Kragthorpe: 30 years of Thunder coach Billy Donovan, from John Stockton to David Stockton and other Utah checkpoints

Kragthorpe: 30 years of Thunder coach Billy Donovan, from John Stockton to David Stockton and other Utah checkpoints

The white paint on the cement walls is fairly new and the Westminster College varsity lacrosse team occupies the locker room the Jazz once used for practices. Otherwise, the basement of Payne Gym looks just as it did 30 years ago, when the Jazz cut Billy Donovan a second time and sent him in another vocation.

“I love playing,” Donovan said that day in October 1988, “but I think sometimes you should let a dream go.”

That’s why Billy The Kid went from the campus on 1300 East in Salt Lake City to Wall Street in New York, only to discover after six months of working for an investment firm that he missed basketball. He took an entry-level job and launched a coaching career that has taken him into the Oklahoma City Thunder’s NBA playoff series vs. the Jazz, resuming with Wednesday’s Game 2.

So after failing in his bid to become the Jazz’s first point guard to begin a season as the backup to starter John Stockton (Jim Les holds that distinction), Donovan is coaching against the Jazz, whose playoff roster includes Stockton’s son David.

“The one thing that stands out is the amount of time that John Stockton spent with me,” Donovan said this week about his Jazz experience. “He couldn’t have been any more gracious.”

The Stockton-to-Stockton thread in Jazz history and Donovan’s slice of it would make a tidy package, except skipping over those 30 years would miss some checkpoints when Donovan kept reappearing in Utahns’ lives. As Florida’s basketball coach in 2004, he helped persuade football coach Urban Meyer to move from the University of Utah and join the Gators, instead of Notre Dame.

Having won two national championships with Florida teams that included current Thunder guard Corey Brewer, Donovan took the Gators to the 2010 NCAA Tournament. In the Oklahoma City venue now called Chesapeake Energy Arena, where the Thunder play, Florida lost in double overtime to BYU, giving the Cougars their first NCAA win in 17 years.

The next March, Florida’s overtime victory in the Sweet 16 in New Orleans ended the career of BYU guard Jimmer Fredette.

And now there’s another tie to Utah. Oklahoma City’s coach is the original Donovan who became a star guard under coach Rick Pitino at Providence, almost 30 years before Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell played for Pitino at Louisville.


Pitino gave Donovan an NBA shot with the New York Knicks; the guard played in 44 games in the 1987-88 season, before being waived in March. That opportunity came after the Jazz cut their third-round draft choice and Donovan played briefly for the Wyoming Wildcatters of the Continental Basketball Association. In October ’88, with veteran Rickey Green having moved to Charlotte in the expansion draft, Donovan took another shot with the Jazz, coached by Frank Layden.
“I was really, really disappointed the second year,” Donovan once told me. “That really bothered me, because there was a spot there. I had a bad taste in my mouth. As time went on, I realized I didn’t play well enough.”

Now he’s facing the Jazz in the playoffs, and Donovan is in an interesting spot. The prevailing viewpoint around the NBA is if the Jazz win this series, it will be because Quin Snyder outcoached Donovan. If the Thunder win, it will be because they have better players.

That’s the tradeoff for Donovan’s having joined a winning franchise. He’s the first coach to win 100 games in his first two seasons after going to the NBA directly from college. Donovan mostly can thank Kevin Durant, whose last OKC team went 55-27 in 2015-16. That season, Donovan received only a third-place vote, from the Thunder’s TV announcer, in the NBA Coach of the Year balloting. He has won 47 and 48 games in the two seasons since Durant moved to Golden State, giving him a 150-96 record (Snyder is 139-107 in that period).

Missouri was not yet in the Southeastern Conference with Florida when Snyder was coaching the Tigers, although his career arc somewhat resembles Donovan’s — “except he won national titles,” Snyder clarified.

Snyder is impressed with how Donovan has blended Paul George and Carmelo Anthony into the Thunder’s system, while saying, “It’s not like he needs my endorsement.”

In a way, though, Donovan needs the validation that would come from beating Snyder and the Jazz in this series. Or, more accurately, not losing to them.

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