone from Noah Locke). He was only able to attend after being unjustly snubbed from the NBA All-Star game but it at least allowed him to spend some time celebrating his favorite coach with those that felt the same.
“It’s an incredible honor for him. I told him earlier that I was a chocolate chip in part of his ultimate cookie, of all the guys you’ve had come through and all the success you had. It’s a blessing to be apart of that and a blessing to be here and share that moment with him. It was a father-son relationship we had. Everyday talks, constant communication even to this day we stay in constant communication even though he’s on a western conference team. He lured me in from day one. He never guaranteed me anything. He made me work for everything and he challenged me both on and off the floor and I thank him for that and that’s why I respect him so much and why I’m appreciative of him. A lot of the morals and values I have today are because of him.
"We're all a great talent one way or another but we'd be lying if we said it wasn't because of Billy. So we're happy that we're a part of his family and that we're able to share this moment for him.
“It’s tough to put into words [what he means to me]. He’s, I would say he’s the best coach I ever played for, for sure. He’s an even better guy. It’s definitely hard to put into words. I’m kind of gassing his head up but he’s unbelievable. He’s a true figure. He’s a role model in all aspects of life. He’s just perfect.
“We talked a lot from him recruiting me and that whole process. A lot of people don’t know that I committed to him as a sophomore. We had a relationship from sophomore year all the way up until I came here. It was just unbelievable. He’s the reason I am who I am today.”
Patric Young was one of the more vocal and encouraging leaders to come through Gainesville in the last decade. So it’s little surprise that as the horde of players waited to take the court, the former center stood out front and coached from the bench.
“Come on Jason,” he encouraged as the freshman center sprinted to the basket on fast break play. Young has become more of a fixture around Gainesville after playing professionally in Europe for several years. He became a man in this arena, creating a tether that pulls him back. He has Billy Donovan to thank for that.
“What Coach Donovan means to me, he’s just impacted my life so greatly as a man, as a player. Definitely leaving the program, you understand how good you have things. You take things for granted sometimes when you’re removed from them but I wouldn’t have changed—I wouldn’t change a single moment. Wish I would’ve grew up a little bit faster and the guy I was my senior year, I wish I could’ve walked in on campus and been that guy from day one but Coach Donovan, I just love the guy so much. He’s such a great father figure to me, just as a man, as a coach, just teaching me what it means to be the best I can be every single day.”
Like Beal, Chris Chiozza only played one year for Donovan. “Cheese” finished his career in Gainesville under Mike White after Donovan took his job with the Thunder. At the under-8 timeout, White looked up and found Chiozza in his huddle.
“I almost called a play for him. Go get it Cheese,” joked White.
But the 2017 March Madness hero (we can call him a hero because that pull up floater to beat Wisconsin in overtime will live in forever and he got so much air on that run that he still hasn’t hit the ground) was there for Billy D. As players left the court following their timeout recognition, Donovan greeted and hugged each guy. The last guy was Chris Chiozza.
“I love you Cheese,” said Donovan, holding on for a second longer to the Brooklyn Nets guard.
“It means a lot,” commented Chiozza, “even with a guy like me who only played with him for one year, just the relationship I have with him and that he built with my parents and stuff, he's one of those guys, as soon as you meet him, you could tell he’s a genuine guy. He really builds a relationship with you outside of basketball and it’s one of those guys that you can have in your life as a lifetime friend, one of those guys, you’re gonna run through a wall for him and he’ll do the same for you every day.
“It’s crazy to see how many people he had, how many great players and just how great of a program he helped build and how it prospered under him, so just coming back and seeing all these guys together, I don’t know if there’s ever been something like this where you walk in and you see 15 NBA guys in here and we come together, we talking like we just played on the same team as each other and most of us was years apart, it’s just through that relationship with coach Donovan and through that relationship that you have, that brotherhood you have just being a Florida alumni. It’s just like you have family forever here.”
We’d be remiss to not mention Al and Jo. The room shifted the moment Joakim Noah came through the door. Attention naturally turned to the 6’11” former center as he greeted old friends and the coach for whom he won back-to-back championships. He sat near his best friend Al Horford and the two stayed locked in all night, cheering on their alma mater, hurling taunts towards officials following questionable calls and spending every available moment catching up with their coach.
“So many good memories but just him really caring for his players and those times are the ones I remember most. It’s not necessarily what we did on the court but off the court,” recalled Horford.
“He means a lot. He’s somebody very special to me, just proud of him and tonight we’re just celebrating him and all his accomplishments and everything he’s done for the University of Florida.”
As the night drew to a close and all 28 of those former players finished signing autographs, taking pictures and shuffled off their home court, the current Gators team hung back, letting their predecessors have their moment. Finally, they were able to head towards their locker room. Graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr.—the elder and leader for this 2019-2020 team—was the last to step off the court. Billy Donovan was waiting for him, in the shadows under the stands and able to catch KJ just before he stepped through the door. For a couple of minutes the two spoke, the legendary coach and the player who to that point knew him only by legend.
“He just said that I’m a pretty good player,” grinned Blackshear, “so I appreciated that. And he just acknowledged that this team can go far, we just gotta take ownership and lead this group and that’s something I think’ll stick with me.
“It was great. He was like one of the coaches I grew up like watching like in my living room, like shootin’ hoops with my brothers so it was great.”
The night was about Billy Donovan. The new name gracing the corners of the court, the pregame buzz of excitement, the tribute videos, the halftime dedication—it was all for Donovan. But it came to a close with him encouraging and inspiring another player and in the process, the Florida Gators, which is really the most Donovan thing of all.