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Sounds of Thunder: Billy Donovan wants to embrace the value of the journey

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Journey, not destination.

Donovan is teaching his young players how to embrace the journey.
Donovan is teaching his young players how to embrace the journey.
© Nelson Chenault

We are just days away from the calendar rolling into 2016 and I want to start this post by wishing all my new friends here at Welcome to Loud City – writers, readers, and especially those that take time to join in the conversations – a heartfelt Happy New Year. May it be the best of your life with many more to come and remember...

"Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."

-John Lennon, "Beautiful Boy"

...cherish the journey.

Great quote, isn't it? I was looking for a way to give my readers some insight into why I look at the Thunder's current bench problem the way I do, and it got me thinking of a way to explain my position through a memory the title of the song always reminds me of.

You know, it's sad how easy it is to forget how true Lennon's words were and still are. Sometimes we get too focused on where we are going, and to be honest, most of my fondest (and sometimes worst) memories are rarely about the destination. More often than not the destination becomes just a preface to the really great story that happened on the way.

The memory that the title Beautiful Boy reminds me of is a good example.

It embarrasses him when I say this, but my younger son Derek was as pretty a little boy as you ever saw. Tell me it's not true!

Derek at around age 4.

That is a face that would get a casting director's attention and I don't care that it's me saying it.

Now, take that face at four years old, subtract a year and put this one year old Derek's expression on it and then I'll tell you one of those "great stories."

The "destination" in this story was a game on TV and the journey was me in charge of making the boys dinner one evening. I won't tell a lie – I'm nobody's idea of a chef but I can throw something edible together in a pinch and I was in a hurry. I just could not miss that game. Still, I wanted to try and make something a little different for my boys and add a little variety to my limited menu options. For the life of me, I can't remember what the main course was (although I'm certain the words 'hamburger' and 'helper' were somewhere in there), but I do remember the side dish: corn.

Derek was a picky eater when he was little. From when he was two years old to three, if you asked D what he wanted for dinner, you always got the same answer – peanut butter and jelly sandwich. At the same age, my older son Josh liked fish sticks with ketchup, and called it "fish and the sauce," but Derek was a PBJ man all the way (still is). For a solid year, the kid lived on peanut butter and jelly for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Once my wife and I were finally able to broaden his little palate, corn was one of the successes, so corn was on the menu tonight! Unfortunately I forgot the cardinal rule of food preparation for a picky four year old... if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

A local barbecue place catered a dinner at work earlier that week and I loved the corn they served. As luck would have it the owner was an old high school classmate of mine and he told me the secret ingredient, picante sauce, so old dad was going to treat his boys to something special.

When dinner was ready I called the boys to the table and placed their plates with all their corn seasoned with picante sauce splendor in front of them and went back to fill my own plate. What happened next will be etched in my mind forever. It's my most precious memory of my son Derek and I'm not ashamed to say I'm getting a little misty writing about it.

As I said, Derek is my younger son. At the time this happened, he was just a bit younger than the second photo above and not really big enough to sit on the regular dinner table chairs. When you sat across from him all you saw was his head above the table, but you know how little brothers are. If big brother does it, then that's how it's done, no questions. It took some lengthy and careful negotiations, but he and I finally came to an agreement that it was okay to use a book to help us eat better.

As I was saying, I had proudly placed the boys' plates in front of them and gone back to the stove to get my own helping of this wondrous, manna-like, picante sauce-infused corn delicacy and asked the boys how they liked it. My oldest son Josh, eight years old at the time and who at eight weeks old was already knocking down eight ounces of formula with such fervor that it was as though the contents in the bottle were boiling and had never met a plate of food he didn't like, said, "It's real good, daddy!"

I triumphantly turned to join them and then sagged. This will give you an idea of what I saw:

Now, take the first image above of Derek around four years old, subtract the year and add one year old Derek's expression, and that was the face that turned to me and grimly asked, "Did you do that?" Then, he paused (I'm not kidding, my three-and-a-half year old literally paused for dramatic effect), turned his face back to his plate, and said, "My mommy doesn't do it like that." He never so much as touched a single bite!

I don't remember the time of year. It was much less the game I was in such a hurry to watch, but I remember that beautiful little face staring down at that abomination on his plate. When the boys' mom got home, she hugged and kissed them both like she always did and then stopped and looked at Derek. The expression was back. So, she asked her sweet baby what was wrong and without so much as a hesitation the three year old ratted his old man out: "Daddy broke my corn..."

That is a memory of mine that happened 24 years ago and it feels like just yesterday.

Here is Derek about seven years ago, an accomplished All-State trumpeter attending college in Ada, Oklahoma:

At least this time, the expression was aimed at the band director and not me. Derek is as picky about his music as he once was about his corn and PBJ's.

Finally, a more recent shot:

Sorry D, I know it embarrasses you when I say it, but you're still pretty to me.

Now meet the angels in my life.

My baby girl Lyndsey:

Three years old and already the boss.

And now?

Stunningly beautiful (but alarming for her dad when those hairy-legged boys started hanging around).

