The former player and coach was remembered as a pioneer of the game and a champion on the court and on the sidelines.
Sue Bird remembers the glare — that unmistakable look that said you did something to upset Anne Donovan.
“You never wanted that glare, trust me,” the Storm star said. “When you’re on the other end of that it was trouble.”
The day after Donovan’s family said the 56-year-old icon died in Wilmington, N.C. on Wednesday of heart failure, tributes and condolences poured in from a women’s basketball community mourning the loss of a one of its pioneers.
Connecticut @ Storm, 7:10 p.m., JOEtv
“Her legacy … is at the absolute pinnacle of the development of women’s basketball,” Storm coach Dan Hughes said.
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At 6 foot 8, Donovan was a giant in a sport she dominated as a player and coach for three decades, but her impact extended well beyond the court.
She became a legend in women’s basketball, winning two Olympic gold medals as a player (1984 and ’88) and once as a coach in 2008. She was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999 and the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2015.
“I will always be thankful for the impact she had on me, not only as a player, but more importantly as a person,” four-time Olympic gold medalist Tamika Catchings wrote in an Instagram post. “Always taking time to pull me to the side to “catch up” on life and just to talk about any and everything.”
In Charlotte, where Donovan coached the now-defunct Sting to the WNBA Finals in 2001, players nicknamed her “Big Sexy” as a term of endearment.
“She would blush and glow every time we called her that,” said Dawn Staley, a former Charlotte guard and Hall of Fame inductee, in a Twitter post. “She was such a pleasure to play for & work with throughout the years.”
In Connecticut, her last stop among five WNBA teams, Donovan helped assemble a burgeoning powerhouse that enters Friday’s 7 p.m. game at KeyArena against the Storm (7-3) with the best record in the WNBA at 7-2.
“Thank you for believing in me & bringing me to a place that has become my home,” Sun guard Jasmine Thomas, who played one year for Donovan, said via Twitter. “You gave me an opportunity to be myself + be a leader in Connecticut, and for that I’ll forever be grateful.”
Connecticut forward Chiney Ogwumike added: “Thank you for always believing in us. We will make you proud.”
From her alma mater Old Dominion to Seton Hall, where Donovan coached for three years (2010-13), today’s generation of basketball coaches and players expressed their admiration for the one of the game’s early trailblazers.
“Anne Donovan was a true pioneer in our game and her loss is a devastating one to the basketball world,” Seton Hall coach Tony Bozzella said in a statement. “Her contributions both on the court and on the sideline will reverberate through generations of young players and coaches.
“I was blessed to follow her footsteps at Seton Hall with a well-led foundation of wonderful young women to coach.”
Born on Nov. 1, 1961 in Ridgewood, N.J., Anne Theresa Donovan was the youngest of eight children. She starred at nearby Paramus Catholic High where she led her team to consecutive undefeated seasons and a pair of state championships in 1978 and ‘79.
At the time Donovan was the most sought-after girls basketball player in the country. She chose Old Dominion where she set scoring and rebound records while averaging 20 points and 14.5 rebounds during her four-year career.
As a freshman, the Lady Monarchs went 37-1 and won the 1980 Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) national title. In 1981, ODU finished third in the AIAW national tournament at 28-7.
The next two years, Donovan led Old Dominion to the first two NCAA Women’s Final Fours in 1982 and ’83. She finished her collegiate career with a loss in the 1983 national title game.
Donovan was a prototypical center who dominated inside and outside while setting the standard for today’s stars.
“I saw Anne when I was in the 10th grade,” Hall of Famer Lisa Leslie said on ESPN. “She came to … Inglewood High School. I would wake up every morning to watch the Olympic team, and Anne stood 6-8, she was the center — and I’m like, ‘I can do this, I want to be like her. I actually thought I could take her place, because Anne was just, she was amazing.’ ”
Donovan played professionally for five years in Japan and Italy.
After retiring, she was an assistant at Old Dominion and coached at East Carolina University from 1995-1998. She coached the Philadelphia Rage in the now-defunct American Basketball League in 1997-98.
Following stints at Indiana (2000) and Charlotte (2001-02), Donovan was hired by the Storm in 2003 and inherited a team that went 17-15 the previous year with young stars Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird.
“Anne was the one that came right in from day one and was like this is what needs to be done to win a championship,” Bird said. “That kind of changed our whole mindset.
“She was really challenging in all the right ways. She just had a competitiveness about her that trickled down onto the team. No matter what, we are fighters the whole time Anne was here. We were always the type of team that fought through everything, and I think that kind of set the stage for this franchise.”
The Storm went 18-16 and missed the playoffs in its first year with Donovan.
In 2004, Seattle finished second in the Western Conference at 20-14. That year, the Storm swept Minnesota 2-0 in the conference semifinals before upsetting Sacramento 2-1 in the conference finals and Connecticut 2-1 in the WNBA Finals.
It was the first championship for a Seattle sports team since the Sonics won the NBA title in 1979.
At the time, Bird didn’t contemplate the significance of Donovan’s accomplishment.
“I had no idea,” Bird said. “They say ignorance is bliss. I was young. I had no idea what the hell was going on around me. Anne is my coach. The end. You didn’t have this larger picture in your mind.
“Obviously, now I see it. At that time when we won in 2004, she was the first female. She was the youngest. That’s pretty incredible when you think about the league and how difficult it is. Anne was the first female to win it and luckily she’s not the last, but she was the one that started it.”
Donovan, who compiled a 93-77 record in five seasons with the Storm, was released in 2007 after a 17-17 campaign ended with a 0-2 series loss in the conference semifinals. She ranks seventh on the WNBA wins list with a 205-214 record.
Aside from the glare, Bird remembers a passionate coach who “had a very fun-loving spirit about her and knew when to keep it light.”
Bird laughed Thursday afternoon while recounting stories about Donovan who once began practice with 20 minute session of dodge ball, hosted team potluck dinners and loved soul food, particularly macaroni cheese and fried chicken.
“You go through these experiences with people, they happen and before you know it, they’re over,” Bird said. “Seasons end quickly and people go their ways. … In the last 24 hours I’ve found in terms of reaching out to people and people reaching out to me, what we did — and I don’t mean winning — I mean the experiences we had, those never die.
“What Anne left here in Seattle for us as players and people throughout the franchise, the impact she had, her memories are going to live through us, through those memories and through us sharing her stories. In a sad time, it’s the one thing that’s made me smile.”