It was well after 1 a.m. and Joan Donovan was worried. She and her husband Bill had just returned to their home in Rockville Centre to find their teenage son Billy's bed empty.
"My wife was upset, but I knew exactly where he was," Bill Donovan Sr. recalled in a phone interview last week. "He had sneaked out with a group of his buddies to the gym at St. Agnes. I think they used electrical tape to prop the door open."
The story of the boy, the gym and the electrical tape has seen a lot of mileage over the course of Billy Donovan's playing and coaching basketball career. Still, it goes a long way in explaining why Donovan's supporters believe he will be successful with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team he took over as head coach 10 days ago. Donovan led Florida to two NCAA titles and four Final Four appearances in his 19 years there, but this is his first coaching foray into the NBA.
"I know he's going to be great," said Rick Pitino, the former St. Dominic player who coached Donovan in Providence and then later hired him as an assistant in Kentucky. "No one works harder than Billy. He's the classic overachiever. He has a work ethic second to none."
Donovan's work ethic was legendary, even as a kid. Kevin Quigley first met Donovan when they were both 8 years old and on the same Rockville Centre Rec team. The two became fast friends and later played for the same CYO and high school team at St. Agnes. Quigley said that no one was more determined and focused than Donovan when it came to honing his game.
"Early on, in grade school he was very good with his right hand but couldn't go to the left," Quigley said. "Someone criticized him for that. It bothered him so much that all you ever saw him do for a while was work with his left hand. He did it in his backyard all afternoon. He wanted to be the best and was very driven."
Yet it will take more than drive and desire to succeed in the NBA, a place where many talented college coaches have failed to make a lasting impact in the past. Among the college coaches who did not successfully make the jump are Mike Dunlap, Reggie Theus, Mike Montgomery, Lon Kruger, Leonard Hamilton, Tim Floyd and John Calipari. Pitino also never enjoyed the same success as coach of the Knicks and Celtics that he has had in the college ranks.
Pitino said the major difference is that Donovan is talking over a team stocked with talent, one whose 45-37 record masks their true ability. He said it is a much better match for Donovan than Orlando was in 2007, when he agreed to become the Magic coach before changing his mind and staying on the college sidelines.
"Billy has always wanted to try the pros and he's asked me advice about it," Pitino said. "I told him not to just take a job to get into the pros like a lot of coaches do. Take a job where you have a shot at winning. This is a perfect situation. He's got good, talented players. And they're a young team."
Pitino said Donovan is a quick study and has the demeanor and the ability to adjust on the fly that is needed to succeed as a coach in the NBA. He said that when he was coaching Donovan at Providence, he never once thought he was the type of player who would go into coaching.
"It was quite the opposite. Billy was such a shy, humble, very much wanted to just be a team guy and stuck out," Pitino said. "When he became a graduate assistant at Kentucky, once he put his coaching jersey on he immediately changed his entire demeanor. It's almost like he read the blueprint on what a coach should do and went after it with such a tenacity and voracity that he's second to none."
Quigley said that he also noticed a change in Donovan once he started coaching. A group of Donovan's buddies from Rockville Centre went up to a charity golf tournament in Providence, and at the dinner afterward Billy got up to speak.
"I was intrigued as to what he might say because Billy was a pretty quiet guy," Quigley recalled. "Right before our eyes, he gets up there and starts working the room like a professional. He's quick and witty and people are belly laughing. I remember we all turned and looked at each other like, 'Oh, my God, Billy has a personality.' It was great."
Donovan had a great run at Florida, one that was enjoyed by his entire family. Bill and Joan Donovan split time between Gainesville and Rockville Centre for most of Donovan's 19 years there, though they recently sold their place on Long Island and moved permanently to Florida where all of their children and grandchildren live.
Bill Donovan Sr., who was a star at Boston College in the early '60s, has been a fixture at Florida home and away games. He now is also talking about getting a condo in Oklahoma City and plans to attend about half of the Thunder games either on the road or at home.
He said he isn't worried about his son making a transition to the next level. He learned long ago not to worry about a kid that wants to play basketball, rather than do something else, in the wee hours of the morning.
Said the father: "Like a lot of really successful people, he just has that fear of failure. It drives his work ethic. He just puts in the long hours, because he's not going to fail."