It was only a year ago that the Florida Gators basketball team and fans experienced one of, if not the most emotional Senior Day in the programs history. Gator Nation had to say goodbye to “the four seniors” who had built such a legacy that is bound to never be forgotten in Gainesville.
These four seniors were all scholarship players, guys who each provided a piece of the puzzle for the Gators run to the Final Four and were invaluable to Billy Donovan’s program.
Fast-forward to 2015, and tonight when fans will say goodbye yet again, but with a slightly different tone.
Tonight there are only two players participating in Senior Day festivities. They are both walk-ons who saw their most playing time in their last season. One of them could even come back for another year. And the third senior is choosing to forego his pre-game event.
But despite the lacking fanfare or gamut of emotions, each of these seniors has left a mark on Billy Donovan and fans. We take a closer look at all of them as they prepare to tip off their last game in the O-Dome.
Jake Kurtz became a novelty while a Gator. His story was told over and over, seemingly every time he checked in to play, and his humble beginning became so synonymous with the rest of his Florida career that he was never able to quiet break free from it.
Granted, it is an incredible story. Real Disney movie material here.
A basketball player at his high school in Oviedo, Florida, Kurtz loved the game so much that he wanted to stay around it any way possible. Finding a mutual friend in the program, his high school coach was able to gain him access to slip into the practice facility and watch from the rafters. And then he kept coming back, day after day just to sit there and watch.
“It’s pretty cool”, Kurtz said when asked why he kept returning.
“I always liked basketball and watching what goes into. He gave me the opportunity to do that. It was something I wanted to do.”
Donovan noticed him sitting there and asked if he wanted to become a manager. So Kurtz transitioned into manager and was a step closer to his beloved Gators. Then one day in practice, Donovan was short on players for the scout team.
They threw Kurtz in and to this day, Kurtz says that’s still the hardest assignment he’s had.
“The hardest one was when I had to guard Patric Young,” he remembers, “and I was like 190 pounds and had to guard him. Just kind of thrown in there, just because of injuries we were short-handed and he asked me to do it, so that was the hardest thing.”
For Donovan, that willingness produced a player he’s come to trust immensely on the court.
“He has no other intention than helping our team win and helping our team get better,” Donovan says.
“Those guys know clearly there’s no agenda of, ‘Hey I have to go get mine or I got this NBA career or what’s my draft status’. This is it for him. He wants to win and contribute. He doesn’t care about points; he doesn’t care about minutes, numbers. [It’s] the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever witnessed as a coach coaching a player because of his intelligence level on the court.”
Jake says that intelligence comes somewhat naturally but mostly from not only studying the game, but also studying the game from the coaches point of view. That way when he’s on the court he can help guys out there be where coach wants them to be.
That may seem taxing to some, but not Jake, the guy who sacrifices his body for a charge call time after time.
“I never looked at is as a job that was taxing on me. It was something I always wanted to do. I put a lot of work into it and I’m glad I did. It’s been very rewarding. It’s never been a thing where I doubted why I was doing this.”
It’s that attitude that has made Jake the most respected guy on the team according to Donovan.
And it’s that attitude which will make tonight a little bit tougher as Gator Nation says goodbye to Jake the Snake.
Senior Jon Horford has only spent one year on the Gator basketball program’s roster. But he’s been apart of the Gator family for much longer.
The younger brother of Gator great Al Horford, Jon has been exposed to Billy Donovan’s program since he was in his early teens.
“You know, I got a chance to see Jon when I went into Al’s home and was recruiting Al,” Donovan recalls.
“He had come down a few times and seen NCAA Tournaments and those kinds of things. He was always a very, very nice young man, just nice kid.
Just entering high school when brother Al won back-to-back championships with the Gators and then was drafted into the NBA, Jon got to see first hand what kind of impact Donovan could have on a players career.
It was with that knowledge that Horford choose to use his fifth year of eligibility in Gainesville as a Gator.
“I’m happy he’s had an opportunity to play,” Donovan says.
“I feel like he’s gotten better and he’s improved. I think there was a lot for him to learn in terms of going from one system to another. I really always admired his work ethic. He’s a guy that eats right every single meal, he’s going to get his rest, he’s going to go to bed early, he’s going to take care of himself, he’s going to be the first guy to show up every day, he’s going to be the last guy to leave, he’s going to put time, energy and effort in there. And I really have always admired his work ethic. He’s got a phenomenal work ethic, as good as any work ethic I’ve ever been around.”
Basketball is just a facet of Horford though. He’s often known for relating the game or life to obscure classical references. While at Michigan, Horford was found in the locker room following a thrilling Sweet Sixteen win in the NCAA tournament, reading, of all things, an ancient Chinese text.
At one point during the Gators up and down season, he compared the remainder o the games to “The Art of War”. Donovan is no longer surprised.
“I think we’re all shaped by our experiences and stuff and he’s had a lot of different experiences,” Donovan explains.
“Jon’s a very, very bright kid; he’s very, very well-rounded. There are a lot of things he can do besides play basketball. He’s a very talented kid, well-spoken kid, well read. I think he’s smart. The game he wants to play, but whenever his time is over playing, he’s going to be successful in whatever he wants to do.”
Whatever that is will be coming soon, and although Horford has chosen not to be apart of the festivities, Gator fans will still have the chance tonight to say thank you to a forever member of their family.
Gator fans first came to know Lexx by his shoes.
The senior guard spends most of his time on the bench but he makes himself known, wearing shoes with outrageous colors and patterns. It’s kind of his calling card.
The walk-on was used sparingly during his time as a Gator, totaling 39 minutes so far in his career. His first time checking in, Billy Donovan turned to him and said, “Come on Lexx, let’s get you in there buddy.”
While his time has been limited, this former high school running back technically has one more year of eligibility. Edwards will take part in the Senior Day activities but Donovan would love to see him return for a final swan song.
“He has a chance to come back and play,” Donovan explained.
“He still has another year of eligibility. I’d love for Lexx to come back and he’ll make that choice at the end of the year. He’d be a great addition, and I appreciate what he’s been able to do for us. He’s been extremely, extremely helpful in practice in a lot of ways. He does have the ability to play one more year, and a lot of that will be up to him.”