Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

NBA Draft Review

For the first time in recent memory, the NBA Draft had some interest, some intrigue and people actually talking about the league even though the games were over. They had this strange triangulation of storylines that drew attention to the draft before it happened instead of afterwards. The top two players were a given as Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were locks to be taken one and two.

I spent some time around Oden at the National C/championship game in Atlanta this year and he’s solid. A very good player who has the potential to be great, it would have been tough to pass on a 7 footer who could be the lynchpin to a championship team for the next ten years. Durant might have better skills right now and might be the bigger impact player right away but he’ll need some guys around him. People have compared him to Michael Jordan and that’s not a stretch. But remember, Jordan had Pippen, Kerry, Horry and others hitting big shots as well.

There was the possibility of a couple of big trades that focused the attention on the draft but none of them actually happened. Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett stayed in the same places. Ray Allen was traded and so was Jason Richardson but they weren’t the big blockbusters that had been talked about.

Then there was the Gator factor.

The 1976 Indiana team had three players picked in the top eleven. Could the Florida Gators exceed that? There was lots of speculation about Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah, where would they end up and would they find teams where their game fit? Al Horford has the most NBA-ready game and everybody expected him to be picked in the top five.

And that’s how it happened.

Horford went to Atlanta with the third overall pick. The Hawks made the safe selection. Horford developed more of a half court game last year and showed that he can continue to get better.

Brewer went 7th to the Timberwolves. His game is all over the place but there’s just too much athletic talent to ignore. He’s long, fast and fearless. Plays great defense, developed an outside shot and will hustle. He can play three different positions for the Timberwolves, but I think it’ll be fascinating to see Brewer and Garnett in the game at the same time.

Noah was the player people had the most questions about. Without a solid half court offensive game, he’d need to go to the right team using the right system to be successful in the NBA. Phoenix seemed to be the perfect fit with their transition style of play. But Chicago snapped him up at #9, giving the Bulls another solid young player.

Noah could be an 8-point, 12-rebound, 4-blocks per game player and have a long career doing just that. But if he develops more on the offensive end, he’ll be a superstar. He runs the floor and has a passion that you don’t see from a lot of players. I don’t think he’ll be able to get his shot off against the big men in the league right now, but he’ll work at it and it’ll be fun to watch.

Chris Richard and Taurean Green both were picked in the second round giving Florida five players selected. Only Lee Humphrey among the Gators who got significant playing time in the title game didn’t get drafted. But he’ll get some serious looks from teams this summer as a free agent because of his three-point shooting ability. The Nuggets even said he’s a good fit for them based on what he can do from the outside.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Rick Murray: Real Courage

Comparatively, I didn’t know Rick Murray for very long. We met in the parking lot of a church in Palm Valley leaving Bruce Edwards’ funeral. Bruce was Tom Watson and Greg Norman’s caddie for years and I knew him starting in the early ‘80’s. He moved to Ponte Vedra and was diagnosed with ALS, and his funeral brought people from all over the country.

Rick stopped me on my way to my car. I say stopped me, but he actually just spoke from the side of his van, sitting in his wheelchair as I admired some of the “Go Navy” stickers on the van. “I have ALS,” Rick told me at our first meeting.

Outside of being in a wheelchair, he didn’t look very infirm. A Naval Flight Officer, Rick had been active in all kinds of sports, especially tennis and cycling. So seeing him in a wheelchair, he looked like a guy who was convalesing from something like a broken leg and he’d be back on his feet in no time. But the prognosis was not good. Three years to live, max. Little did I know that he had already exceeded that expectation and planned to “live” a lot more. We had a nice conversation, he introduced me to his wife Sherry, and we went on our way.

Somewhere in the not so distant future from that meeting, I had donated a visit to “The End Zone” to a charity auction, and Rick bought it. When they called to redeem the prize, I told them all about it, but they said, “Rick’s not getting about too well and was wondering if you’d just go by and have lunch with him.” “Sure,” I said, and we set it up.

