Near the humiliating end with the Boston Celtics, Rick Pitino's underlings will still tell you that they feared he bordered on a breakdown. He had grown so distraught, so inconsolable, they feared the worst for him. The taunts, the punch lines, the undeniable disaster, crushed him to his core. His identity, his self-worth, was so wrapped within his coaching star that Pitino's ego had no capacity to process the failure.
Back when Pitino had accepted the emperorship with the Celtics, Boston treated him like a conquering hero. Never for a moment had there been a nagging sentiment pulling him back to college. Those who know them both well always tell you that Billy Donovan was Pitino's complete opposite – far more grounded, egoless, and self-aware – and that he had never been tempted to go down the job-jumping, glory-starved path of his mentor.
While Pitino originally sunned in his celebration as a franchise savior, it turns out that Donovan had knots in his stomach. For too long, Florida's coach had been kidding himself on his potential for pro greatness, and now the truth of the matter came crashing down on him. He kept telling people that he wanted the NBA, kept courting it, and an ideal confluence of geography (Orlando), talent (Dwight Howard) and money ($27.5 million) made the Orlando Magic's offer irresistible. For as hard as Donovan chased the NBA – probably harder than it chased him – it says something about his constitution that he bailed so quickly, so completely, on the job.
His many mouthpieces in the media promise to run misdirection plays on Donovan's change of heart, but it comes down to this: In the end, Billy Donovan understood that he would simply be one more suit schlepping on the sidelines.
Billy the Kid would be nothing special.
"I think he changed his mind because he did not realize how good he had it until he stepped away from it for 24 hours," a longtime friend to Donovan said Monday afternoon. "It might have been a different story if he hadn't returned to the campus hours after the announcement."
It probably wouldn't have mattered. This wasn't about love of Florida, or love of the college game, but a pragmatic choice to spare his star from inevitable tarnishing. He has studied the NBA for a long time, endlessly probing his pro pals, and years ago he decided that his destiny was to make this step to the league.
Donovan was on his way to becoming Pitino, when he stopped and decided that maybe Dean Smith was the way to go. He has won two national championships and gone to three Final Fours in 11 seasons at Florida. Just 42 years old, he has a chance to do it again and again. For a Hall of Fame that rewards too many college coaches with enshrinement, he was easily on his way to Springfield, Mass. someday. In that way, the Magic job would've wrecked him.
The NBA would've spit Donovan out, the way it did Pitino and John Calipari and the rest before him. In the end, that's how it goes: The NBA reduces these hotshots into journeymen, jockeying job to job. Ultimately, Donovan's belief in himself wasn't big enough to think that he'd be different.
This was a smart self-analysis, if a revelation that came too late. He'd have some winning seasons, some losing and eventually the Magic would fire him. Then he'd go back to college with all the talking heads disparaging the pro game, saying that college coaches never get a fair shot in the NBA. There's so much revisionist history there. Deep down, Pitino and Calipari know the truth: They had chances but screwed it up.
Orlando didn't make a basketball hire, but a marketing splash. When Donovan accepted the job on Thursday, I wrote that the Magic could've gotten a far better pro coach – Stan Van Gundy – for far less money. And as they work out a settlement on Donovan's contract, that's the wise direction these Magic are taking now. You have to laugh at all this nonsense the college mythmakers were spitting out about Donovan "the teacher," because there's nothing that Donovan would've brought into the gym that hasn't been taught longer, and better, by someone else in the NBA. Stan Van Gundy did more coaching in his amazing first season with Miami than Donovan has done in a decade at Florida. That isn't an indictment of Donovan, as much as an affirmation of the degree of difficulty succeeding in the pros.
Donovan just booked himself a long stay in Gainesville because it'll be years again before another NBA franchise wastes its time courting him. He turned down the biggest college job of all, Kentucky, because in the back of his mind he believed his next stop was the NBA. Turns out, that he was right, if only for a couple days. But before Donovan, Pitino and Calipari let the manufactured love wash over them in those introductory pro press conferences. Back then, they still believed the mythmaking machinery that sold them as saviors.
The truth was a little slow in reaching Billy Donovan, but it didn't come too late this weekend. All that adulation he expected to course through him as a pro coach had been replaced by a knot in his stomach. And it told him that no matter the money, the celebrity, he would soon be just one more Dead Suit Walking on the sidelines. Hell yes, he missed college basketball.