Donovan gives back for fan's longtime support

Gator fan Jerome Millman, left, watches the Elite Eight game between Florida and Dayton on March 29 Memphis, Tenn. The Gators defeated the Flyers, 62-52, to advance to the Final Four.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 at 8:11 p.m.

From the wheelchair section in the lower bowl of the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn., Jerome Millman peered down toward the court while Florida played Dayton in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.

Through his 40-power binoculars, Millman could see shapes of players, hear the whistle after each stoppage of play and take in reactions of the crowd after each made Gator shot.

Legally blind since 2004, Millman has enjoyed Florida basketball through an unprecedented run of success. He will be in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday to watch top-ranked Florida face Connecticut in the Final Four, with tickets left from a special friend, Florida coach Billy Donovan.

Millman forged a friendship with Donovan when the two met at a Gator Club gathering in Atlanta in 2000. A custom tailor, Millman offered to make Donovan some free suits.

“I told him that I wanted to make something for him gratis, ‘just to thank you for everything you’re doing for the Gators,’ ” Millman said.

Donovan liked the suits and a business relationship formed. Through a request from Donovan’s wife, Christine, Millman made custom shirts for Gator assistant coaches in 2003. But that’s when Millman’s health took a turn for the worse. Diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, Millman’s vision deteriorated, which forced him to retire as a tailor. Millman also had kidney problems as a result of untreated diabetes.

“Tell people if a doctor tells them they are diabetic, not to ignore it for years and years, because that’s how you go blind and that’s what happened to me,” Millman said. “I was a medical wimp. I would have literally doctors appointments that I should have gone to, that I just didn’t go because I was scared. They call it white-coat syndrome. I’m afraid of doctors.”

In 2003, Millman was told he had a year to live if he didn’t get a kidney transplant. But through a more disciplined diet, prayer and regular checkups, Millman’s kidney function has dramatically improved. He’s also explored corrective surgery to improve his vision.

“We’ve prayed about it and we’re going to take the test and, Lord willing, that will be able to help my condition,” Millman said.

Since 2000 and through his health issues, Millman estimates he’s attended about 90 to 95 percent of Gator basketball games. In 2006, Millman was at the Metrodome in Minneapolis to watch Corey Brewer’s falling-down baseline shot that led Florida to a Sweet 16 win over Georgetown. A year later, in his hometown of Atlanta, Millman had confetti fall on him as Florida celebrated the second of its back-to-back national titles in the Georgia Dome.

Millman did miss Chandler Parsons’ 75-foot shot at the buzzer to beat North Carolina State (“That still bugs me,” he said), but was in Fayetteville, Ark., in January to watch Scottie Wilbekin’s bank shot at the buzzer to send Florida to overtime in an eventual 84-82 win over the Razorbacks.

Millman’s wife, Debbie, drives their 2009 Toyota Camry to the road trips and makes the five-hour drive from Atlanta to Gainesville for home Gator games. A registered nurse, Debbie works extra shifts during the week to get time off to drive.

“We’re centrally located in Atlanta,” Millman said. “So everyone else in the world, they go on vacation. Well, our vacation is the Gator games. There’s nothing like it.”

Donovan has returned Millman’s initial favor of making him suits by leaving him tickets as close to the court as possible for road games. During the offseason, when Millman visits Gainesville to see his son, Sean, a graduate student at UF and a member of the Rowdy Reptile student fan club, Donovan will give him 15 to 30 minutes in his office to talk about the state of the team.

“He and his son and his wife are great Gators, they are always there, they are always there supporting,” Donovan said. “So when he can get in the car and go with his friends in the SEC, I can always help him out with some tickets. I know he’s had some health issues to deal with, but I’ve always liked him.”

Asked how well Millman can follow the action, he responded: “I can see the net move if the ball goes through. I can’t tell you who shot it, but I know the characteristics. If I see a dude guarding somebody like this (Millman says, arms waving), I know it’s Scottie. I can’t see the number 5, but I know it’s him.

“We sit close enough at the home games, that I don’t need the binoculars except when people stand up and then I look at the big screen. At the away games, we’re close enough that I can see what’s happening. And it’s just an amazing blessing for us to follow the Gators, just to be there.”

Millman, 58, will sit in the wheelchair section again this weekend in Arlington because of a fall he took at the SEC tournament a few weeks ago in Atlanta. He’s hopeful to be able to celebrate another UF national championship, but his fandom with the Gators goes beyond wins and losses. At his home, Millman has kept a signed program from Donovan from the 2007 Final Four. In black ink, Donovan inscribed “To Jerome, not only the greatest Gator fan, but a good friend.”

“That meant everything to me,” Millman said. “I don’t know if he can ever understand the joy he brings to our family ... it’s just been a really wonderful thing, through the years, to get to know him and be able to call him a friend.”

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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