A young Billy Donovan was starting to cut his teeth at the University of Florida. Anyone who saw Billy the Kid play college ball at Providence under Rick Pitino knew it was only a matter of time before he made his mark in the coaching ranks.
1999 was that year.
I remember meeting Coach Donovan before that season started. I was living in Orlando at the time and caught Coach Donovan as he was conducting his annual, whirlwind, pre-season tour of the Sunshine State trying to raise support for the program.
My old college roommate, aka Partykiller, and I actually snuck into the event that afternoon. I believe it only cost about twenty bucks to get in, but barely out of graduate school and still gainfully broke, somehow we just walked right in. Partykiller and his lovely bride actually snuck into the Florida-Ohio State NCAA championship game many years later but that’s a story for another time.
Donovan was cordial or about as cordial as one could be after signing a thousand autographs and answering question after question from a roomful of homers.
When it was my turn to shake his hand and grab an autograph, I asked him about an incoming freshman who was supposed to be a game-changer. That kid’s name was Donnell Harvey.
We didn’t know much about Harvey but we had heard he was a tall, lanky swingman out of Georgia that was just the kind of player we needed: an explosive, athletic scorer that would not only put Florida on the map but become the kind of NBA player future recruits would look to and say “Damn, that Harvey kid is a bad-ass. I want to go to Florida because Harvey went there.”
Nobody ended up saying that. In fact, unless you’re a Gator homer like I am, you’ve probably never even heard of Donnell Harvey.
Florida had a great season that year, making it all the way to the national championship game and ultimately losing to a Michigan State team that had Morris Peterson, Zach Randolph, Jason Richardson and Mateen Cleaves. No slouches themselves, Florida boasted Mike Miller, Matt Bonner, Udonis Haslem… and Donnell Harvey.
Harvey had a decent freshman year, averaging ten points and seven rebounds on a team that already had a fair amount of big men. As is the case with so many college athletes, Harvey left after his freshman season, despite clearly needing more work on his game. The lure of the NBA was too great.
Harvey was drafted in the first round by the Dallas Mavericks, for whom he played one season, barely seeing any playing time. The following season he played for the Denver Nuggets. The year after that, he played for the Orlando Magic. Then it was off to Phoenix, Sioux City, the Nets, Greece, Turkey and China. Harvey’s passport looks like that of a well-traveled diplomat. He just couldn’t cut it in the NBA.
Last year, Chris Walker was a sophomore at the University of Florida. His was a season characterized by turmoil. Two years ago, Walker was supposed to turn around the program. I remember watching scout videos of him coming out of high school, a big man with small man skills and could leap out of the building. He was one of the nation’s top recruits. He was Donovan’s next big project.
Calling Walker’s two years at Florida a disappointment would be kind. Walker never developed into the player most thought he would be. Once news broke that Donovan was leaving Gainesville for the NBA, Walker and a number of other players jumped ship as well. He declared for the NBA Draft.
Thursday night, Walker went undrafted. After all, why wouldn’t he? Despite having a boatload of talent, when given the opportunity to shine, Walker couldn’t even crack Florida’s starting lineup.
Walker reminds me a lot of Harvey, who reminds me of a lot of other young, high-profile players who followed their dream of playing in the big leagues but did so way too early. Far be it from me to tell anyone how to live their lives. I get that the opportunity to make millions is difficult to pass up. But long-term thinking and a disciplined work ethic beat out making a quick buck every time.
Walker might eventually end up on an NBA roster but the odds are he’ll become a journeyman like Harvey… if he’s lucky. The odds of a guy with major promise not playing major minutes for an established program going undrafted and making a splash in the NBA are miniscule at best. That’s Chris Walker’s future staring him directly in the face.
And so, his journey begins. Perhaps Donnell Harvey can give him some travel tips.