Billy Donovan had nicknames for quite a few of his players at the University of Florida — ones they often earned while they were in his doghouse.
Udonis Haslem, who started at center for Donovan from 1998 to 2002 and was enshrined into the Gators Athletic Hall of Fame in 2012, was no different. “He used to call me Crab,” the Miami Heat’s veteran forward said Wednesday after practice. “I complained a lot. I was crabby. So he called me Crab.”
Haslem always knew it was only a matter of time before Donovan made the jump to the NBA. After four trips to the Final Four in 19 years — and a one-day stint as the Orlando Magic coach back in 2007 — Donovan, 50, finally decided last May it was time to make that leap again. And make it for real.
Thursday night at 7, after years of waiting, Haslem will finally get the chance to face his old college coach when the Oklahoma City Thunder (11-7) takes on the Miami Heat (10-6) at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Donovan, who led Florida to back-to-back national titles (2005, 2006) and finished as the national runner-up with Haslem as his center in 2000, has already run into a couple of his former Gators in the NBA.
He met up with Joakim Noah at an early-season game in Chicago, and Al Horford walked into the Thunder locker room before Monday night’s game in Atlanta to say hello to Donovan and assistant Anthony Grant. Donovan said he’s looking forward to seeing Haslem, one of his all-time favorites, before Thursday’s game.
“They look a lot older than when I had them,” Donovan joked Wednesday of what’s been like to bump into some of the 15 players he coached on their way to the NBA.
“I think the other thing, too, for me has been looking at them and realizing, ‘Geez, I had the opportunity to coach them, and look at where they’re at now in their career and what they’re doing.’ I’m really happy for those guys. To be quite honest, if I didn’t have an opportunity to coach some of those guys, I may not be standing here right now.”
One might imagine the lure of signing a five-year, $30 million deal to coach Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would be a slam-dunk decision to make. But Donovan didn’t leave Florida for just those reasons.
He needed to feel like what he was giving up in Gainesville — uprooting his two youngest kids and wife, Christine — would also have some sort of benefit. He found it. Donovan called it “an opportunity for great growth.”
“[The move] actually forced us to evaluate and look at ourselves as we continue to grow in our relationship as a husband and wife, where maybe we wouldn’t have had a chance to do that if we would have stayed there,” Donovan said. “That goes for me personally as a coach, as a husband and as a father. And for my kids — getting out of a comfort zone and coming into a new city. If you look deep, the experience is very, very valuable outside of coaching basketball games.”
Donovan’s two older children and father, who often attended games at Florida, remain in Gainesville. His daughter is a senior at Florida, and his son a coach in Ocala. His dad, though, will be coming with Donovan’s sister, who lives in Boca Raton, to Thursday’s game.
Donovan said the toughest adjustment to the NBA as a coach has been playing more games on a weekly basis and not being familiar with the opponents. But he said Durant, Westbrook and other Thunder veterans have made things easier on him, having been in the league so long and pointing things out to him.
“There may be some things I’m seeing that I can mention to them that brings value, and there’s things they’re certainly seeing where they can say, ‘Coach, it might be better to do this.’ That’s what you want to be able to do: work together. I would never want to take away or not utilize some of these guys’ experiences in the amount of games these guys have played.”
Durant said he’s loved playing for Donovan because he brings a level of consistency.
“I wouldn’t really say anything’s surprised me about him,” Durant said. “He’s a player’s coach. He’s all about being connected as a group. He’s all about holding us to that same standard every single day. I think that’s how you become a really good team. He continues to let us know what we need to do every single night. Consistency is really good.”
And Donovan has surrounded himself with plenty of familiar faces from Florida, including Grant, who was fired at Alabama two weeks after Donovan was hired in Oklahoma City. Haslem knows first-hand what kind of success Donovan and Grant can have, and he’s confident it won’t be long before the Thunder is back competing in the West for a trip to the Finals.
“Billy and I didn’t speak every day [once I made it to the NBA], but the great thing about family is you don’t have to speak every day to understand you’re family,” Haslem said. “He’s still there. The admiration is still there. And the respect is still there. I wouldn’t be in the situation I’m in today without him.”
Thursday: Thunder at Heat
When, where: 7 p.m., AmericanAirlines Arena.
TV, radio: TNT; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish).
Series: Thunder leads 33-21.
Scouting report: Heat forward Luol Deng (strained left hamstring) still hasn’t practiced with the team and will probably miss his fourth consecutive game. The Thunder won both meetings last season, including 94-86 in Miami on Jan. 20.