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For UF, it's all on tape

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2000


SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Maybe the memories start with the old man in the stands, silently looking skyward and asking for help. On a day when the goal is to grab onto all the feelings one can carry, that seems as good a place as any to begin.

William Donovan Sr., age 87, sat in the stands and looked at the scoreboard. A game that once seemed lopsided had grown close and, by golly, the Donovan Family's team was in a bit of a thicket.

Which was when Donovan, father of William, grandfather of Billy, great-grandfather of Little Billy, began to speak to his late wife, Catherine, who passed away a year ago.

"Come on, Kitty," he whispered. "We need some help here."

So many moments, so many memories, scattered across an unforgettable basketball game. Florida reached the Final Four on Sunday, beating Oklahoma State 77-65, and along the way, it seemed every minute turned into a souvenir.

This is the way it happens when a team wins a big enough game. There are so many reflections to carry home, so many images that linger. At times such as this, they blur together in the euphoria of the day. Only later, when the players think of this game, and they will, will the moments be sorted out.

There was the man and boy on the ladder, for instance, climbing toward heaven. Billy Donovan, the grandson, moved up toward the net, and his son, Little Billy, moved with him. Donovan snipped the last chord of the net, listened to the cheers, then came down. He called once, twice for senior Kenyan Weaks and threw him the net. The two embraced. Weaks put the net over his head, where it might remain for some time.

"That's what I'll remember," Weaks said. "Forever."

Such were the jumble of memories the Gators bought themselves with this victory, when they simply refused to let a game slip away. They won the right to think of this day as a personal trophy, as a golden ticket to the grand dance.

Oh, it got hairy for a while, when Oklahoma State charged back from a 17-point deficit to pull within three. At the time, the Cowboys looked charged, the Gators looked out of rhythm, and the last eight minutes looked like anybody's. "We could have fallen off the face of the earth right there," Donovan said. "We had to reach deep to find something."

What do you remember? Perhaps you remember Mike Miller taking over, pointing at the Gators' fans, almost reassuring them. Perhaps you remember the force of Donnell Harvey's dunk, so powerful it made you wince. Perhaps you remember Weaks' final dunk at the end of the game, fulfilling the promise he made to his mother Sunday morning to do something special for her.

What do you remember? Perhaps you remember Donovan walking across the court, coaxing his wife, Christine, to come and join the celebration. Perhaps you remember Brent Wright reaching down and mussing Donovan's precious hair. Perhaps you remember William Donovan Jr., Billy's dad, 59, rushing from the corner onto the floor, wiping a tear from his eye.

What do you remember? You remember it all. You soak in these moments at rarefied air, when four teams are standing, when the world can just shut up about how young these Gators are. Hey, on your way to the basket, no one checks your ID. You don't have to be old. You have to be good.

If there was any doubt it was a day for remembrance, Donovan made sure his players knew it early. At the pregame meal, he began talking about his wife and her sacrifices. He told his players that they, too, had someone worth remembering.

So every player wrote down a name or two, family or coaches. It was placed on a strip of tape, and the players wrapped it around their ankles. For Teddy Dupay, it was his Cape Coral High coach, Frank Morris. For Weaks, it was his mother, Karen Minter. For Udonis Haslem, it was his brother, Samuel Wooten, who died last year at 36 of cancer. "I wish he could have been here," Haslem said. "But I know he was watching."

If you noticed, the Gators' celebration wasn't exactly VJ Day. Perhaps this is why. By pointing his players inward, by challenging them to dig deeper for those close to them, Donovan turned the moments after the victory into something reflective. That, too, was worth remembering.

"I thought we needed something," Donovan said. "I don't know if it had anything to do with winning the game or not. But when you're playing for someone else, you have a tendency to dig deeper than you do for yourselves."

Perhaps it sounds a little silly to you, like the things you do to motivate kids. Well, these Gators are kids. No, they don't play like it. They now have beaten three higher seeds in a row on their way to Indianapolis. And by the way, did anyone ever ask Alexander the Great how old he was?

What do you remember? Perhaps you remember Dupay in the locker room, still holding a basketball in his lap. Perhaps you remember Weaks, moving around to get the autographs of his teammates on a cap, the lettering he had applied to his T-shirt that morning -- "We're Going to the Final Four" -- smeared and streaked from his sweat. Perhaps you remember Donovan on all fours, putting a dot on each player's sneakers and telling them, whenever they looked at it, to remember to focus.

What do you remember? Perhaps you remember Fast Eddie Sutton, his head hung helplessly at the end of the game. Remember the look Paul Newman had on his face in The Color of Money, when he realized young Tom Cruise really was better? That's the look Sutton had.

What do you remember? Perhaps you remember four generations of Donovans, William Joseph Sr. and William Joseph Jr. and William John and William Connor, all on the court, turning these moments into a family reunion.

Perhaps you will remember all of it. Perhaps you will remember more.

Perhaps you should write the memories down and tape them to your ankle. That way, you can remember them forever.

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