The volume was turned up and the F-bombs were flowing.
As one Bulls player told it, “Billy wasn’t [bleeping] around.”
Billy Donovan was born and raised in Rockville Centre on Long Island, and on that night his players were getting the full New York experience in the home locker room.
After that blowout loss to Charlotte, however, Donovan came into the media room, and rather than pointing fingers at his players, beating his chest about how he got after guys at the half, or just going with the usual coachspeak, he surprisingly pulled out the sword and fell on it.
“Some of the struggles that took place in the first quarter were things that we really tried to cover today at shootaround, and to be quite honest with you, I didn’t do a good enough job of creating maybe enough clarity for them on those situations,” Donovan said.
A simple answer with a lot of layers left for interpretation.
Was Donovan just playing the role of martyr and protecting his players? Was he being passive aggressive and actually putting it on his players by taking that approach?
Then there was the bigger picture. Did he put a target on his back for his front office by accepting responsibility for a lack of communication? Or was Donovan so comfortable with his four-year, $24 million deal, as well as his relationship with executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley, that he felt empowered to say what was exactly on his mind?
The Bulls and their fan base have seen a parade of different types of coaches since the Phil Jackson dynasty.
Even the three prior to Donovan were completely different in the way they went about their business.
Tom Thibodeau was dealing with a front office that he was smarter than, which led to an in-house civil war. Fred Hoiberg wasn’t prepared for the back-stabbing and sniping at his expense by his players and assistant coaches. Then there was Jim Boylen, who was the ultimate survivor, often manipulating the message to best fall in his favor.
No wonder the fan base has grown numb with coaches over the last few decades.
But with the Bulls about to make their first playoff appearance since 2017 this weekend, here’s a little secret about Donovan: He doesn’t operate with an agenda.
Well, not exactly true. There’s one. He wants a good night’s sleep.
“The way I look at it is I want to be able to put my head on the pillow at night and I want to be true to who I am,” Donovan said in an interview with the Sun-Times. “I think that when you’re coaching, I’m never going to be coaching 82 games and 48 minutes every night and not look back and say, ‘Geez, I made a mistake here, I made a mistake there.’ I’ve been someone that’s always looked at myself first. What I’m not going to do is when [the media] asks me these questions, if I feel like it’s on me, I’m not going to come up with something else. I do that, then how can I be honest with the players? How can I be truthful with myself?”
That mentality was why Donovan had no problem coming out during a then-eight-game winning streak and admitting that the streak was headed the wrong way if the defense didn’t improve. Then he came out of the All-Star Break in first place in the Eastern Conference insisting that the play “just wasn’t good enough.”
He was right on both accounts.
But how much of that falls on him?
The Bulls have gone from a seemingly contending team in the East to an organization now with more questions than answers, crawling into a showdown with the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.
Guess what? The coach wasn’t hiding from any of that.
“I’ll always say, ‘What could I have done better on the things that we had control over?’ And also, ‘What are the things I need to look at and try and get better from?’ You start there as a coach and then work your way out,” Donovan said. “The other thing too is I’m not a guy through the course of a season trying to pick out these bright spots, like, ‘Oh, we’re in the playoffs for the first time in five years,’ or ‘But we got this many more wins from last year.’ I’m not into self-promotion, but even more than that, where are we at right now? You want to play your best basketball going into this time of the year, and we’re not.”
That’s what this week is about for Donovan. Trying to fix that to the best of his ability.
How fans view the job he’s done or how his bosses view it, again falls in that category of things Donovan can’t control.
There’s a reason he’s never been fired from any coaching position. Donovan doesn’t need to coach, he wants to. Need often makes guys try to manipulate the narrative or be a self-promoter.
“If there are repercussions because of how I am, I’m fine with that,” Donovan said.
By all accounts, Karnisovas is thrilled with the job Donovan has done. But even if he wasn’t, he also knows the type of guy he hired, no matter how the rest of this season plays out.
“That locker room to me is really, really sacred,” Donovan said. “When you stand up in front of your team to talk to them, I want them to feel like, ‘This guy is telling us what he really thinks. He’s not out here trying to manipulate, trying to spin things.’ No, I can’t. And I get it. I get the idea that being accountable opens you up to things in this position. But you have to be true to how you feel. That’s the only way I can be.”