My baby girl is special. Her heart is ten times more beautiful than her face and she's funny. I love the caption she put on this next one, 'To Whom It May Concern, It's a Dress.'

Duh! And you are still my baby girl and that dress is too damn short!

Bless her heart, Lyndsey can't help being beautiful, it's genetic. Check out her mom:

Eat your hearts out, boys, and BACK OFF. That one is R.K.'s. She's ALL mine, and, yes, I used to have hair – a lot of it!

(Sorry, no memories about my angels, folks, those are just for me.)

Lennon was right – life is what happens when you're busy making other plans, and it goes by so fast that if you're not paying attention, you'll miss it. I know I missed too much along the way and it took a F5 tornado that almost took my boys and my angels away to get my attention, and the loss of my dad in 2007 to finally get the message. I get it now, and I know Billy Donovan gets it as well. Unfortunately he wasn't as lucky as I was in 1999. He and his wife suffered the worst loss a parent can have on November 2, 2000 when they lost their baby girl Jacqueline a week before Christine Donovan was due to deliver her.

The loss of Jacqueline is a subject Billy and Christine don't dwell on just like I have to keep the memories of May 3rd, 1999 and losing my dad carefully put away, but those types of events change you forever. They force you to look at the world around you in an entirely different light and while looking for something to help explain why I look at the Thunder's current bench issues and support what Donovan is trying to do to turn it around I stumbled on something that will help and the source was none other than, well, Billy Donovan.

During the 75th NCAA Men's Basketball tournament, USA TODAY Sports spoke with 12 active title-winning coaches and asked them what their advice would be to a young coach entering the profession today.

Remember, these comments were made almost 13 years after the Donovans lost Jacqueline:

Your whole entire life, you're chasing this trophy, this crystal ball. At the end of the day, it doesn't bring any value to your life. That's probably the biggest thing I've learned. There's an illusion created by society, whoever it may be, that if you do do this, you will be somebody. You'll be of significance. You'll be of importance. [...] A sports psychologist did a study. They took, I think, 100 athletes in the Olympics in 2012 and they asked them, 'If you could take a performance-enhancing drug and be guaranteed to win a gold medal and it would be totally traceless and it could never be detected. You'd win the gold medal and it would never be detected, but five years after the time you take it, you will die.' Fifty percent of the athletes said they would do it. I think that's because our society has created this feeling of what success is about. It's an illusion. It's the biggest thing that destroys people's lives in a way. I'd like to win 15 national championships. It's a great feeling, a great experience. I look at coaches who have not had a chance to get to Final Fours or not had a chance to win national championships, for them to think the true meaning or success of a quote is labeled by not accomplishing that, then they're making a huge mistake in their life. You never know what life's about until you get something you think is really important, then you get it. I heard Tom Brady, after he won three of five Super Bowl's, and he was being interviewed, and this was before I won a national champion. In the interview, he said, 'There's got to be more to life than this. There's got to be more.' For a young coach coming in, trying to get guys to understand that the focus has to be making an everlasting impact that is a lot larger than championships. There's nothing wrong with striving for and achieving it, but what you learn in those situations when you do accomplish it, and you do it, and life moves on. The real value and joy is what can be accomplished in a positive way when a group of players totally sacrifices and buys in and does something special that they know they can't do by themselves.

I see guys, sometimes, that are young coaches that totally go for this sellout mentality, thinking that winning is going to bring them a lot of materialistic, monetary or short-lived things that, at the end of the day, aren't going to have much meaning or value. When you win a national championship, it's significant and important; I'm not diminishing that. But if you coach for 25, 30 years, how often is that going to happen? Once? Twice? If you're really fortunate, three times. So where does the significance come from what you're doing?

At the end of the day when you're hoisting up the trophy, and the next morning and the sun comes up, life moves on. It's the next year, the next season. The process of going through and trying to teach our guys how to sacrifice, how to be unselfish, how to work hard, how to lift someone up, how to be positive -- all those things I think bring value to them. That's where I think some young coaches could make a mistake, in terms of their career path or how they view coaching.

I am going to take Donovan's last paragragh and make a few slight alterations that I am certain Donovan would approve of:

At the end of the day IF YOU'RE NOT hoisting up the trophy, and the next morning and the sun comes up, life STILL moves on. It's the next year, the next season. the process of going through and trying to teach our guys how to sacrifice, how to be unselfish, how to work hard, how to lift someone up, how to be positive -- all those things I think bring value to them. That's where I think some young coaches could make a mistake, in terms of their career path or how they view coaching.

Winning the trophy or not changes nothing. Life still moves on and the sun still comes up the next morning either way and true satisfaction comes in the understanding that "the real value and joy is what can be accomplished in a positive way when a group of players totally sacrifices and buys in and does something special that they know they can't do by themselves."

That is why I tell people that my favorite seasons as a Thunder fan were the first two. There was joy in just seeing progress without the pressure of winning some trophy that will end up in some case that has to be dusted every day. I loved hearing about the team just bonding together and hanging out on the road.

