Life will truly come full circle for Bob Donewald when he comes back to where his coaching career was baptised, this time leading China into the Olympic Games.
16 summers have passed since a brash young American rocked up in Leicester, armed only with the experience of watching his eponymous father pace the sidelines in the college game.
He talked the talk. Inside, there was a certain amount of bluff, he admits. “I was 25 years old,” Donewald declared. “I thought I knew what I was doing. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I was working hard at it and learning.”
Loud suits, louder shirts, even louder chatter on the bench, the then-newcomer was a true enfante terrible. He won admirers and detractors in equal measure. But his teams, indisputably, played hard and executed well.
In Leicester, he reached a Cup final, them moved onto Derby Storm, where the Trophy final beckoned. Then it was onwards to London Leopards, and another Cup run with a team located just a half-court shot from the Olympic site.
He looks back on his British diversion with affection.
“It was great because I learnt on the fly,” Donewald states. “I thought I knew what I was doing back then but I didn’t. But I learnt on the fly. That made me confident. We had success with my teams. All three I coached made it to finals.
“I made mistakes along the way but I learned from them. We had some good moments I learned from those. But that level at that time was really good for me to figure things out and then move on. But I had five years there which was incredible.”
He made friends who have remained in touch during his subsequent tours of duty, into the NBA – as an assistant with the Hornets and Cavaliers – and then into Asia, where he first arrived in 2009. Many of those same familiar faces will greet him at the Games.
The Chinese, the reigning Asian champions and in the same Olympic group as Great Britain, are modelled in his own image. Grafting, scrapping, fighting to build a reputation, following the retirement of Yao Ming, where their stock has fallen.
It is a challenge he has embraced. “Even when I was in England, I liked teams who were underdogs, which we were here. But I also saw some talent and I saw a group that, if they started playing some defence, we could do some things in Asia, firstly. And now we’re going into the Olympics with a nothing to lose mentality.”
Public support, he declares, is just astonishing. Every game, every comment, is dissected by millions upon millions. “I have a Chinese twitter with 3.8 million followers,” he reveals. “The numbers are just amazing and the popularity of basketball is amazing. It makes you proud and gives you a sense of something big. We want to go into London and, while we may be in over our head with some of the teams we’ll play, we think we can compete and we’ll play our asses off and hopefully make a bunch of people proud.”
He will take pride too in a man who will likely end up with gold around his neck. While in Cleveland, he was assigned to a NBA rookie to nurture his initial steps into the NBA. Several years later, he sees what has become of the USA’s LeBron James and is unsurprised at his elevation into the greats.
“I saw it because he had a swagger to him,” Donewald states. “He had a belief to him. He had confidence. But I also saw how hard he worked at a young age. I thought he was different. He wasn’t just a normal young player, he was special. He worked at it and carried himself as if he was special. I just thought he’d have to figure some things out, which he did.
“I don’t think he gets a fair shake all the time, throughout his career, especially with the move to Miami. But he’s learning still and he was just incredible in those playoffs with the way he took things on. I wasn’t surprised at how he’s progressed but he’s had to go through some bumps to get there.”
China will look to confound the expectation of most at the Olympics. Once his work his done, Donewald will ride off into a rising sunset and seek out a new challenge. It has been a privilege to take the job, he says. All good things, he confesses, must come to an end.
“I’ll be going on vacation,” he reveals of his plans post-London. “In China, you do a cycle and after the Olympics, they always change. That’s just how they do things. Leaders get promoted, or demoted, but they move on.
“Coaching staffs come through. It’s been an incredible run in China, so much fun. I haven’t really thought past that. I’ve been putting everything into this. I’m building a new house in Michigan on the lake. I’m going to sit and enjoy that and then see what comes next.”
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