Turns out Rick and Sherry didn’t live far from me in Mandarin so I went by with the instructions to, “Just come around back,” which I did. When I got a look at Rick I was a little stunned. He’s stuck in his bed with a contraption hooked to his head that kept him breathing. “Fourteen times a minute,” he explained to me.

He couldn’t shake hands anymore so I tapped him on the palm and sat down. For the next couple of hours we talked about sports, flying, sports, women, sports, people, sports, reality and sports. Rick knew what he was talking about. Could quote stats and dates with the best of them and was really sharp. I hadn’t dealt with anybody in his condition before so it was a hard juxtaposition to see somebody with such a fragile body have such a strong mind. I knew I had met somebody I could talk with who had an objective view of things but was never afraid to let you know where he stood.

Our conversations over the next couple of years were varied both in topic and duration. Sometimes we’d just watch a game, others we’d solve the world’s problems. Once when I was there I could tell he was a little down and I asked him “What’s up with you?” He kind of motioned to himself as if to say “all this” so I stood at the foot of his bed and looked him right in the eye.

“Do you understand how important you are to so many people? Do you know what an inspiration you are to everybody you meet? Look, I draw inspiration from you every day so don’t you dare start to get down,” I said, as sternly as I could.

“I’m slippin’,” Rick said softly and after a short pause followed that up with “but thanks” and a small smile. I tapped him on the palm, kissed him on the head and walked out of the room, crying of course.

Each time I’d see Rick after that he’d say, “I’m getting’ worse,” but that’s about all we’d say about his condition. It became more and more difficult for him to speak, a sign that ALS patients are sliding down a slippery slope. I had to lean in closer each time to hear him, and after a while, it was more non-verbal communication than anything else.

And then last week he was gone.

I had really torn feelings about that, knowing how much he had suffered but also knowing how much he loved living. “Persistence wins again,” was one of his favorite sayings and that really stuck in my mind.

I could go on and on about him writing a book, about his Harley passion, about the cycling trips after his diagnosis but suffice to say when I hear the word “courage” the next time, I’ll be thinking of Rick.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Magical Change of Heart

Right up front, I’ll say Billy Donovan is a good guy. Admittedly a good guy who made a mistake, but a good guy nonetheless. Donovan’s reversal after agreeing to be the Orlando Magic’s head coach is a colossal public relations mistake and is so un-Billy that it’s hard to get your mind around it.

Donovan is a very buttoned up guy. He’s thoughtful and honest and loyal and about as thorough a person as you’ll ever meet. How he didn’t think this through to the end is beyond me. Maybe he was being pressured by the Magic and was caught up in the whole idea of being courted. Maybe the money turned his head a bit. But he made a mistake.

He realized that being the Head Coach at a big time Division one school is a lot better job, for him at least, then being another NBA coach on the sidelines. Who did he want to be? Phil Jackson or Dean Smith? Even though his friends advised him to seriously consider the job with Orlando, his friends were all guys who had lost jobs in the NBA. Rick Pitino and Jeff Van Gundy are his two confidants when it comes to coaching and both have been put out on the street by NBA teams. Somewhere in Billy’s mind, he didn’t want to be that guy. He didn’t want to be the college coach who gave it a shot at the NBA and was eventually fired.

And he would have been because they all are.

He’s lost some of his luster, some of his credibility and some of his sainthood among sports fans in general. But he has tried to correct it. The bad thing is how many other lives his two-day sojourn had an effect on. From the fans, players and management of the Magic to the coaches, players and administration at Florida, everybody’s been on a roller coaster for the past week. They didn’t know where they were living, who was going to pay them and in some instances, if they had a job at all. Donovan knows that and that’s one of the reasons he’s called Magic officials again on Tuesday to apologize saying he was “so sorry and didn’t mean to cause any harm.”

The Magic are doing the right thing, making Donovan break the contract. They hired him; they wanted him and by some reports, still want him as their coach. But he’s shown no inclination to change his mind, again, so a legal deal has to be worked out. Reportedly, Billy will have to agree to a five-year non-compete in order to depart from the contract with the Magic without any financial compensation.

