The last time Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan won a championship in basketball, he did so by setting up his own hoops bubble.
As soon as his Florida Gators teams would check into their hotels for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, they would physically and mentally lock themselves onto one goal: beating their next opponent. They did this by having long, gritty practices, watching their opponent’s film until 5 a.m. and remaining in consistent living quarters that some assistants called the “war room.”
“He’s probably got the advantage in that aspect of being a college coach,” said Stetson Hatters coach and former Florida assistant coach Donnie Jones.
“He’s been in these scenarios. We had three runs to a national championship and during those times, we kind of locked ourselves in. Not to the point where we wouldn’t see our families, but we would spend time in our bubble, which was the hotel. A lot of times on those runs, we’d get there on Tuesday and we would play all the way until Sunday. So for five days [at a time], three weeks in a row, we’d strictly be in what we called the ‘war room.’”
The teams would live together, eat together and very rarely leave their hotels to ensure their mindset remained on basketball.
“‘Stay in the moment,’ that was always Billy’s mindset,” Jones said of Donovan’s war room. “Let’s stay in the moment and let’s accomplish something that will last us all a lifetime.”
So now that the NBA is shut off from the rest of the world and players are living and playing in a COVID-19 bubble by default, Donovan has a chance to thrive once again in a “war room” like environment.
“I think this is where Billy (Donovan) will be at his best,” Jones said.
When asked about parallels to the current living and playing restrictions necessitated by the pandemic, the Thunder head coach stressed that nothing–not even the Gators’ self-imposed isolation–could really prepare him for what he’s experiencing now. “[The Orlando environment is] certainly different than anything any of us have ever experienced,” Donovan told Daily Thunder and other media members.
At present, the Thunder’s time committed to film sessions and practice is similar to a typical regular season regimen. And no one in the NBA is emphasizing how locked down the Orlando campus is–Donovan noted the freedom players have in their downtime to golf or fish on the Disney campus, activities the league hopes keep the players from feeling trapped in a war room for months. But when a flurry of games start, followed by the quick arrival of the playoffs, the environment will afford teams the opportunity to take postseason focus to the extreme. Donovan suggested that Oklahoma City’s players are already showing signs they’ll do just that. “These guys are very much focused on the basketball piece.”
Like every other coach, Donovan’s never led a team through a dystopia-like scenario. But he has dealt with a lot of adversity in his career, crucial for a coach during the COVID-19 era.
“He’s terrific with handling adversity,” Texas coach and former Florida assistant Shaka Smart told Daily Thunder. “He almost relishes the opportunity to (take on a) challenge. He’s very intentional in the way he handles adversity, very thoughtful. [After a tough loss] Billy would come in the next day with a bunch of notes written down on the totality of the team’s approach, individual players, mentalities we (needed) to build.”
“So I’m sure he’s got a bunch of stuff cooked up for what the right approach is in that unique situation down there.”
With the way Donovan has embraced playoffs tunnel vision before, this Orlando bubble could end up being a beneficial thing for the Thunder. Donovan’s competitive drive pushes him to think of every scenario and how to respond to each hypothetical.
“In human nature, most say ‘this is too big of a challenge, we can’t get this done,’” said former Florida assistant coach and current Tennessee Tech coach John Pelphrey. “But for (Donovan), he’s always able to really self-evaluate. He’s a curious learner and–not that he’s not caught up in results or ultra competitive, because he is–but I think he also has the ability to look at the situation and say ‘OK, let’s really figure out here what’s going on and how we need to attack it.’”
Outside of operating in the NBA bubble, this mentality has also helped Donovan climb the coaching ranks. With his mix of humility, precision and competitiveness, the Thunder’s unusual circumstances suit Donovan perfectly at the moment.
“A lot of college coaches don’t make that transition (of college coach to NBA coach), especially when you lose two franchise-caliber players,” said former Florida assistant and current Georgia State coach Rob Lainer. “Most guys who come from college are supposed to fail by now, but he’s already weathered that turbulence and that speaks to how special he is. I just think he’s a special individual, and he doesn’t. That’s what I love about him.”
Few see the Thunder as a legitimate title threat in Orlando, even with heaps of praise coming to Donovan and the team as over-performers this season. But does Donovan, a Coach of the Year candidate, give Oklahoma City an edge from the bench? Lainer thinks so.
“I think he’s wired for greatness.”