Updated: Nov 25, 2021
“Billy Donlon who was a really good point guard who was used to getting the ball to people. I thought he was a big factor for those first teams. He was a physical defensive point guard who had size.” Jay Larranaga
Despite not having the professional playing career at the same level (and length) that many of his counterparts enjoyed, Billy was a critical piece for Ireland at perhaps its most competitive stage. Like most good things, Donlon’s ability was only really noticed when it was gone and Ireland struggled never truly managed to plug that gap he left back up.
The Donlon family had Irish ancestry on both sides of the family, with Billy’s grandparents on his Dad’s side the most recent arrivals from Westmeath, arriving through New York’s Ellis Island. Billy’s dad forged a strong basketball career himself and went on to be a prominent coach at Division 1 level serving under Rick Pitino at Providence amongst others. It was during his time in Providence that Bill Donlon Sr. became the lead recruiter for none other than Marty Conlon. Almost twenty years later Billy and Marty were teammates for Ireland.
Billy was a 6’1 pure point guard who, after a good high school career, was recruited by Jerry Wainwright to play at UNC Wilmington in the Colonial Athletic Association. The CAA turned out to have numerous connections to the Irish team of the 2000s as Jay Larranaga’s father was coaching in the conference with George Mason, Bill Dooley was an assistant at Richmond and one of the rising young players in the league at the time was Jim Moran.
Donlon’s college career was best characterised by solid production and excellent team performances in conference play, as UNC Wilmington finished no worse than 3rd and finished first twice. Despite the good league play, the CAA conference tournament and the at large bid associated always proved elusive for the Seahawks. Their only excursion beyond the conference was an NIT bid in 1998 in Donlon’s junior year. Facing a Wake Forest team who were adjusting to life without Tim Duncan. Duncan had graduated the previous year but Wake Forest still had enough and they limited Billy’s postseason career to just one game.
Despite not having the glamour of March to look back on Donlon had a stellar four-year career in the CAA. Finishing with 901 points in 118 career games he was the model of consistency. He also shared the ball at an elite level getting 456 career assists, good for third all-time in the history of the programme. Alongside his, All CAA Rookie team award in 1996 was perhaps his most significant award the Dean Ehlers award for leadership, integrity and sportsmanship, all of which would sum up his time in the Irish jersey too. Jim Moran who played for Ireland with Billy had lasting scars from the times they competed in college “Billy Donlon played at UNC Willmington and they were really good when I was in college. They were fighting for the top spot while we were down at 7 or 8. We’d go in every year and have the doors blown off so I had a tonne of respect for him.”
Playing for Ireland
Following in his father’s footsteps Billy transitioned quickly into life as an assistant coach in the NCAA. In 2000, Donlon was serving as an assistant at St Peter’s under Bobby Leckie. During that time, a young 6’9 Irish player came across their radar and Donlon led the recruitment of none other than Conor Grace. The recruitment included a trip to Grace’s home in Dublin in what would be Donlon’s first trip to Ireland. During the recruitment process, Donlon looked for some extra support in Ireland and contacted Bill Dooley who had just become the head coach of the Irish National Team. The phone call took an unexpected turn for Donlon though when Dooley asked did he have Irish grandparents. When Donlon told him he did, Dooley explained that citizenship was available and asked would he be interested in playing for the National Team that summer. Up to that point, despite being from an Irish Catholic family who had family relations still in Ireland, Donlon never knew that he could get citizenship. After a conversation with Coach Leckie in St Peter’s, they agreed Donlon could take a short holiday that May to travel to Ireland and represent the National Team.
What greeted Donlon at his first camp in Limerick, was what he described as the best time of his life. When he arrived in he quickly found familiar faces through his CAA connections and found a situation he was incredibly comfortable in immediately. He was admittedly out of shape, not having played in some time but he came in and immediately made an impact for Ireland. In just his second game he delivered a 16 point, four-assist performance in a crucial home win over Finland. After just three weeks with the team, Donlon’s life path had been changed and he returned home to tell his family and boss that he was going to leave his secure coaching role to pursue a professional career in Europe and play with the Irish team.
Ireland was fortunate that he made that decision as this was the critical campaign where they finally broke through and reached the semi-final stages. When talking about the achievement Donlon reflected that they could see what it meant to the Irish players when they qualified and it was brilliant, but there was also an expectation amongst the Irish Americans that they should be beating the likes of Finland and Iceland. The confidence Donlon and the rest of the team had is even more clear when he looks back at the semi-final stages where Ireland locked horns with Germany and Croatia amongst others “We really thought that if we had gotten everybody together at the same time we might have advanced to the European Championships and that’s not just lip service.” A narrow away loss to Germany and a two-point home loss to Croatia speaks to how true that statement was. Disappointingly for Ireland, Donlon’s time with the national team lasted only three years and the gap he left behind for the 2004-05 campaign was one that Ireland never filled.
Post Playing Career
Despite his on-court prowess, it has been Donlon’s coaching that has set him apart. After retiring from playing, he returned to the States where he acted as an assistant again before becoming the Associate Head Coach and then Head Coach at Wright State. In his stay at Wright State, he had a winning record and was the Horizon League coach of the year in 2013 following in the footsteps of the Boston Celtics’ Brad Stevens, who won the same award in 2009 and 2010. Despite his relative success, Wright State let Donlon go to the surprise of many. He continued his career as an assistant to John Beilein in Michigan for one season and under Chris Collins for two years in Northwestern. In 2019 a head coaching role opened up in the WAC and Donlon became the head coach of the University of Missouri-Kansas in Kansas City, where he remains today.
Throughout his playing and coaching career, Donlon has shown himself to be a steady leader. In Irish basketball history, he will be looked on as the transitional leader as Adrian Fulton passed the reigns across to Mick Bree. In that time of transition, he excelled and helped continue the positive momentum that the National team was gathering. Interestingly, Donlon also in some ways sums up the difference between the approach of the men’s and women’s national teams. His sister Heather has the all-time NCAA record for three-point percentage in a season during her time at Fordham. While she was there she would be a teammate of Emer Howard. As citizenship had never come up in discussion at the time, Heather never got the opportunity to represent Ireland, while her brother by active recruitment on the men’s side had a life-altering experience that helped Ireland reach new levels. Donlon himself summed up the experience perfectly “It was really one of the best times, if not the best time of our life. There were some people there, and I get it, who were not in favour of having us play. The way we were treated by everyone was off the charts of how amazing it was, but we also understood that we were taking positions from Irish born players and we didn’t take that lightly either. We knew what an opportunity it was to play as none of us were going to be good enough to play for the US team so this was another opportunity to play and to play for a country that we loved. I’m so grateful for that opportunity”.