When Rick Pitino coached Billy Donovan at Providence, the two had an unspoken bond.
The Friars pressed after each of their made baskets during games and when they did Donovan, their star point guard, looked to Pitino every time to find out whether he and his teammates should employ their “White” or “Black” press.
When Providence called its high pick-and-roll play named “Sift,” Donovan also turned to Pitino to determine how it should be run.
During timeouts, Pitino was usually the Friars’ lone voice, but he occasionally turned to Donovan, who spoke up on cue.
Most of it all occurred without Pitino and Donovan talking. Instead, they just looked to one another and knew what to do.
It was that uncanny relationship that in 1987 improbably carried 3-point pioneering Providence to the Final Four.
“They had a connection on the same wavelength of what had to happen in a game,” said Ryan Ford, a member of Providence’s 1987 team. “It was like an unspoken language and eye contact that they had that you knew no one else on the team had. It was very special.”
On Saturday, Pitino and Donovan will be reunited on the court, only this time they won’t be looking to each other for guidance. Instead, Pitino’s fourth-seeded Louisville (29-9) and Donovan’s seventh-seeded Florida (26-10) face each other in the NCAA tournament’s West Regional final with a berth in the Final Four at stake.
Pitino is 6-0 all-time against Donovan, who after a season in the NBA worked on Wall Street briefly before he decided to follow in the footsteps of Pitino, who gave him his first coaching job. But Donovan has won two national championships at Florida, while Pitino only has the one he won at Kentucky in 1996.
“They certainly on their own have withstood the test of time and they’re probably both going to be Hall of Fame coaches,” Ford said. “But if you trace back the origin of a lot of what they have accomplished as individuals it goes back to what they did together in 1987.”
Providence’s media guide that season featured Donovan on the cover grudgingly wearing a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and spurs and had the slogan, “Billy The Kid, The Fastest Gun In The Big East.”
A year earlier when Pitino arrived at Providence, Donovan was overweight and wanted to transfer to Northeastern or Fairfield. But Pitino couldn’t get either to take Donovan, who was entering his junior year.
Pitino didn’t want to hurt Donovan’s feelings and said both schools were interested, but that he wanted him to stay at Providence. He told Donovan that he needed to lose 30 pounds to play in the fast-paced offense and high-pressure defense that he intended to implement.
“I think Coach Pitino saw a lot of himself in Billy,” said Arizona State coach Herb Sendek, an assistant under Pitino at Providence. “Both of them were New Yorkers and had incredible passion for the game. I think Billy really took to Coach Pitino because he saw someone who was capable of getting the best out of him.”
Donovan slimmed down to 160 pounds and averaged 16.1 points per game as Providence made the National Invitational Tournament during Pitino’s first season in 1986. The next season, Pitino didn’t have high expectations for his team, but he planned to embrace a rules change in college basketball: the implementation of the 3-pointer.
Because of Pitino’s rigorous schedule for his team, Donovan and his teammates got to practice it plenty. The Friars practiced for an hour and a half before classes, did an hour of individual workouts during off periods and then practiced again after school for three hours.
After dinner, the team had study hall for two hours and then went back to the gym for another hour of free-throw shooting.
“We like to think that our 1987 basketball was responsible for the 20-hour rule,” said Ford of the NCAA rule that limits in-season practice to 20 hours a week.
Pitino was even more demanding of the humble and quiet Donovan. When he made a mistake, Pitino always had a sarcastic remark.
“You’re the first point guard in the history of starting Big East point guards who asked to transfer to Division II,” Pitino told Donovan frequently according to Ford.
Whenever Donovan committed a rare turnover, Pitino chided him on Providence’s next possession and usually said, “How can I trust you to make this play?”
Others times, Pitino simply told Donovan, “You might as well just transfer.”
“Coach always took everything to the extreme,” Ford said. “But Billy was one of those guys where he always was trying to please Coach. He never wanted to do anything wrong. Coach just always tried to embarrass him in different ways.”
But Providence’s magical run 25 years ago was not without tragedy. Ford recalled that as the team bus headed home after the Big East tournament, a Connecticut state trooper pulled it over on Interstate 95.
As soon as the Friars players saw the blue lights, they started joking about what they thought would end up being a speeding ticket.
Instead, the trooper asked for Pitino and his wife, Joanne, to get off the bus. When the couple did, they got in the backseat of the trooper’s vehicle.
With the team bus following, the trooper drove the Pitinos a couple of miles before taking Exit 74 and pulling into a Mobil gas station. They couple then got out of trooper’s vehicle and went inside a telephone booth.
As his team looked on from the bus, Pitino called home and learned that the couple’s 6-month-old son, Daniel Pitino, had died of heart failure. The couple burst into tears upon hearing the news and Pitino’s wife collapsed in his arms.
Daniel Pitino had been plagued by numerous health problems since he was born three weeks premature and until that day Joanne Pitino had spent every day with her son. But when Providence won Friday night, she and her husband agreed she would attend the team’s game the next day against Georgetown.
She was so distraught about her son’s death that Pitino ended up having to carry her back to the trooper’s car.
“It’s one of the single most embedded memories of my life,” Ford said. “It was like an out-of-body experience.”
Providence’s Selection Sunday party, for which Pitino had already ordered pizzas, was canceled after his son’s death. His team attended his son’s funeral, but didn’t seem him again until he arrived to coach its first-round game in the NCAA tournament in Birmingham, Ala.
In the throes of grief, Pitino depended on Donovan, just as Donovan later did Pitino when Donovan’s wife delivered a stillborn child in 2000.
“We have a very unique relationship,” said Pitino, who still exchanges gifts with Donovan every Christmas. “We constantly are thinking about each other.”
Like Donovan had all season, he carried sixth-seeded Providence during the NCAA tournament and was chosen the Southeast Regional’s most outstanding player before the Friars finally lost to Syracuse in the national semifinals. For the season, Donovan averaged 20.6 points, 7.1 assists and shot 40.9 percent on 3s.
“I really do believe Billy is the most valuable player in any one season in the last 25 years,” said former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, a graduate assistant for Providence’s 1987 team. “That team without Billy is maybe a five-win team. I also think that no coach ever could have done a better job in any single season than Coach Pitino did that year from recognizing and using the 3-point line and how to use it to help us overcome a talent deficit.”
Van Gundy said Pitino and Donovan should have had all the assistant coaches on Providence’s 1987 team agree to pay them each 10 percent of their salaries going forward because their careers were jumpstarted by the season. Besides Van Gundy, the group included Sendek and Stu Jackson, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations.
“It really was a fairytale,” Sendek said. “It was all your dreams come true.”
Either Pitino or Donovan’s dream of another national championship this season will be dashed Saturday. It’s an emotionally conflicting situation for more than just them.
“Anyone associated with that ’87 Providence team will be torn no matter who wins and no matter who loses,” Ford said.
That goes without saying, much like the bond between Pitino and Donovan.