Dana Pennett O'Neil | Donovan, once a savior, now a sellout

Posted: June 05, 2007

THE RIDICULE now will fall on the Orlando Magic. Billy Donovan's 24-hour job stay will be labeled as just the latest blunder for a franchise still waiting for its 2005 draft pick to step foot on American soil.

Florida, after all, is not an NBA state. Or an NFL, NHL or MLB state.

From Tallahassee to Gainesville to Miami, it is one great big college town.

So Teflon Billy will get a pass. Gator Nation is nothing if not puppy-dog loyal, particularly to a man who made its college basketball team something more than a time killer between football season and spring football season.

We will hear the sob story, of a man whose heartstrings tugged and pulled to go back to the program he loved, to the town where he and his wife built a Catholic school, to the players he recruited. We will be told to laud the rarity that Donovan is, a man who turned his back on the big payday to return to the purity of college basketball.

Anyone got an extra barf bag?

The zingers and one-liners shouldn't be pointed at the Magic. They should take full aim at Donovan.

And fire.

This isn't Dana Altman reneging on Arkansas.

This is a man who is more popular and more powerful than the governor trying on jobs like Lindsay Lohan tries on boyfriends. But instead of boy toy du jour, Donovan has cast off an entire NBA franchise, jumbling the emotions of two fan bases and two sets of players in the process.

For certain, everyone is entitled to change their mind. That's why we have a return department at Macy's and divorce.

But presumably Donovan had time to think about this, to agonize over leaving the city, the program and the players. It is heartwarming to read that he realized his mistake at a tearful goodbye with Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley and his players.

Heartwarming, but a little puzzling, too. Did he expect high- fives on the way out the door? A "go-get-'em, boy, we don't need you" pat on the behind? How could a man smart enough to resurrect a program from irrelevance not recognize that it wouldn't be easy to say goodbye?

All of this backtracking seems a little too Pollyanna, a little too much of a whitewash to paint a less-than-selfish picture of Donovan and that's categorically unfair to everyone else involved.

Because while the religious revival complete with hallelujah chorus builds up in Gainesville to welcome back its prodigal son, there are a few people looking for the name of the snake-oil salesman who just skinned them.

Imagine, to those eager to forgive and forget, how you'd feel if you were:

* Otis Smith. The Orlando Magic general manager went out and hired not just the right man for the job, the only man. The only face more recognizable and more universally loved than Donovan's in Florida right now is the smiling rodent with big ears (and contrary to what it may seem right now, they are not one and the same).

So you, like Smith, answer all of Donovan's questions and then the day after the happy, smiley press conference you have to hightail it to Gainesville to try and talk your coach into staying. As if massaging and placating NBA players isn't enough, you now have to massage and placate a coach you just agreed to pay $27.5 million.

* Jai Lucas. You waffle and wait until the last signing day before choosing the Gators over Kentucky. Three weeks later, your coach ditches you. After 48 hours of emotional upheaval and angst - you reportedly contact Kentucky to say you want out of Florida - your wishy-washy coach comes back. Feeling good about all that faith you placed in him?

Were this a just world, the Magic would bind Donovan to the contract he signed, just like Lucas was bound to the letter of intent Donovan begged him to ink.

* Anthony Grant. Called the right man for the job by Donovan, your mentor, you spend the weekend talking with Florida and figure it's just a matter of time before that $400,000 salary of yours grows exponentially. And then that very same mentor takes back the job he had promised. On the playground, they call that an Indian giver.

* Jameer Nelson. You slog through a season where your coach, Brian Hill, coaches a game like a CYO eighth-grade team, calling set plays as if you - a college player of the year - don't know what you're doing. You finally get a coach who plays a style you will thrive in. Before he learns your name, he's gone.

* The nameless season ticket-holder. Excited about the prospect of Billy Ball, you are one of the 200 people who march up to the ticket window - or the cyber window - and plop down your money for season tickets. He's gone and unlike him, you can't get out of your commitment. You signed the credit-card voucher and in the real world, your signed name on a contract means something.

In the end, this will work out. If Marc Iavaroni is willing to coach the Grizzlies, surely someone will sign on with the Magic.

Donovan will fall on his sword, maybe even shed a few tears at his returning press conference. When he is introduced at the Gators' season opener, fans may shed a few, too.

But none of that should mean Donovan should be applauded right now and the Magic ridiculed.

For once, this isn't the Magic's fault. *

Send e-mail to oneild@phillynews.com

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