Wednesday November 2, 2011Family Affair: Gators Coach Billy Donovan Faces His Son's Team in Exhibition at O'Dome
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Christine Donovan has been to hundreds of Florida basketball games at the O’Connell Center over the past 15 years. Still, Thursday night’s exhibition game between the Gators and Catholic University will be unlike any other.
You want to know how unusual this game is going to be. Well, Christine and her mom spent Wednesday afternoon baking apple pies. And these pies were not for the Gators.
Instead, the home-cooked treats were for the Cardinals of Catholic and No. 24 had an all-you-can-eat pass.
When Florida tips off against Catholic in Thursday night’s exhibition game Christine’s husband, William John Donovan, will be on one bench at the O’Dome. On the other bench will be her son, William Connor Donovan.
It’s Big Billy vs. Little Billy around the Donovan household.
“I hope my son plays well, the Gators win and no one gets hurt,’’ Christine said Wednesday afternoon. “That’s my goal.’’
“I think she’s really happy it’s an exhibition game,’’ Big Billy said. “It really doesn’t count for anybody.’’
Knowing it would be a sensitive matter Big Billy opted not to complicate the situation when Catholic University coach Steve Howes first called about scheduling a potential game between Florida and Catholic, located in Washington, D.C. However, once talks got serious and it looked like the game could happen, Billy mentioned the idea to Christine to see how she might feel.
Her first concern was how Little Billy would feel. Once he said he was all for it, the plan moved forward, creating one of the more interesting storylines in history for an exhibition game between a team that went to the Elite Eight a year ago and one that plays conference games against schools named Goucher, Gallaudet, Susquehanna and Juniata.
“And of course, my husband has been talking crap to him all week,’’ Christine said. “My son Billy has a great sense of humor, so it’s been fun listening to their phone conversations.’’
Little Billy is entering his sophomore season for the Cardinals. After serving in a limited role as a freshman, he enters the season pegged to play more minutes at shooting guard and at point guard.
Sounds an awful lot like how Big Billy was used at Providence when he was in college.
A former Gators ball boy with so many memories from his father’s coaching career, Little Billy said he is excited to be back in Gainesville. Not only will his parents and siblings be at Thursday’s game, but both sets of his grandparents are in town.
Donovan played in high school at St. Francis Catholic but said that Thursday’s game will be the first time he has ever played a game on the O’Connell Center’s floor.
“It’s going to be a cool experience to come back and play in the O’Dome after watching my dad coach here for the last  years,’’ he said. “I think it’s really special for me and for him, but looking at the bigger picture, it’s also good for both teams to get ready for the season.’’
If you look at old photographs of Donovan’s Gators winning the national titles in 2006 and 2007, there are glimpses of Little Billy in the photos. He recalls those days like yesterday.
“I remember counting down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 on the clock. It was unbelievable,’’ Little Billy said. “I was so happy for my dad and his guys.’’
Little Billy decided he wanted to move away from Gainesville when it was time for college.
“He did this all on his own,’’ Big Billy said. “It’s what he wanted to do. He had absolutely zero interest in playing for me. He did not want to do that. I’m just happy for him that he is happy.’’
Unlike his father, Little Billy isn’t interested in becoming a coach after college. He said he chose Catholic for many reasons, one being the opportunities outside of basketball that Washington offered.
His parents also played a big part in his decision whether they know it or not.
“I wanted to get out of Gainesville and experience the real world for myself,’’ he said. “My parents both went to catholic schools. Catholic tradition really runs deep in my family. I came up for a visit and really liked what I saw. I get to go to a good catholic school with wonderful people and I also get to play basketball with some real good guys who I will probably stay in touch with for the rest of my life.’’
When it was time for Big Billy to head off to college, he chose Providence College, where he became known as Billy the Kid and led the Friars to the 1987 Final Four as an undersized guard who could shoot lights out.
Little Billy also has a nice shooting touch, but he is now actually taller than Big Billy. He said he grew another inch over the summer and is now listed at 6-2, 185 pounds.
Can he finally take his dad in one-on-one?
“I could probably beat him inside,’’ he said. “I’ve got a little height over him.’’
Christine is going with her son on this one.
“I think he could,’’ she said. “My husband’s back is so bad.’’
Christine traveled to Washington last weekend to watch Little Billy play in a scrimmage. It was the first time she had seen him play more than a few seconds since he was at St. Francis. She expects him to hold his own once Thursday’s game starts against the Gators.
“He has changed so much. It’s really cool to see him grow up and mature,’’ she said. “To see him playing on a college team is really neat experience. It’s like coming full circle. We moved here when he was 4. He was a ball boy and has been to a million practices and was traveling around with the Gators, and now to be going up against them is a really cool thing.’’
As for Big Billy, he enjoys a little trash talk with the oldest of the couple’s four kids, but deep down, you can tell how proud he is of Little Billy.
He told a large group of reporters on Wednesday afternoon that Thursday night will be special for more reasons than seeing his son on the court.
“I’m proud of him. I think he is having a great experience. He is with a great group of guys. He loves the coaches and the school. All has worked out well. It’s nice to be back but I also think it will probably be a strange feeling considering the fact that he has watched so many games from the stands and now he is going to be on the court.
“He’s always been pretty level headed. He’s always been pretty realistic of himself. He loves basketball. He works very hard at it. I think he realizes that in terms of playing there is probably not going to be a future for him after college. There are other things he has interest in, and being in a city like Washington, D.C., there are a lot of opportunities. He’s a lot more well-rounded than I was.’’
The respect is mutual.
“The thing that I always respected about my dad is he’s also a basketball coach but he is a great dad,’’ Little Billy said. “He wants to see me do well. Hearing that from him was really special.’’