Florida basketball guard Walter Clayton Jr. faced a difficult decision when he left Iona last spring.
Clayton could have followed his Iona coach, Hall of Famer Rick Pitino, to St. John's to stay in a familiar system.
Instead, Clayton elected to return to his home state, as the Lake Wales native signed with the Florida Gators to play for second-year coach Todd Golden.
“It was very tough, you know, obviously leaving Coach P, being with him for two years, and then also my guy Coach Masiello, Steve Masiello, it was definitely tough leaving them," Clayton said. "I still keep in communication with them, we all talk a lot still, they became family.”
Clayton said the initial conversation he had with Pitino telling him he was going to sign with Florida was short. A standout combo guard at Iona, the 6-foot-2 Clayton averaged 16.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists for the Gaels last season, helping lead Iona to the 2023 NCAA Tournament.
“He kind of just wished me good luck, you know," Clayton said. "That was the first time and then a couple days later he called me back, you know we had a conversation and we talked, and then when I was leaving New York, you know, talked to each other, told him I loved him. You know, he loved me, obviously we built a relationship. So it was, that’s kind of how it went."
Rick Pitino's ties to Florida basketball
Pitino has a tie to the Florida program in that the most accomplished disciple of his coaching tree, Billy Donovan, led Florida to back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007. Donovan played under Pitino at Providence and coached under him as a student assistant at Kentucky before starting his head coaching career in 1994 at Marshall.
Two years later, Donovan landed in Gainesville at Florida, where from 1996-2015 he led UF to four Final Fours, six SEC titles and two national titles. He left at UF's winningest coach (467 career wins) in 2015 to begin his NBA coaching career with the Oklahoma City Thunder and is entering his fourth season as head coach of the Chicago Bulls.
Clayton said Donovan's name came up often in Pitino's conversions.
“Oh, Coach P, yeah he used to talk about his time in Providence all the time, because obviously they went far in the tournament," Clayton said. "So, he talked about all his teams, like Louisville teams, all his teams that won really. If you didn’t win, he’s not really going to talk about you.”
The biggest aspect of basketball Clayton said he took from his time with Pitino was learning mental toughness.
"Being able to play through adversity," Clayton said. "You know, every day he brings chaos in. It could be a great day, he gonna make it a bad one, he gonna expect you to play through it. So learning that, and also learning don’t drive baseline.”
This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Florida Gators basketball guard Walter Clayton Jr. on time with Iona, Rick Pitino