Early in Joakim Noah’s Bulls career, a casual pregame conversation about college coaches who could successfully make the jump to the NBA occurred in some long-forgotten locker room.
“Coach (Billy) Donovan wouldn’t be a good NBA coach,” Noah said back then of the then-Florida coach. “He’d be a great one.”
Noah won two NCAA championships playing for Donovan. But given that Donovan posted a winning percentage of .608 in five seasons with the Thunder, Noah wasn’t being biased at the time.
He was being accurate.
The Bulls hired Donovan, 55, to replace Jim Boylen on Tuesday, another sign that new executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas means business. And Noah, in a phone conversation from New York, strongly praised the move.
“It feels great. I just know they’re in good hands,” Noah said. “It’s a team that I sacrificed a lot for, given a lot for. So when I see a hire like that, it just makes me happy. I know that I have family in the building. It’s exciting.
“I’m happy for the Bulls’ organization because they’re getting a great coach, somebody who is an unbelievable motivator and somebody who is family to me. When they decided to name the (Florida) court ‘Billy Donovan Court’ all his old players came to support him. That just says a lot about who is as a man and who he is as a person — just the fact everybody would show up for his celebration.
“He’s someone who cares about his players, someone who is very demanding, someone who is very competitive and just has a great balance to him. It’s a great hire.”
Donovan compiled a 467-186 record (.715 winning percentage) in 19 seasons at Florida. Other longtime college coaches have struggled making the adjustment to the NBA.
Why did Noah think Donovan would succeed?
“Because I knew he could relate to the guys,” Noah said. “Still to this day, I remember some of the things he used to say. It kept happening throughout my career, just some of the things he was always preaching on.”
Even this year, with 12 NBA seasons in his rearview mirror, Noah leaned on Donovan’s advice and support as he landed first a 10-day contract with the Clippers and then signed to barely play during the league’s restart at Disney World.
“He always told me for this year, when you’re towards the end of your career and you’re one of the guys at the end of the bench, it’s one of the hardest jobs. But you have to stick with it every day. You don’t know when you’re going to go into the game. But you just have to come in ready at any time,” Noah said. “I remember him saying all those things. S**t, I was 18 years old. But he was someone who gave me extreme confidence to go out there and do my thing.
“It just shows. The players always enjoyed him. I think that’s a big part of it. Keeping it organized, staying organized but at the same time giving guys their freedom to play free and play the right way.
“He really has a good feel for people. I always said that even though he’s a great coach, his ability to relate to people, his ability to motivate and inspire, he’ll always talk about living in the moment. Stop worrying about the wrong s**t. Stay focused on the team. It was always about that. I feel like he has no problem, it doesn’t matter who it is, he’s going to call it out. And I think that that’s really important, especially in this day and age.”
Noah said Donovan’s consistency and focus on the right aspects of team building and winning are what set him apart. It didn’t matter if you were the star of the team or the last man on the bench. He held each player to the right standard, according to Noah.
“Coach Donovan is somebody who is going to hold his players accountable and is somebody who can relate to his players while keeping a relationship with the guys. That’s a tough balance. But he’s proven he’s been able to do it time and time again,” Noah said. “He’s somebody that I really respect. And I couldn’t be happier for the Chicago Bulls to have such a great coach. What a big hire.”