One of my favorite Thunder stories was Kevin Durant laughing about Serge Ibaka taking down some of the fences between their houses so he could just walk in any time he felt like it. When their playing days are over, that is what these "kids" will remember most: their teammates and the bonds they formed.

That is why KD got teary eyed when he gave his MVP speech. He didn't know exactly why he was crying at the time, but I do. Billy Donovan knows too, and after injury robbed him of almost an entire season, so does Durant. You see it in the way KD interacts with his teammates now, he gets it.

But the MVP speech came before the injury and the words he had written suddenly had substance when faces were added to the names he spoke. Memories became infused with raw emotion when he looked into the eyes of the men who had stood behind him all season just like they sat behind him then. The newly crowned MVP didn't talk about the trophy. Instead, he spoke of late night phone calls and the small tokens of encouragement that meant so much to him. So much in fact that the "real value" of them almost overwhelmed him.

That is exactly what Donovan was talking about when he said the value of that trophy you've chased all your life will pale when you compare it to the sacrifices and teamwork that went into it. Ironically, once the true value is discovered, the trophies begin taking care of themselves. It's the foundation for Donovan's three levels of commitment.

The Thunder's struggles this season are well documented and the rumblings have begun for the Thunder to make some sort of trade. I think a trade at this point isn't the answer and in an interview with NBA.com, Hall of Famer Bill Russell spoke about his longtime coach Red Auerbach's views on the subject of making trades. Red would vote 'nay', and I'll take my chances going with the advice of the legendary Boston Celtics coach.

When asked about knowing when a given team felt truly capable of winning a championship, Russell had this to say:

You have to tinker with it for at least a year to find out what you have and what you need. Now what you need a lot of times is already there. But how do you get the best out of what you had? You have teams always looking to get somebody else’s players. But the key is taking what you have and making the best out of them. Red [Auerbach] used to have a theory, there was a trade offered to him my last year, and I said, "you didn’t make that deal?" And he said no. I said, "why not?" He said, getting a better player does not always make you a better team. That explains why we never made one trade in the 13 years I was there. Sometimes you get a better player and it makes you less of a team.

Ironically those comments were made on February 19, 2013, two years to the day prior to the trade that is the source of the majority of today's rumblings. Auerbach's view? Thirteen seasons, eleven championships, no trades – not one.

***

A quick side note:

I took a break while writing this and the Thunder have just given up a six-point first quarter lead and the Nuggets now lead by three. The turnaround occurred on cue and predictably just as soon as Russell Westbrook sat for D.J. Augustin. Sometimes you have to make a change. I still want Donovan to keep Russ and KD's minutes down and save them as much as he possibly can for the playoffs, so the solution for the DJ problem, in my opinion, is giving Cameron Payne a shot. After looking at the numbers following the Bulls loss, a two-minute stretch at the end of the third period made it pretty obvious what direction the team needed to start moving in to improve. It's time to give the rookie a shot and before I got back to work on this post, there Payne was at the scorer's table. Now I'm very motivated to get this done and see how it comes out.

Payne is why I am not clamoring for a trade right now and won't be until he proves he can't step up and make the back-up point guard spot better. If he can, I'm on record in my recent post about Jeremy Lamb on that subject and will actively lobby hard against risking the team's chemistry for a player that may or may not help at the expense of developing Payne. He represents the future, as do Mitch McGary and Josh Huestis. McGary is a defensive unknown right now, but a potential double-double every time he takes the floor and is getting minutes with the Blue as is Huestis.

***

Where was I? Oh yeah, trades. The Russell quote and the side note cover it – I'm not a fan. Not Augustin and not even Kyle Singler, who to this point has been a complete disaster. If Payne works out, who knows, it might be the spark Singler needs (along with a haircut) to get him off the snide. I don't care where help comes from. I mean look-it, Kanter surprised me. Take a look at his numbers in the fourth quarter of the Bulls game. Adams better pick it up, there is a big Turk breathing down his neck right now and he's hungry.

So, do you see where I'm coming from? The tinkering and the what-ifs are what light me up. The excitement on the player's faces when something they have practiced works in a game or a teammate they believe in steps up at a critical moment.

This is the stuff I remember:

If it weren't for the score on the video itself, I wouldn't remember who won that game, because right now, today, I don't care. The final score was just the destination, the Stone Cold Steven Adams flying elbow drop is the story. Take a look at who is sitting there in a suit, waiting his turn while Paul comes crashing down at his feet. Where would our defense be today without Andre Roberson?

Kick back and enjoy the ride! I'm done! Time to see how "The Maestro" did. Those other 65 minutes he has played were just the warm-up, this is Payne's coming out party and I don't want to miss it.

I remember what my dad used to say, "Don't sweat the small stuff. It will all work out for the best by the end of the day."

Happy New Year!!!

"Keep coming back, and though the world may romp across your spine,
Let every game's end find you still upon the battling line;

For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,
He writes - not that you won or lost - but how you played the Game."

-Grantland Rice