Donovan makes Magic worth watching again

Maybe I will become a fan of the NBA again. Maybe the best thing to happen to America’s premier professional league since Magic and Bird will be Billy Donovan. His youthful enthusiasm. His platinum work ethic. His integrity, his openness with the media and his knowledge of the game. And, most of all, his heart.

I think a lot of you, like me, need a reason to turn on the TV for a regular season NBA game once in while, but are finding it increasingly difficult.

The league needs more than LeBron James to regain its lost luster. And, in fact, it needs more than Billy Donovan — but at least this is a start in the right direction.

Orlando’s Magic Kingdom also needs more than Mickey Mouse to fill the arena.

Donovan’s presence ensures national and state media coverage, as well as some fannies in the seats. If they win, tickets will become a hot commodity because of Billy’s built-in fan base and the short trip for Gator fans from Gainesville, Tampa, St. Petersburg, etc.

Credit Magic Chairman and Amway founder Rich DeVos for marketing genius. He didn’t get rich without understanding how to sell.

“Hey, the Magic matter again,” Orlando Sentinel columnist David Whitley told me Friday at Donovan’s goodbye press conference in Gainesville. “At least they’re worth going to cover with Donovan there.”

Donovan will be good for the NBA, good for the Magic, good for the Central Florida sports scene. But can he win?

Maybe he will fall flat on this face, as others have done (see Rick Pitino, Jerry Tarkanian, etc.) after making the leap from college to pro coach. But I doubt it. Having played 44 games for the Knicks before leaving for a short-term job on Wall Street — “I hated my job and I want to be a coach,” he told his father — Donovan has an idea of what’s ahead.

The grueling 82-game schedule, plus pre- and post-season games.

Spoiled crybaby athletes and the gangsta element.

Salary cap headaches.

On the other hand, he adds vigor to the sagging Magic franchise and immediately brings credibility to the fan base with his juice from “The Gator Nation.”

In college he had the pressure of a round-the-clock, 24/7, year-long recruiting agenda. Had he the impossibility of trying to duplicate his own epic feat of back-to-back national titles. And, most of all, at 42, he knew that his challenge would grow stale in “four or five years down the road.”

None of us really knows why it took the University of Florida so long to pull the trigger on getting his contract approved at the highest level or how much that played a part in Donovan’s decision. For sure, the back door was left open. But it really doesn’t matter anymore, because Billy made the best decision for himself. And it was never about his ego or the big dough, despite what you hear or read.

“It’s not about the money, it’s about the challenge,” he tells his close friends and they will back it up. Just as it was about the challenge when he left Wall Street and went to work for Pitino at Kentucky for $12,000 a year. In fact, it’s never been about Billy Donovan and his ego.

So why did he go?

“It was in my heart,” he explained.

Donovan is nothing if he’s not about heart. And if he can convey that passion to players at the professional level — something that’s not going to be easy — then a championship will be coming to Orlando one of these days. Providing, of course, that he can get the players.

It was heart at Providence college, where he re-tooled his chubby body, that earned Donovan a spot in the starting lineup. He dove for balls on the floor and knocked down 3-pointers with the dead-eye skill of his namesake “Billy The Kid,” spiriting the Friars to their best record in history as Pitino’s team made the 1987 Final Four.

It was heart in his 11-year reign at Florida, where he was hired as a 31-year-old baby-face who struggled through his first two years. Right up until two seasons ago, Donovan was often criticized for not being able to get past the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Fans weren’t the only ones concerned about that.

At a birthday party prior to the 2005 season, Billy’s parents expressed concerned to a family friend that their son might be in trouble if he couldn’t clear that first-round blues hurdle in 2005. Everybody apparently had their doubts — except Billy. Bouncing back from the loss of his top three scorers to dominate college basketball for two years with underclassmen was one of the most incredible feats in college sports history.

It is his heart, also, for his close friends — looking after them. He cared about his assistant coaches, making certain their names were brought up for openings at South Alabama (John Pelphrey, who later went to Arkansas), Virginia Commonwealth (Anthony Grant, most likely his successor at Florida) and Marshall (Donnie Jones, who just took the head job there).

His heart doesn’t stop there. At the risk of making it sound like we are canonizing the guy, Donovan is a sucker for the people he cares about. And he is a man of strong faith; with that comes his personal obligation for shepherding his flock.

He also took care of his players — ex-, present and future. This was perhaps as painful a part of the separation as anything for him. Other than choking up and crying when he had to tell friend and Boss AD Jeremy Foley about his decision to leave, Donovan’s hardest chore then was telling current squad members and those incoming about his choice. That choice had come after five days of agonizing.

During that period, Donovan talked to people he respected and asked for their advice — the Van Gundy brothers, Pitino and Steve Spurrier. It was Spurrier who once said of himself, “sooner or later, people get tired of you.” And you wondered if that factored in Billy’s choice, although he says nobody advised him to go, not did they advise against it.

After getting the offer from the Magic Thursday morning, Billy went to church at 8 a.m. and asked a higher power for help. Most of all he sought “peace.” He’s not sure he got all the peace he needed, but he got the answer. And at high noon he called his father, who had encouraged his son to “at least see what they (the Magic) have to say.”

At 3:52 Thursday, when the story leaked out, the siege began. In a barber’s chair in San Destin, Fla., Jeremy Foley saw his phone begin to light up and knew it was the media calling. He couldn’t, wouldn’t, return their calls for the moment.

Donovan’s phone exploded, too. “From 3:52 p.m. through the night, I counted 252 calls on my cell phone,” Billy said.

One of those calls came from my good friend Augie Greiner of Ocala, who befriended Donovan when he first arrived from Marshall in 1996. Donovan has a unique relationship with the former Gator basketball player of the 1950s and over the years they’ve had great fun taking pot shots at each other.

Donovan has always supported Greiner’s Ocala Gator Tipoff Club with three appearances a season, either himself or a staff member being in attendance, and remains close to Augie. More than $200,000 in scholarship money has been raised by Greiner’s organization.

Greiner, a former clothing store proprietor and wardrobe advisor who often picks out Billy’s shirts and ties to wear at games, is fighting a serious illness. They talk a good bit and Billy often calls to check on him. But they were unable to hook up this week.

“I need to call Augie,” Donovan told me after the press conference Friday. “He called me Wednesday night and I was just overwhelmed talking to players, etc. I had 252 calls since 3:52 yesterday!”

You can book this: Sometime in the next few days, Donovan will pick up the phone and call his haberdasher friend from Ocala.

Although Greiner is saddened about the loss of Donovan at UF, he is also very happy for his friend.

“I’m very happy for Billy,” said Augie. “He made a good move for himself, but I can tell you for sure it’s not about the money. It’s never been about the money for Billy. I’m going to miss him. But I’m very excited about the possibility of getting Anthony Grant. And we’ll be okay.”

You’ve heard of a “walk-off home run”? Donovan just did a walk-off-double-national-championship, all compressed into a remarkable 366-day run. So he leaves with panache and dignity and style.

This was the appropriate time for Billy Donovan to ride off in the sunset against a Gator-orange-colored sky, with his two crystal trophies and reputation intact. Not many coaches anymore get to experience those John Wayne exits anymore. Billy has certainly earned his. And this time is should be about Billy Donovan.

(Buddy Martin’s revised championship version of “The Boys >From Old Florida: Inside Gator Nation” will be available this summer. An autographed copy can be pre-ordered by sending an e-mail to