Jay Wright's connection with Billy Donovan goes well beyond basketball

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Florida coach Billy Donovan (left) shakes hands with Villanova's Jay Wright before their teams' NCAA Regional final game in Minneapolis, Sunday, March 26, 2006.

IT WAS THE early 2000s. Jay Wright was the coach at Hofstra, having just gone to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his sixth season. He and his wife Patty, with three young children, were looking for a bigger house. The search took them to 67 Harvard Ave. in Rockville Centre, a village in Nassau County, N.Y. The owners, Bill and Joan Donovan, were looking to move farther out onto Long Island. Their son Billy was the coach at Florida, having just taken the Gators to the national-title game. Wright didn't know who lived there when they arrived.

"All of a sudden, they're standing in the doorway," Bill Donovan, who now lives in Gainesville, fondly recalled. "I'd been to a few of his games. I'd always been an admirer of the way he handled his team and himself. He seemed like a down-to-earth guy.

"We talked for a long time. I think they were there about 45 minutes. But I think he was more interested in the pictures. He put two and two together. So I'm telling him about this, or taking him back to that. The heck with the house, you know. I'm addicted to basketball (too). That always stuck in my mind ...

"They finally left, and that was the end of that. Not long after that, he was headed to Villanova. Maybe I should have put up a sign: 'Jay Wright almost lived here.' That would have worked, right? For him, there might have been a nice discount. Maybe now he should give me a break and overpay me."

Of course, there was a hearty laugh on the other end of the phone.

Isn't it ironic how lives intersect to somehow form lasting relationships? Billy Donovan lost to Wright's Villanova team in the second round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament. The following March, Florida beat No. 1 seed Villanova in a regional final and won it all. The next season, with all his players back, the Gators became the second team to repeat since UCLA won seven straight from 1967-73. Nobody's done it since. Yet Villanova, which doesn't have everybody back this year, has a shot.

The 31-3 Wildcats are the top seed in the tourney. They will open against Mount St. Mary's (20-15) on Thursday night in Buffalo. Few are pulling more for Wright than Bill Donovan, even if Florida - now coached by Mike White - is a potential third-round opponent.

"I know he'd do anything for us, and we feel the same way," Donovan said. "If I called him up and needed something, he'd find a way. I know he liked it up here. But I think he's done OK for himself."

There is that.

Wright remembers the house story pretty much the same way.

"Oh, hell, yeah," he said, smiling when asked about it at Monday morning's Coaches vs. Cancer breakfast at the Palestra. "We wanted to buy it. I was going to recruit in Greece, at the under-19 national championships, so I was leaving the next day. We wanted to make an offer. I got there and saw all these pictures of Billy when he was a kid, and he was a legend in that town. So my wife did most of the looking.

"We loved Rockville Centre, but we had a tiny little house and just had Reilly. It was a little out of our (price) range. I don't know if they knew that. They said they'd hold it. It had a pool. And a basketball court. They had a lot of offers. They were trying to help us. It just didn't work out."

Except that he made another friend. So in many ways, it worked out great. And they'll always share their fondness for the town.

Billy Donovan is in his second season coaching the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, who held a 3-1 lead Golden State in last season's Western Conference Finals. Maybe if they win that series, and maybe the one after against the Cavs, Kevin Durant doesn't bolt for the Warriors. At least he still has Russell Westbrook. And two rings from his Gainesville days.

Wright twice attended coaching clinics at Florida, where people were encouraged to go outside the box. A think tank, of sorts.

"Jay, I'll never forget this, couldn't have been any more gracious to my parents," Donovan said. "My dad would go to Hofstra games, or they'd run into each other here or there, playing golf at one of the country clubs. They got along great."

Then there was that moment in 2006, when Donovan's Gators kept Wright from getting to his first Final Four with what some still say was probably his most talented team, a team that simply ran out of gas. It featured Randy Foye, Allan Ray and sophomore Kyle Lowry, who entered the draft early.

"That's the most devastating loss for anybody," Donovan said. "It's almost worse than losing in the national championship. We went to three Elite Eights in a row (2011-13) and lost all three. So I know. But after we beat them, I come out of the locker room and Jay's there with my father, just talking. And not about basketball. It was life, how everybody was doing back in Rockville Centre, how's this person or that person doing. And his team had just lost this huge game. But that's Jay ...

"My dad is a huge letter-writer. He's around coaches all the time. I sat him on the bench at every road game. Rick Pitino invited him to Saratoga one August (to watch thoroughbred racing). And I know Jay's one of his favorites."

Pitino was Donovan's college coach at Providence.

Wright never asked Donovan about what goes into repeating. For a reason. He wanted this journey to be about this team, which is different.

"In 2004-05, we weren't even ranked at the start," Donovan said. "The next year, all the expectations were on us. We were preseason No. 1. I spent time with Pat Riley. I spoke with coach Pitino, who got back to the title game (in 1996-97). I contacted (Bill) Belichick. Even our women's volleyball coach (Mary Wise), who's had unprecedented success there. I talked to a lot of people to tell me what the pitfalls were going to be. I wanted to be ready. Well, Joakim Noah went from being a guy everybody loved to being a (perceived) jerk. Then we weren't winning by enough. It was much harder.

"A lot of things get in the way. The whole year was challenging. We felt pressure in the tournament and then felt no pressure in the Final Four, which was bizarre. I thought it would be the other way around. But Jay knows his team better than anybody. He has some guys who have some serious competitive makeup to them. This is no joke right now. I coached (Jalen) Brunson. He's got it. It's really hard to get a team with that it factor, that play for each other. And from what I've seen, that's what they do."

Perhaps the poster face for that was Ryan Arcidiacono, who originally committed to Florida.

"We had him until his mom started crying," Donovan said. "Things happen for a reason. I've always said we think we're in control of a lot more than we really are. You look back and realize what little control you actually have. And history changes.

"But it worked out exactly the way it should have. He might not have had as good of a career at Florida."

Added Wright: "Once in a while, if (Donovan) was looking at someone in the Northeast, he'd call me. He didn't call me on that one."

You know what they say about nothing being unfair in recruiting, right? But the bonds remain all good.

"His wife (Christine) comes up here for the Devon Horse Show with her daughter (Hasbrouck)," Wright said. "It's amazing. All our friends in Rockville Centre are connected to Billy. Our kids went to the same school he went to. He's a legend. Our paths just crossed ...

"I didn't want to talk about repeating. I purposely didn't call him. But if I wanted to get an approach on how you do this or that, I'd call Billy. And I know he'd be honest with me. I respected the way he did it. I looked at his situation as different. Sometimes it's even better not to have that challenge. They came back with the mindset to win a championship.

"I didn't want to put that pressure on these guys."

Whatever gets it done. Regardless of what unfolds in this Madness, 31-3 is astounding. If the Wildcats get to 37, it becomes historic. Which would only give Wright and the Donovans more to talk about. But maybe only after they catch up on that Rockville Centre part of their worlds.

kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn