With Billy Donovan officially the next coach of the Bulls, endorsements are rolling in from across the basketball world.
Whether from former players or coaching peers, a number of themes stand out as consistent. Among others: Donovan appears a hard-worker, strong communicator and selfless leader. That’s led him to success at virtually every stop he’s made in his basketball life.
Donovan’s first foray into coaching came in 1989, when then-Kentucky head coach Rick Pitino hired him as an assistant on his staff. The two helped drag the Wildcats out of a two-year postseason ban and into the Final Four in 1993. That was the continuation of a familial bond forged when Pitino coached Donovan for his best two years playing at Providence (wherein the Friars reached the Final Four in 1987) and for Donovan’s only NBA stop, a 44-game spell with the New York Knicks.
Pitino joined Dan Bernstein and Leila Rahimi on 670 The Score Wednesday morning to talk about the Bulls’ hiring of Donovan. Answering a question from Rahimi about how Pitino has observed Donovan interact with players, Pitino offered a noteworthy response.
“Billy is a unique coach, because he is a little bit of everything. He is an outstanding teacher, he’s a great communicator. Terrific motivator,” Pitino said on the show. “He demands excellence, but does it in a way — let’s say the opposite of a Bruce Arians, and I’m not knocking Bruce when I say this, he came out and said Tom Brady didn’t do this and the receiver doing that. You’re never going to find Billy do that. Billy will never air out any player’s weaknesses with the media. He would find that extremely destructive to the fiber of a basketball team.
“So, although he demands excellence, everything he’d do would be behind closed doors. It’ll always be about team. And he’s probably, of all the players I’ve coached, of all the players that have worked with me, Billy Donovan and Frank Vogel are the two most selfless individuals I’ve been around. It’s never, and I mean never, not 1 percent about them. It’s always about the players and the team. So I think he’s the perfect fit for the modern NBA basketball player.”
That stands in stark contrast to the tenure of his predecessor, Jim Boylen, whose first week on the job featured grueling conditioning sessions, the worst loss in Bulls franchise history, an infamous five-man substitution and a near-boycott of practice. Even one month into his second season as head coach, Boylen unceremoniously yanked, then publicly called out Zach LaVine for three “egregious” defensive errors in a home loss to the Miami Heat — which didn’t sit well with the Bulls’ best player.
Attempts to establish accountability that missed the mark.
The list could go on, but the point is clear: Donovan’s approach to player development and relationship-building will differ drastically from Boylen’s. With the Bulls coming off back-to-back 22-win seasons, the latter of which featured stagnation from a number of key players, that’s a welcome sign.
It's also why an ability to effectively communicate with players and build relationships — and, in turn, develop players — was high on Artūras Karnišovas repeated criteria when undergoing the search.
“I don’t think I’m as demanding, where it’s just my way or the highway, so to speak. That’s never been Billy’s style,” Pitino said later in the interview when asked by Bernstein what he’s learned from Donovan. “He would rather embarrass himself than embarrass a player. He will never do that...
“Incredible work ethic, incredible family man, never knocks his players. Always builds them up. He’ll be tough in practice, but you won’t see that aspect with the media. He’ll be tough in practice. But once the game starts, it’s their (the players’) game. He’ll be on the sidelines strategizing, he’ll give them the plays at the end of the game. But it’s going to be their game, it’s not going to be Billy Donovan’s game.”
The Bulls will hope that temperament, and Donovan’s track record of success, translates to winning in Chicago.