Don’t blame Billy Donovan for growing up a Knicks fan. To hear the Long Island, N.Y. native turned Bulls head coach tell it, he didn’t have a choice.
“I probably would have been thrown out of my house if I wasn't a Knick fan,” Donovan quipped after the Bulls’ Sunday practice. “In our house it was the Giants, the Knicks and the Yankees. And also the Rangers, too.”
That adds a layer of sentimentality to the Bulls’ Monday night matchup with the Knicks, the first of a two-game mini-series at the United Center. Though both games will take place in Chicago, Donovan’s earliest basketball memories involve taking the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan with friends, securing $5 tickets and seeing how close to the Madison Square Garden floor they could sneak.
“I was probably 10, 11, 12 years old when (Walt) Frazier and (Earl) Monroe were playing there. And then obviously when Bernard King was there and Michael Ray Richardson and Ray Williams, Bill Cartwright, all those guys,” Donovan recalled.
Frazier was such a favorite that his passing mention thrust Donovan into describing one of his prized childhood possessions: A T-Shirt that bore an action shot of Frazier’s face on the front.
“My mom got me one of these shirts -- and I don't know how young I was -- I said to my mother, ‘When I play for the Knicks, do you think Walt Frazier will still be playing?’” Donovan said. “That's how much of a Knick fan I was.”
Neither Donovan nor his mother could have known then that that dream would eventually bear fruit, if only for a short spell. Donovan parlayed a four-year playing career at Providence into being selected by the Utah Jazz in the third round of the 1987 draft. From there, he bounced around Summer League tryouts and CBA fliers before landing a spot on the Knicks, playing under his college coach Rick Pitino, during the 1987-88 season. Donovan appeared in 44 games that year, all as a reserve, and averaged 2.4 points.
He described the experience as "a dream come true."
“The reality was for me, at best, I was gonna be the 13th guy at the end of the bench waving the towel trying to root the guys on,” he said. “But it was an incredible experience. The one thing I feel very blessed about is not only getting a chance to play in New York and get to that level and get drafted, (but also) that I don't have any regrets about my playing career. The reality was I think I got everything I could out of myself. I just flat out wasn't good enough.”
Then, with a smile: “Plus, the rules now, with not allowing hand-checking and things like that, that probably would have helped me out a great deal. But I got Joe Dumars sticking his hand in my waist and guys like that, and I can't even move. It was a little bit of a challenge.”
It didn’t take long for Donovan’s coaching career to take off. In 1989, he joined Pitino’s staff as an assistant with the University of Kentucky. His time there, which featured a Final Four run in 1993, led to him taking on his own program at Marshall (1994-96), and eventually Florida. The rest is history.
A fast friend along the way? Current Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, adding even more to Monday’s nostalgia.
“Thibs used to come up and watch us practice when I was a player at Providence,” Donovan said (Thibodeau coached at Salem State and Harvard in the 1980s). “Then (I) got friendly with him because Jeff Van Gundy coached me in college, so he developed a relationship with Jeff, and then he worked with Jeff in Houston (with the Rockets).”
Upon Thibodeau’s return to the northeast to serve as an assistant on Doc Rivers’ championship-winning staff with the Boston Celtics, that familiarity grew stronger. Especially during a time period when Donovan was recruiting Austin Rivers, Doc’s son, to join him at Florida -- a bid that was ultimately unsuccessful.
“I can remember going up, when I was recruiting (Austin Rivers) and watching Boston Celtic games,” Donovan said. “And I'd go back to Thibs' office and we'd watch film together of that night's game.”
By all accounts, there’s no surer way to Thibodeau’s heart. The two longtime compatriots turn competitors once more Monday evening.