Billy A Kid No More

By David Scott - June 01, 2007

ORLANDO - Two years ago, on the occassion of her husband's 40th birthday, Christine Donovan sent out party invitations which read, "Billy's a Kid No More." When his ex-coach and mentor, Rick Pitino opened the invite he couldn't help but laugh.

"Not in my eyes," recalled Pitino a couple of weeks back on the occassion of his Providence team's 20th anniversary of its 1987 Final Four run. "He's always Billy the Kid to me."

On Friday, with Christine at his side and just about every Orlando Magic worker crowding the bleachers of the Magic's practice facility in giddy anticipation, The Kid became The King and took with him a king's ransom of some $27 million for the next five years to lead the once-proud NBA franchise.

The scene was eerily similar to one that played out almost 11 years ago to the day when the New Jersey Nets rolled out the red carpet at the Continental Airlines Arena for another annointed son of college basketball, John Calipari. On that day in the swamps of Jersey, like this one on the outskirts of Disney, a young, successful NCAA coach was lured to the NBA by money, challenges and yes, a whole lot of ego.

But unlike Calipari and others, who were given the keys to the entire franchise and all personnel decisions, Donovan only asked for - and received - the keys to the coach's office.

"For me, it's not about me," said Donovan during his 40-minute introductory press conference. "I'm a piece to the puzzle here. It's about the organization, it's about a chance for this team, this franchise to take the next step. I need to worry about coaching and trying to the best job I can to try and get these guys to grow and get better."

Getting better is something Donovan knows more than a little bit about. When he came to Providence College, Pitino - then in his late-20s - remembers playing his guard one-on-one and beating him soundly during his underclassmen days. By the end of Donovan's junior year, he had turned the tables on his coach.

"Billy was the greatest overachiver in the history of the game in my mind," said Pitino. "All the sudden they put that bandana on his neck and gave him some chaps [for a famous photo shoot] and he became Billy the Kid. The slippers at midnight never turned in for him, the pumpkin never changed. He hasn't changed one bit, he's still humble, hungry and the same young man he was back then, except he's got two national championships under his belt."

And in his holster, he now carries a gold-plated pistol as the new sheriff in O-Town. But until he shoots his way to an NBA title, the lingering questions of whether anyone can truly make the leap from college hoops to the pros will hover in the sticky Orlando air.

"There's no question there's been an unbelieavble track record of coaches who maybe have not done very well," said Donovan. "I do know this, I worked very, very closely with Rick Pitino and Coach Pitnio was extremely successful with the New York Knicks. It's about all of us together as a team, trying to accomplish a goal."

It's those Pitino principles that have propelled Donovan to this point in his career.

"I don't know if Billy is one of those 'Born to Coach' stories," said Herb Sendek, an assistant for that Friars team. "He took another path (to Wall Street), found that wasn't for him and then eventually came back to coaching. We all had a great mentor in Coach Pitino and we all learned first from him."

"I think you can't help but be a product of your experiences," said Jeff Van Gundy, a lowly assistant on that 1987 Friars team. "Playing and working for Coach Pitino has impacted us all. Billy followed his heart and came back to coaching after he tried Wall Street. I think even Coach Pitino had his doubts when he brought him into Kentucky as an assistant."

"Honestly, I thought he was too nice a person to be a coach," Pitino said.

It's the very niceness that may, in the end, separate Donovan from the now cliched list of college coaches who have failed in the NBA. For all the Pitino likenesses that Donovan encompasses - if you close your eyes and listen when he speaks publicly, he sounds very much like Pitino - the biggest difference may be that Donovan has a compassion and a kindness rarely displayed by his mentor. He may be Little Ricky forever, but the mini version does show signs of having a much softer side.

"It's always unsettling when you make change," said Donovan. "I go from something that I was very, very comfortable at, something I had great security at, something that was easy; to putting myself in aposition where I'm going to be challenged in so many different ways. (Thursday), for me, should have been a a real happy exciting day and very, very quickly it went to a day that I have a lot of compassion in my heart beacuse of a lot of difficult phone conversations. A lot of hard face-to-face conversations, starting with Jeremy (Foley), the team and the recruits.

"The first thing I needed to do was to get rid of all the emotions and get by myself and think about what was going to be best. Did I want a new challenge? What it really came down to was the opportunity for me to grow, the opportunity for me to get better."

With that opportunity comes the chance for Christine to send out some more invitations, maybe for a celebration of her husband's new opportunity in a new city at a new level of competition. And a chance to once again let everyone know that indeed, Billy's a kid no more.

Posted by David Scott at 04:30 PM on June 01, 2007

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