Commentary

Donovan & Co. swim with the sharks

Originally Published: July 28, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Just before he took that first step into the water, in that nanosecond of clarity and sanity, Billy Donovan had a thought:

"What in the world am I doing?" he said to himself.

And then he jumped, taking a literal plunge that would forever change the way he looked at life and his own significance in it.

There is the perspective to be gained when something life-altering happens -- a decision, a death, a sudden change -- and then there is the perspective to be gained when you're staring into the face of a creature that could swallow you whole and still look for seconds.

Billy Donovan
Courtesy of Billy DonovanDonovan and his son Bryan have long been fans of Discovery Channel's "Shark Week." Recently, they lived through it off the coast of South Africa.

In May, Donovan experienced both.

A longtime fan of Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" -- a guy who always crowed that he'd one day swim with great whites -- the Florida coach was given his "put up or shut up" by his wife, Christine. She called Donovan and their son Bryan on their annual summertime bluff, telling the pair she was going to book them a trip to South Africa so they could swim with sharks.

"She said we were all talk and she was tired of hearing it," Donovan said. "So she arranged everything."

Clearly, Christine Donovan is a unique woman. I haven't worked up the courage to let my kids cross the street alone. She paid for her 12-year-old to spend some alone time with great whites.

But this was about more than a woman double-dog-daring her husband. The grinding life of a basketball coach offers little downtime, and even the best family man struggles to carve out time away from the game. The eight uninterrupted days alone with Bryan were precious to Donovan.

"You know how kids can be -- it's a long trip, it's cold, there aren't enough plugs for the iPod or the Nintendo DS," Donovan said. "He never complained once. He was just so happy."

As Christine Donovan was making arrangements for the trip, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity found even more meaning after one of her dearest friends, Mary Kearney, died of brain cancer. Like the Donovans, Mary and her husband, Tony, were Providence College grads, and providence guided the Donovans next door to the Kearneys in Kentucky when Donovan worked in Lexington as Rick Pitino's assistant.

The families, especially the two women, remained close after Donovan left UK, and Mary's death provided the final tipping point in favor of the trip.

"Life is too short," Donovan said simply.

So he; Bryan; and Donovan's mother, Joan, along with Tony Kearney and his 13-year-old daughter, Lizzy, left May 28 for Simon's Town, South Africa, just outside Cape Town.

There they boarded the same boat that takes the Discovery Channel crew out for "Shark Week" filming, heading 30 minutes off the coast to Seal Island, a chunk of land that 50,000 foul-smelling seals call home.

Or 50,000 meals, if you're a great white shark.

Tempted by the seals, the sharks patrol the area fairly regularly, giving chase to the swerving seals that swim like drunk drivers in a fruitless effort to shake their determined predators. So, intent on grabbing a bite, the great whites jump like trained dolphins, vaulting their entire bodies out of the water in an awesome and terrifying display of water acrobatics.

[+] EnlargeBilly Donovan
Courtesy Billy DonovanWhile still in the boat, Donovan captured this photo of a nearby great white shark.

"It's the only place in the world where sharks jump like that," Donovan said.

Donovan and I were sitting in the bleachers at Philadelphia University during the Reebok All-American Camp as he recounted his trip. As he spoke, he dialed up photos on his phone like a kid eager to share his summer vacation pictures.

Instead of smiling faces wearing Mickey Mouse ears, Donovan offered pics of sharks with their mouths wide open just a few feet from the ship.

If he could Photoshop a swimmer above the double-decker rows of teeth, he would have had the "Jaws" movie poster.

"You kind of expect them to be long; the ones we saw were maybe 12 to 15 feet," Donovan said. "But it's their width that you can't appreciate on television."

Stymied by bad weather their first two days, Donovan and his crew finally went out to find sharks on Day 3. (Yes, Mom went, though she didn't get in the cage.)

Only three companies are licensed to take people out to find sharks, and they can go only between May and July. The boats pull seal decoys to attract the sharks, luring them to make their breathtaking jumps. Donovan watched one shark clear the water twice.

Finally the crew readied the two-person cage.

Fitted with a wet suit for the frigid waters, a 20-pound weight to keep him from floating around in the cage, Donovan had the good sense to ask where to put his hands, figuring holding onto the outside bars wasn't wise. Conveniently, the cages are outfitted with bars like the ones you'd see in a rollercoaster.

With the barest of instructions, Donovan, a man with four kids, two national championship rings, a $3.5 million job responsibility and his wife's blessing, jumped into the water. (For the record, he did notify athletic director Jeremy Foley about his trip. "He was a little concerned," Donovan said, laughing.)

What surprised him most was the silence.

There is no soundtrack, no "dun-dun-dun-dun" to warn you that a shark is nearby in the murky water.

"Usually when a Mack truck is coming down the street you can hear it, even if you can't see it right away," Donovan said. "You can't hear anything down there and then 10 feet in front of you, there's a shark. It's so eerie."

After a quick land-lubbing lunch, the Donovan party went back out for another round with the sharks. This time father and son went into the cage.

"I think Bryan was a little nervous, but he did it," Donovan said.

[+] EnlargeBilly Donovan
Courtesy Billy DonovanLions certainly outnumber people at South Africa's Kruger National Park.

After four days in Simon's Town, the two families flew to Kruger National Park, for the land version of swimming with sharks. On a safari where they weren't allowed to walk from their huts alone, they watched a pride of lions feed on a kill from the night before, saw a cheetah leap from the bush to chase a pack of zebras, and spied giraffes and elephants heading to a nearby watering hole.

And then came the real peril.

Donovan and his family chartered a flight out of Kruger in order to meet their commercial flight home.

"There's elephants walking alongside us, giraffes, and then the guy says we're here," Donovan said. "We're on this bumpy dirt road, and there's a single-prop plane waiting for us."

Lions, tigers and prop planes, oh my.

Back in civilization, Donovan is now knee-deep in another shark pool -- recruiting. Hard to say which is more intimidating.

It's been nearly two months since his trip, but the memories are still vivid and the impressions even stronger.

"It's so easy to get caught up in the cocoon of what you're doing. We all do it," Donovan said. "But when you get out of your comfort zone, see how other people live and what's going on in the world, it gives you such a new perspective. It's a trip we'll remember the rest of our lives."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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