O’Connell Center court to bear Billy Donovan's name

Pat Dooley
Former Florida men’s basketball coach Billy Donovan stands at half court as the crowd cheers after the Gators beat Tennessee for his 500th career win at the O'Connell Center on Feb. 28, 2015. The basketball floor at Exactech Arena will be christened "Billy Donovan Court" tonight. [Brad McClenny/Staff Photographer/File]

Billy Donovan gets it.

He understands that every time a Florida basketball game is on television from now on, anyone watching will see his signature on the court.

“That’s the thing that takes me back a little bit,” he said. “I certainly never envisioned anything like that. The fact that it’s going to be on the court forever, it is really humbling.

“Emotionally, I’m really taken back by all of it.”

Tonight at halftime of the Gators’ game against Vanderbilt, Florida will officially name its court at the O’Connell Center after a legend. Once he left here after 19 glorious years, it was only a matter of time.

The time has come.

The ovation should be ear-splitting.

What Donovan did at Florida cannot be overstated. All the wins, all the championships, all the confetti.

The Final Fours, the Elite Eights, the conference tournament titles at a place that never won one before 2005.

The memories will wash over Donovan like a euphoric wave. The times Florida cut the nets at home because they were conference champions. The buzzer-beaters by Chandler Parsons and Anthony Roberson. Teddy Dupay stomping along the press tables after the Gators beat Kentucky or Matt Walsh emphatically slinging a rebound into the student section after another win over the Wildcats.

All those vicious battles with Tennessee, where sometimes teeth were lost.

So many memories.

One sticks out.

Florida vs. Ohio State. Dec. 23, 2006.

“The one moment that stands out was that game,” he said. “It was Greg Oden’s first game back after a wrist injury. There were so many future NBA players on the court it was ridiculous.

“Al Horford had an ankle injury and he tweaked it in the first half. I told him, ‘We have a lot left in this season. You need to slow down.’ And he said, ‘I’m playing.’”

Florida blew third-ranked Ohio State off the court in the second half, winning 86-60 (and would beat the Buckeyes later that season for the national championship).

“The energy of that game was incredible,” Donovan said.

On Friday, Donovan got his first look at the new and improved Exactech Arena and he was shown his signature on the court (a decal for now which will be painted on in the off-season). Tonight, 10,000 of his closest friends will get to experience it with him.

During our conversation this week, Donovan reminded me of a lunch we had at the old Bennigan’s before he ever coached a game at Florida. He did not bring up that I told him, “Florida will never be a basketball school.”

Which I appreciated. (I was young, sue me).

“I remember us sitting there and we were talking about whether or not we could have continued and sustained success at a high level,” he said.

Which is exactly what he did.

Florida became a fixture in the craziness that is March Madness, reaching the title game in 2000 and eventually making four Final Fours. It’s why the first thing you see when you go into the practice facility is a huge picture of Donovan still watching over the program.

And as much as he loves his current job as the head coach of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, there are still things he misses about the college game.

“As you look back and you’re getting older and move along in life, when you see what is happening in March, what’s going on in the tournament, it takes you back to those moments,” he said. “It makes you reflect on those teams.

“The great moments and the heartbreaking moments.”

As he was always fond of saying, there are no easy outs in the NCAA Tournament. The one that stung the most was the loss to Michigan State in the 2000 final.

“You just never know if you are going to get back there again,” he said.

But do you know what he misses the most about college basketball?


Just recently, his OKC team went more than a month without practicing, because they had so many back to-back games.

“I do miss practices. I miss being able to practice,” he said. “Sometimes you miss being able to get out there and go up and down. These guys are so smart (in the NBA), they don't need to practice.”

So many of the players he coaches will be there tonight, a relative Who’s Who of Gator basketball during the glory years.

So many pieces of his coaching tree will be here to honor him.

Larry Shyatt, an assistant on Donovan’s national championship teams, made the drive down Friday from northern South Carolina to be here today.

“Very few people have done what he did at Florida,” Shyatt said. “Some guys win big at places that have been doing it forever. He won big for a long time at a place that hadn’t won much.

“And he is one of the few people who — with all the success he has had — doesn’t treat people differently than he did before.”

Anyone who knows Donovan knows that’s true. He has managed to handle the fine line between confidence and cockiness.

A personal example — every year Donovan calls my Dad on his birthday. They usually talk for 15 minutes about sports. My father has four children, but that’s the call he talks about every year.

“He’s so humble,” said Donnie Jones, another assistant coach on the championship teams, “he won’t let people write books about him.”

Jones has a 4 p.m. game today as Stetson’s head coach, but will jump in his car and head to Gainesville right after his game to be there for the halftime ceremony. There are expected to be more than 200 people who have been influenced by Donovan on hand today, including players and staffers, coaches, trainers and managers.

It will be emotional for them all and Donovan is quick to give them all credit for this honor.

“My name is being honored on the court and I’m humbled because of all the people I was able to coach and work with,” he said. “I’m gonna think about a lot of people.

“We all shared a vision.”

In a way, tonight will be about those people. But mostly, it will be about the best coach in Florida’s history.

“This will be less about the teams — which Billy will hate — and a little more about Billy,” Shyatt said. “And what that family contributed to the community.”

It worked both ways.

When he was hired by then athletic director Jeremy Foley in 1996 and handed a six-year contract, nobody knew what was coming. Including him.

“You go there and you’re 30 years old and you have no idea what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m married, with two kids, my wife’s pregnant.

“Gainesville became home. My kids and my wife had just an unbelievable 19 years in that community. The worst thing is being in a place where your kids and wife are unhappy. I couldn't imagine a better place to raise a family than Gainesville. The people were incredible from all walks of life.”

That is part of what will make tonight so special, so many people who have been influenced by Donovan able show their appreciation.

And vice versa.

“Everybody was rowing the boat in the same direction (at Florida),” he said.

“It’s a powerful and humbling thing when you have a lot of people working together. You can’t accomplish a lot of great things by yourself.

“The things that are special that you can’t accomplish without a lot of great people.”

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