Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce.
His friends would laugh and tell Billy that he'd end up marrying a basketball.
This is a love story.
He orders a fruit plate and a bagel, no butter. Maybe that's his secret. No greasy bacon and eggs for the Florida basketball coach, just some light fuel to keep him primed for the next recruiting call, next handshake, next face-to-face with his players. The first smeary light of morning has done little to dissolve the dimness of the café's interior, but it doesn't matter. Billy Donovan's hair is slicked back. His eyes flash, his Long Island accent cuts the air like a whip.
"The biggest thing that we had to fight, that we had to educate players on, is that this isn't a 'basketball school,' " Donovan says. "My question to them is, What does that mean? Do we bus to all our games and the football team flies? No. Does the football team have a training table while we eat in the cafeteria? No. Do they get more exposure? Yes. So, why are they on national TV? Because they're winning and competing for national championships. Well, then, it's pretty simple, isn't it?"
Simple? With sneaker companies, the NBA and sports agents clouding the picture, college basketball has never been more confounding for even the most experienced hand, much less for a 33-year-old upstart trying to build a program at Florida, where Steve Spurrier's rich and cocky football team dominates the landscape. Yet, a decade after he carved out his unlikely place in NCAA lore as a player, few seem more adept at negotiating this strange world than Donovan. Players are lining up to play for him. No coach is hotter. He won only 13 and 14 games in his first two seasons as the Gators' coach, but last year he beat Kentucky on the road. Most important, in three recruiting seasons Billy the Kid has gone toe-to-toe with powers like Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina over blue-chip recruits and come away with more than his share. All of which has stirred whispers that a legend—or an outlaw—is in the making.
"It's unprecedented," says Bob Gibbons, who has published a recruiting newsletter for 22 years. "I can't think of a coach who has assembled this much talent this quickly. Even with his mystique and record, Donovan's mentor, Rick Pitino, wasn't able to do at Kentucky what Donovan has done [in recruiting] at Florida. Everyone's looking at it and saying, 'Can you believe this?' "
Before Donovan's arrival in March 1996, the Gators had landed just three McDonald's All-Americas in their history. This year's freshman class boasts two: sharpshooting Teddy Dupay, a 5'10" guard from Cape Coral, Fla., and Mike (Skinny) Miller, a 6'8" swingman from Mitchell, S.Dak. Dupay, the top scorer in Florida schoolboy history, sent out the first tremor two years ago by committing to Florida in the summer before his junior year of high school. Similarly, Miller's decision to forgo Lexington and, especially, Lawrence, for sunny Gainesville sent such a shock wave through college basketball that an enraged Kansas coach Roy Williams sicced the NCAA on Florida—and didn't care who knew it. "I don't care who Skinny signs with," said Williams, after his final visit to Miller's hometown last fall, "I'm turning Florida in."