That time Jeff Van Gundy told Billy Donovan he could beat out John Stockton for a Jazz roster spot

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Rookie Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan had a 44-game NBA career, playing for Rick Pitino’s New York Knicks in the 1987-88 season. He didn’t see a lot of court time in those games, and his PER of 8.4 suggested more time in the CBA was the call.

Donovan, however, has one incredible draft story.

He was selected in the third round of the 1987 draft by the Utah Jazz, and from the moment of that selection he was a long shot to make the roster. Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman picks up the story from there.

At least one person thought (he could make the Jazz roster). It was Jeff Van Gundy, a graduate assistant during Donovan’s senior year at Providence. Van Gundy started chirping, gassing Donovan up about his chances as he helped prepare him for training camp.

“Jeff’s like, ‘Listen, man. I’m telling you. You’ve got a chance to make this team,’” Donovan remembered. “He said, ‘They’ve got a guy there that’s in, like, his third year named Stockton that I’m not so sure about. He hasn’t played very much.’

“Training camp starts and I call Jeff after, like, the first day of double sessions. I said, ‘Hey, Jeff, remember that comment you made to me about you’re not sure about Stockton? That’s the best guard I’ve ever played against in my entire life.’”

The season before Donovan was drafted Stockton was still coming off the bench for the Jazz (he started only two games) but in 22.7 minutes a night he was scoring 7.9 points a game (with a true shooting percentage of 57 percent) plus was dishing out 8.2 assists to 2 turnovers. He had a PER of 19. Stockton was poised for a breakout (which came the next season).

Van Gundy doesn’t deny that he dissed Stockton, but he’s not exactly taking ownership of those comments either.

“I’m not saying I didn’t say it, but I don’t remember saying anything specifically,” Van Gundy said of his alleged Stockton comment. “If I said something like that, I’m going to blame my sleep deprivation on coach (Rick) Pitino having us work 20 hours a night. That’s the only explanation for such a ludicrous statement like that.”

The old “blame Pitino” trick. That always works (or it used to with the Knicks, anyway).

I’m not so sure how accurate vs. exaggerated this story is in the retelling nearly 30 years later, but it’s a great story none-the-less.