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The perfect match? (cont.)

Posted: Monday April 9, 2007 1:10PM; Updated: Monday April 9, 2007 3:50PM
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Some NBA types believe Florida coach Billy Donovan could make a successful transition from college to the pro game.
Some NBA types believe Florida coach Billy Donovan could make a successful transition from college to the pro game.

2. What were you saying about being wrong?

ANSWER: I was wrong about Billy Donovan.

Last week I wrote that college coaches as a rule are poorly equipped to coach in the NBA, and I stand by that. What I failed to realize is that most rules have their exceptions, and in this case the exception may be Donovan.

I knew I had it wrong when I discovered last Friday that the Grizzlies were indeed interested in hiring Donovan as their head coach. (Would his presence in Memphis raise enough fan interest and ticket revenue to help owner Michael Heisley sell the team? That's the question.) So much for my theory that West would never hire a coach without NBA experience.

Depending on Eric Musselman's future in Sacramento, you might be able to add the Kings to the list of potential admirers if Donovan decides he wants to turn pro.

"He could be very, very good if he came to the NBA,'' said a respected NBA team executive. "I truly believe he is a guy who could relate to NBA players. Look at what he did at Florida: He's the reason those guys all stayed in school. He held that thing together. Just watch his demeanor on the sideline -- he never loses his composure.''

Here's another story I wish I'd heard earlier. Toward the latter half of the 2000-01 season, the Trail Blazers were considering a replacement for coach Mike Dunleavy because they feared he'd lost the team after Portland surrendered a 15-point lead to the Lakers in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals one season earlier. The Blazers were looking to make a midseason Billy Martin hire -- a fiery personality to inspire them to make a scorching run at the championship.

The two candidates were Hubie Brown, who was ultimately rejected because he was deemed too old (more regrettable advice from owner Paul Allen's Vulcan management team?), and Rick Pitino, who had resigned from the Celtics in January 2001 and didn't appear enthusiastic about jumping back into the NBA. When the Blazers reached out to Pitino, his protégé Donovan -- then in his fifth season at Florida -- served as middleman during their talks.

Because of Pitino's ambivalence, the Blazers didn't fire Dunleavy until the season ended. Before the Blazers settled on Maurice Cheeks as their new coach in the summer of 2001, Donovan let them know that he would be interested in the job. The point is that he has been aiming to be an NBA head coach for a long time.

"Here's what I've noticed about Billy,'' a GM said. "A few years ago he realized he wasn't very good at coaching defense. He moved one of his assistants -- which is very hard to do for a head coach, because in that world it's all about loyalty and sticking together -- and [in 2004] he brought in an old veteran guy, Larry Shyatt, to fix the problem. And that's why they were able to win two national championships.''

Here's the picture I should have recognized last week. Donovan has been aiming toward an NBA career, and along the way he's been humble enough to recognize his weaknesses and fix them. He will have a lot to learn in the NBA, but there is a feeling among his potential employers that he won't be the typically dictatorial college coach who fails to form a partnership with his richer, more powerful NBA players. Donovan will adapt and grow into the job.

"When he hires his assistants in the NBA, he won't go the buddy route,'' the GM said. "If he perceives he's not good enough in a certain area, he'll go and get himself some help. He'll figure out what he needs to be successful in the NBA, and he'll put the right guys around him.''


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