OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Billy Donovan is trying to accomplish the improbable and lead the Oklahoma City Thunder to a championship as a first-year NBA coach, just as Steve Kerr did guiding Golden State to its first title in 40 years last June in his rookie season running the Warriors.
These two have become friends along the way during their drastically different journeys to the NBA bench. Their personalities are polar opposites, too, with Kerr cracking jokes and even stopping his press conferences to give writers time to post important Warriors news to their Twitter followers. Donovan is typically straight-faced and serious.
While working as a television analyst for TNT, Kerr enjoyed getting to know Donovan while covering his Florida squad in the NCAA Tournament and made an effort to keep in touch — even as Donovan began the daunting process of leaving the college game for the next level.
Now, their teams are knotted at 1-1 in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals, which resume Sunday night at Oklahoma City.
"Billy’s a great coach. I got to know him when I was doing NCAA Tournament games at TNT, and I did a few Florida games and had a chance to visit with him," Kerr said. "We actually stayed in touch before he took that other job in the last couple of years, just on random coaching thoughts. If either one of us had any possible coaching positions that we were looking at, we tended to call each other."
The Thunder hired Donovan after his successful two-decade college coaching career that included two national championships, four trips to the Final Four and 14 NCAA Tournament berths.
Kerr, on the other hand, had never been a head coach at any level when the Warriors grabbed him from his TV gig. He just won Coach of the Year in his second season despite missing the initial 43 games while on a leave of absence recovering from complications after two back surgeries. Defending champion Golden State had an NBA-record 24-0 start and finished with 73 wins to top the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that Kerr was on alongside Michael Jordan.
Kerr has shared his experiences with Donovan about working in the front office as general manager of the Phoenix Suns before returning to television and then entering the coaching ranks with no experience.
Both former point guards, Kerr won five championships in 15 years as a player. Donovan appeared in 44 career games total with no starts and 105 points in his one NBA season with the Knicks in 1987-88. He preaches to his players about the importance of a tough-minded approach at this high-stakes stage of the season — especially in a raucous road environment.
"Steve’s been a great friend. Someone that I’ve been able to build a relationship with for a long period of time," Donovan said. "I’ve always liked Steve. We’ve talked about different things. Talked about the NBA, and even talked about himself maybe going into coaching and himself being in the front office. … He’s just a great, down-to-earth guy, and just through being in college coaching and him covering and doing games we’ve just kind of been able to build a relationship over the years."
These two could have long NBA careers, a positive for the league going forward with two young coaching faces.
Well, young, relatively speaking. They’re both 50.
"Young? How old are they? They’ve got gray hairs," Oklahoma City center Steve Adams cracked. "It’s always good to see anyone do well, especially if it’s a coach on your team. I’m just really happy that all of us have just embraced him and he’s come out and helped us out a lot. That’s all you can really ask for, really. The NBA definitely appreciates it."