There might be a little money changing hands, but I don’t think it’ll be substantial. There should be a little “wiping this egg off my face money” paid to the Magic, who come out holding the bag in this deal.

There’s a theory that if the press conferences were reversed last Friday, that Billy wouldn’t have felt the heartstring pull of Gainesville so late in the day. The Magic wanted to have the big splash of the first press conference, so Gainesville was in the afternoon.

You could see Billy was emotional and that he struggled with the decision but his call to Jeremy on Saturday saying he had had a change of heart must have been a huge shock to the Florida AD. The Gators say they’re riding this thing out until Magic and Donovan make a deal. That’s smart, and shortly thereafter, they’ll sign Billy to an extension and put the thing to rest.



Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Billy’s Magic

“I told Jeremy Foley at the end of the season that I wasn’t really interested in another college job but that the NBA intrigued me. If the right situation came up in the league, I’d explore it.” And with that, Billy Donovan explained why he made the jump from the Gators to the Magic.

It’s not a huge jump geographically, and that played a part. Donovan’s family likes the Florida lifestyle (there’s even a thought that Billy might commute to Orlando from Gainesville) and he has a real familiarity with the Magic. “I’ve had a chance to see the Magic on television a lot living in this state. I want to build on what Brian Hill has started,” is how Donovan talked about his first steps as the Magic head coach.

I’ve always thought that the Magic job would be the one in the NBA that might interest Billy. Certainly the $5.5 million a year, 6-year deal didn’t hurt, but apparently Billy’s talks with the Magic’s management and ownership showed him a commitment to win, and that’s why he called it a “special opportunity.”

The Magic don’t have a first round pick this year, (it went to Detroit in a trade) but they apparently are willing to spend money on free agency, they have a nucleus that got to the playoffs this year (at 40-42) and they have Dwight Howard. Howard is a star, no question and is a Billy Donovan type of player. He hustles, he goes after loose balls and he runs the floor. I’m sure that played into Donovan’s decision.

I don’t think there was any deception or intrigue going on here. It’s not Billy’s nature. He didn’t do anything out the back door, but he didn’t announce his intentions at every turn either. But that’s just business.

He is leaving Florida in a bit of a pinch at this point in the year. The recruiting season is over but so is the “coach moving” season. Everybody’s in place for next year, leaving the Gators in an awkward position when looking for a coach. John Peppery would be a natural, but he’s just been hired by Arkansas. Anthony Grant could be considered, even though he’s been at VCU for only a year. Remember, Donovan was only at Marshall for two years before Foley plucked him from the Herd to coach the Gators.

The Florida job is a very good job at this point, so I’m sure the number of applicants will be large, and Foley always has a short list, just in case. Apparently there’s a new rule in the NCAA that will allow this year’s recruits to go elsewhere if they don’t want to play for the next coach at Florida, so Foley has to move quickly.

The Gators had reported last week that Donovan signing an extension was imminent. They were working on a 7-year deal that would pay Donovan about half of what he’ll be making in the NBA. But it didn’t get signed, probably because Billy was waiting to see what jobs in the NBA might be open, and he knew that the Magic position was a possibility. It might even be that the Magic made their move knowing that Donovan would be interested.

Orlando General Manager Otis Smith knew that his job was on the line so he made the move and hired the one guy who could excite Magic fans and give him a chance to win.

Don’t fault Donovan for keeping his options open. If this didn’t come along, he’d have signed with Florida and been comfortable there. But at 42-years old, Billy wanted to challenge himself, to see if he could make that jump.

No college coach, save for Larry Brown, has ever been successful in the NBA, but Donovan could be the exception. He’s smart, a hard worker, and loyal to his players. It’ll be fun to see him try and implement his system and bring his energy to the pros. They’ll play tough defense and run and he’ll give them a chance to shine on offense. I think it’ll be fun.