The respect between Billy Donovan and Monty Williams is palpable.
Williams, in town Friday as head coach of the high-flying Phoenix Suns, served as Donovan’s lead assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder for part of the 2015-16 season as Donovan made the transition from coaching Florida to two NCAA titles in a decorated college career to the NBA.
“We spent every day together,” Williams said on a Zoom call before Friday’s Bulls-Suns contest. “I tried to help him transition, myself and Mo Cheeks, into the NBA as a head coach. Sometimes it takes a minute to learn what an NBA day is like. So he and (Thunder assistant coach) Anthony Grant were asking a lot of questions of me and Mo. We just tried to help him the best we could.
“Coach Donovan is somebody you don’t mind being around. You don’t mind helping. He’s got such an unreal personality. Selfless. Doesn’t take himself seriously at all. And I really mean that. We just had a lot of good times together. Our coaching meetings were some of the best I’ve ever been a part of. We had some really good talks about transition, great talks about life. That was my hand in it, helping him not make the mistakes I made as a first-time head coach in the league.”
At the time, Williams had been fired from heading the New Orleans Pelicans despite coaching them to the playoffs in 2014-15. Donovan said he had heard nothing but great things about Williams before they met to discuss possibly working together.
But Donovan already had a relationship with Williams’ father.
“It was kind of a crazy story,” Donovan said. “I used to jump in my car and drive to Orlando because Orlando had a lot of direct flights when I was coaching at Florida. So from a recruiting standpoint I’d get on these direct flights, and Monty’s father worked in the airport. I didn’t know Monty at all. I knew of him from his time at Notre Dame and obviously the NBA, and I would always talk to his Dad a little bit.
“Just getting the opportunity to work with him, I’ve got great, great respect for him and his faith, who he is as a man, a person and a father.”
That faith and fatherhood got tested in the most unimaginable manner by the well-documented story of Williams’ wife, Ingrid, dying in a car accident in February 2016. Williams left the Thunder to care for his family.
“To see him have to go through what he had to go through, not only him but his entire family, I think he showed just incredible faith and unbelievable belief in such a difficult time. And we’ve remained close ever since,” Donovan said. “My son (Billy Donovan III) was with Monty last year (in the Suns' video room), and not only is he a great coach, he’s a great guy. I’ve been very, very blessed to have him in my life. Very blessed to be able to continue that relationship on even though we didn’t even get a chance to spend an entire year together. Certainly, he left a huge impact on my life.’’