Those closest to Donovan can't believe he would ever have to make such a statement. To hear them talk, he is more altar boy than coach. "He embodies all the qualities you would want in a son," says North Carolina State coach Herb Sendek, who was an assistant at Providence when Donovan played there.
"He's such a good person to be around," says Jason Williams, despite the fact that he was kicked off the Florida team by Donovan last year after he failed a drug test. (Even so, Williams was the seventh player taken in the NBA draft in June.)
When the waitress in the café brings the check, the usual wrestling match ensues, except that Donovan leaves no room for negotiation. "I got it...I got it, I'll get upset! I'll be upset!" he yelps. "I'll leave right now. You're not coming here and paying...."
Maybe that's his secret: He won't take no for an answer.
A Degree in liberal arts, an introduction for an interview, a job offer and suddenly there Donovan stood, waiting on the Long Island Railroad platform. Suit, tie, topcoat. Watching his breath rise into the gray sky, his life leaking away. It was early 1989. He'd ride into the city, sit behind a desk in an office on Wall Street and start cold-calling people, asking faceless voices to give him their money to invest. He kept asking questions about the ins and outs of the job, but all his colleagues wanted to talk about was the NCAAs or the New York Knicks. He was lost in that world. "I was comfortable with basketball," Donovan says. "That's all I knew. That's all I know."
He had no illusions. He'd done the childhood-dream-come-true thing. After his sixth-grade teacher had read aloud his essay about playing in the NBA, she had laughingly told the class that Billy would have a better chance of getting hit by lightning. But he showed them all. He played in the NBA. During the 1987-88 season, Pitino, then the coach of the Knicks, had brought him on for a 44-game stint, and Donovan, who was not yet a year out of Providence, had played some cleanup minutes. But he knew he was in trouble the first time Detroit Pistons guard Joe Dumars squared up on him and Detroit coach Chuck Daly screamed from the bench, "Clear out! Get out of his way! Just take him, Joe!" And Dumars, who had 55 pounds, four inches and an untold amount of athletic ability on Donovan, posted him up and backed his way to the hole as if Donovan wasn't there. "Like a wrecking ball coming down," Donovan says.
Pitino cut him and in the off-season Donovan put on 17 pounds of muscle, becoming quicker, more explosive. His shot was on. He was as ready as he could be. He went to the Utah Jazz's camp and was cut after five weeks. He went home and told his girlfriend, Christine D'Auria, that he was done. He went to Providence to check out some leads in the insurance business, and when he returned to his folks' house, his father told him that the CBA team in Rapid City, S.Dak., had called. He went, he played, he stayed in a Day's Inn. Christine visited, and on Dec. 26 Donovan asked her to take out the garbage. "I didn't expect her to get back so quickly," he says. "I'm getting the ring out, and she comes back and sits next to me, and now I've dropped the ring down between my feet. I said, 'Oh, my god, there's a bug!' She hates bugs, she started backing away, so I picked it up and I proposed to her."
"Very romantic," Christine says.
A month later he was done with the CBA. His father had prepared him well: Billy knew what he lacked and had done everything to try and make up for it...and it wasn't enough. No shame in that. "I wasn't good enough," he says. He thought he was ready for the real world. He and Christine set a wedding date in August, she landed a job teaching at an elementary school in Greenvale, N.Y., and they found an apartment in Port Washington, just 15 miles from Rockville Centre. Billy was working on Wall Street and Christine could see their new life opening up before her eyes: dinner together, Sundays at her mom's, a world just like the one her father, a lawyer, had created 25 years before. Except for one thing. "I just really missed basketball," Donovan says.
He didn't tell her. What could he say? It wasn't the glory he craved, or the warm feeling from being around people who knew of that run in the NCAAs, when he killed team after team with three-pointers and bullheaded drives and perfect passes: 35 points against Alabama-Birmingham, 25 against Austin Peay, 26 against Alabama, 16 free throws to beat Georgetown and reach the Final Four. No, he missed all the little things that led up to that magical run. He missed the midnight drives into ghettos in his grandmother's junky car, the only white kid playing, guys vacuuming up coke through a $10 bill, gunshots ringing out in a high school gym. He missed cracking two ribs and playing through the pain, as he had in college. He missed drilling alone at the St. Agnes gym. He missed being pushed to play better. He missed getting better.