To be affiliated with UCLA basketball is to dream.
To dream of becoming the program that properly collects and nurtures Southern California’s reservoir of talent. To dream of returning to national prominence. To dream of recapturing the magic from the period when John Wooden was coach.
Reality is optional.
Now that Steve Alford has been fired, UCLA is dreaming again, more specifically about his permanent replacement and how that next coach will do what he couldn’t.
While some prominent alumni have started advocating for former Bruins point guard Earl Watson, the school’s fantasy appointment remains Billy Donovan, the architect of the Florida program that won consecutive national championships in 2006 and 2007.
Two days after Alford’s dismissal, Donovan happened to be in Los Angeles, about 10 miles from Pauley Pavilion. He wasn’t here to stump for the UCLA post, but to coach his Oklahoma City Thunder against the Lakers at Staples Center.
Donovan said pretty much what would be expected from a coach under contract.
“We have a great group of guys and I’ve enjoyed, really, working with these guys each and every day,” he said. “My focus is totally on the Thunder right now.”
Donovan’s All-Star guard, Russell Westbrook, wouldn’t get involved in the discussion. Asked for his thoughts on what his alma mater should do, Westbrook replied, “It ain’t up to me, champ.”
Westbrook is a UCLA donor, however. The Bruins’ practice court is named after him.
“I ain’t that big of a damn donor,” he wisecracked.
To be clear, the chances of UCLA landing Donovan are remote. The Thunder recently exercised his option for the 2019-20 season, meaning he almost certainly won’t be available when UCLA intensifies its search in the coming months.
But for the argument’s sake, let’s say UCLA can figure out a way to free Donovan from his deal. Would he really want a move to Westwood?
The Thunder entered Wednesday in third place in the Western Conference. The team has a couple of superstars in Westbrook and Paul George.
Alford earned $2.6 million annually. Even if UCLA goes all Chip Kelly and doubles that figure for its next coach, it will be less than Donovan’s average annual salary of $6 million with the Thunder.
What the 53-year-old Donovan did say was recruiting obligations wouldn’t be what deters him from returning to college basketball.
“I think a lot of times, to be honest with you, sometimes that gets overblown,” Donovan said. “I think there’s this feeling that guys that have made the jump from college to the NBA left because of recruiting. I never felt that way. I always enjoyed recruiting. I liked recruiting.”
Donovan spent more than two decades on the recruiting trail before he was appointed coach of the Thunder in 2015.
He started coaching as an assistant to then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, under whom he was a standout point guard at Providence. His first head coaching job consisted of a two-year stint at Marshall, after which he took over Florida at the age of 30.
Donovan constructed the program at Florida from the ground up. The school experienced limited basketball glory before his arrival. Over his 19 seasons with the Gators, he enjoyed the kind of sustained success UCLA is craving — four Final Fours, seven Elite Eights, 14 NCAA tournament appearances and 16 consecutive 20-win seasons.
The train wreck at UCLA can in part be traced back to him. Florida’s opponent in the 2006 national championship game was UCLA. Florida’s opponent in the 2007 national semifinal was also UCLA. The Bruins win those games and, who knows, maybe the second half of Ben Howland’s reign would have played out differently.
So there was no truth to reports Donovan moved to the Thunder in part because he was exhausted of recruiting?
“I think there’s a lot of speculation …” he started.
He caught himself and asked a question in return: “Did I say that?”
“OK,” he said with a smile.
Donovan continued, “People say that all the time about different things and I don’t think I’ve ever said that. I’ve always enjoyed the time that I had to recruit and meet different people and those kinds of things. Is it a lot of work? Yeah. Is it a lot of effort? Yes.”
Sounds promising for UCLA? Well, here comes the “but” …
“When the season ended in March, you couldn’t really do anything basketball-wise,” Donovan said. “There was a lot of time. I feel like in the NBA, it’s 12 months a year you’re thinking about your team and you’re thinking about basketball. I don’t think that the notion that guys that leave college to go to the NBA is all because they don’t want to recruit. I don’t think it has anything to do with that. I think you’ll probably find most basketball coaches in college would love to be able to do basketball more than they’ve been able to do.”
He later reiterated that what he likes about the NBA is that “you’re just dealing with basketball all day long.”
So Donovan didn’t exactly open the door for a move to Westwood. Then again, he didn’t completely close it, either.