ORLANDO — Mike O'Donnell left high school with big dreams. He finished his playing career with a plan.
Nothing could stop the floppy-haired, 5-foot-10 point guard. Billy Donovan wanted him. N.C. State ultimately got him. And after making a key steal in a 2004 upset of then-No. 1 Duke, anything seemed possible for the kid from Largo High.
"You just breathe," O'Donnell said. "I went to bed with a smile on my face. I maybe slept a couple of hours. … You beat Duke, it was great. I'll never forget that."
But he later fought to mesh with the Wolfpack's hybrid of the Princeton offense, which emphasized motion and exploited mismatches. Ultimately, O'Donnell transferred to UCF.
A broken foot prematurely ended his career before this year's Conference USA tournament, but bad knees were ready to quit the 40-minute grind long ago. O'Donnell is chasing a second life in basketball as a coach or color commentator. The communication major hopes to try both next season, possibly as a UCF graduate assistant.
"I wondered why this happened to me," O'Donnell said of the knee problems. "I really believe my calling is not to play, but to take my knowledge to help coach basketball players."
Building a work ethic
O'Donnell picked up some good habits at UCF, notably his devotion to studying game tape. He frequently sat with Knights coach Kirk Speraw, who taught O'Donnell the value of reviewing game film. O'Donnell first thought of it as detention.
"I used to absolutely hate watching film with Coach Speraw," O'Donnell said. "I treated it as a demoralizing thing. …The more I made myself go in the more my game improved dramatically. It became part of working on my game."
O'Donnell always prided himself on hard work. He believed his best chance to play major Division I basketball was to be smarter and sweat harder than those blessed with the size and talent to naturally fit in high tops and hold a basketball. He looked to smaller guards such as John Stockton, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash as role models. He saw himself as a sharp-shooting Donovan at Providence or a tenacious Bobby Hurley at Duke.
"I tried to take aspects from every player and mold them into my game," O'Donnell said. "I wanted to become Mike O'Donnell."
He sharpened his skills in the Pinellas County youth leagues and developed a passion for the speed and intricacies of basketball. The X's and O's were just one more way he could contend with naturally gifted opponents.
"I was never going to outjump somebody," O'Donnell said. "I'm not going to outrun somebody. The two things I can change and manipulate are how hard I can work and how I can out-think the other guy. … I always had to find an edge."
Playing hard was his foundation. He played in six leagues at once in middle school. When friends went to the beach or took in a movie, he was in a gym shooting or at home practicing the Pistol Pete Maravich drills in his garage.
"I did that until my hands bled," O'Donnell said. "When I was younger I was just insane. I would spend hours in the garage just dribbling. … Playing professionally was my dream.
"There's always going to be the beach or a movie coming out. There's always somebody working when you're not."
O'Donnell's break came playing for Nike Team Florida for two summers, which got him all kinds of exposure during the prime of his high school career. He realized how good he was during a free-throw contest during an AAU tournament game at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex.
"I was getting ready to box out and I looked around the basket and there was Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Billy Donovan, Bruce Weber, you name them," O'Donnell said. "I said, '… I better get a good box out here.' … I had no idea the amount of recruiting that went on. AAU is it."
O'Donnell was the Times' Pinellas County and all-Suncoast Player of the Year in 2002-03, averaging 21.6 points, 5.7 assists and 5.8 steals. He turned down an offer from Florida because Donovan asked him to attend a prep school.
At UCF he averaged 10.2 points for his career. In just three seasons with the Knights he was second all-time with 195 3-pointers, fifth in assists (319) and eighth in steals (140).
Now he hopes to mentor young players to show them what took him lots of time and hard work to learn. He would drag redshirt freshman Taylor Young into the film room.
Now Young goes in and watches film and his game has really turned the corner.
"Mike will be successful in whatever he decides to do," Speraw said. "He has tremendous passion for the game of basketball. That's what's made him into a tremendous player. He's got a great approach to his development as a basketball player.
"If he decides to go into coaching he has a lot he can draw on to give to the guys he's going to be coaching."
Izzy Gould can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 580-5315.