Q&A With USA Head Coach Anne Donovan ('83)
Sept. 3, 2006
Reflections on Being Named the USA Basketball Women's Senior National Team Program head coach for 2006-08 to her time spent in a USA uniform ... and much more. Compliments of USA Basketball
January 12, 2006
Anne Donovan and Tamika Catchings share a hug following the 2004 U.S. Women's Olympic Team's gold medal victory. What does it mean for you to be able to coach the USA Basketball Women's Senior National Team over the next three years?
"It's the hardest thing to put into words. As a player, a coach, I think anyone associated with USA Basketball gets it. They understand what that emotion is. If I try to articulate, the best way to say it is that it's the deepest sense of pride that I could possibly have."
How do you feel about the fact that USA Basketball wants you to head up the USA Senior National Team for the next three years? You're not just being asked to coach the USA World Championship Team with the thought that the Olympics might be next, but you're being selected to coach through Beijing if the U.S. qualifies.
"It's quite an honor and it helps you breathe a little easier. We all know that we're not just waltzing into a World Championship, winning a gold medal and going to Beijing. It's a sense of continuing the tradition of the great women's program we've had and fighting through the next three summers of keeping our excellence in the gold medal hunt. Just knowing I've got three years, it is certainly our goal to win the World Championship gold, but to know I'm there through Beijing is quite an honor."
You mentioned the tradition of success our women have had. Do you feel there is more pressure on you to win the Worlds? "It's our entry into the 2008 Olympics so the pressure is a welcome pressure. There's a lot of pride around that. Fortunately we have a lot of players who understand how important the World Championships are to us. Of course it generates pressure, but I'm going to be working with athletes who have been dealing with that kind of pressure and understand how to channel that pressure into a gold medal."
What is your coaching style and how does that fit into the international game?
"I like to defend. I don't like to give up points. We're going to have a system where we do that, individually and collectively as a team, where we're going to really try to hold people down. Hand in hand with that, is being able to run. Get some steals and rebound the ball, and you're able to push tempo and run the other way. Make it exciting, play to the strengths of the athletes who will represent us."
Aside from the United States, who do you see as being among the top four or five medal contenders in 2006? "We know very well that Russia and Australia have been breathing down our necks. They will continue to try to displace us. Brazil has been very competitive. China has been building towards to 2008, every year getting better and more competitive. That's their hope, to use that as a springboard forward."
Russia has taken the U.S. to the wire in the past two World Championships and Australia has claimed silver behind the USA in the past two Olympic Games. In fact, in three of the last four 'international majors' Australia, Russia and the United States have been on the podium - what do you think they're doing to try and knock us off the top spot?
"It's interesting. What they've been doing is that they've been learning from us, they've been studying us. Much as we did back in the first days of my playing career when we were second to Russia. USA Basketball really studied (Russia), broke their game down and figured out how, through athleticism, we could topple them. Much like that they're all analyzing us and working on their athleticism. I think players who have some versatility, players who aren't just one-position players, they're trying really hard to get more athletic, get stronger, to be able to compete with us and try to take us down."
As they work on their athleticism and other aspects of their game, what do we need to work on?
"We need to continue to use our strengths. We're tremendous, we have some of the best players in the world. Our biggest challenge is keeping that cohesiveness together so that a team of 12 players, not 12 individuals, walks away with a gold medal. We need to keep our sight set on that, and maintain a sense of urgency. As long as we remain cohesive and we don't break down into individuals, keep channeling all those great individual players into a tremendous, best of the best team, we'll continue to win gold."
Looking back through your USA Basketball career - back to the 1977 USA R. William Jones Cup Team - you probably had aspirations of playing in the Olympics. Did you see yourself on four Olympic teams thus far, three as a player and one as an assistant coach?
"No, no way (laughs). Looking back, I think '77 was my first team, I was 15. I had my bags packed to go home because I was sure I couldn't possibly make the team. Now fast-forward it to almost 30 years later and think about where it is. No. I never could have imagined it. But I have to say that I am the prototype American. From my first experience wearing the red, white and blue, I've been so proud to represent my country. I'm so thankful for the opportunities because it's taught me as a person to be so appreciative for the opportunities that we have here in the U.S. I don't get that same experience, I don't get that same value to what we have here, if I don't travel with USA Basketball. Through all my experiences I've learned so much as a player, as a coach, but most importantly, as a person."
What are some of your fondest Olympic memories? "For me, it has to be all the Olympic experiences. '80, even though we boycotted the Olympics, I was really young and we went through the whole process. Back in '80 we were still the underdogs. That whole training process and the experience of my first senior national team. That whole summer of preparation, working with Sue Gunter, that whole experience was just phenomenal. I think the progression to '84, playing in my first Olympics, for Pat Summitt, but still having a boycott effect in L.A. Then, for me as a player, culminating in '88. Going to Korea and capturing our first real gold medal with Kay Yow. In my mind (because of the Soviet Union-backed boycott of the Los Angles Olympics in 1984) that was our first real gold. Those are my fondest memories as a player. Then certainly Athens tops the list as a coach. Working with Van (Chancellor) and Gail (Goestenkors) and Vivian (Stringer), and the tremendous players we had was just such a great experience."
You were also a member of four World Championship teams - two as a player and two as a coach - is your memory of cutting down the nets in Moscow after toppling the Soviet Union for gold in 1986 one of your best memories of the Worlds?
"Definitely. We had gone there earlier in the summer for the Goodwill Games and won gold medal, but everybody attributed that to 'well they weren't really playing, wait until the World Championship.' So to go back to Russia and beat them twice in the same summer, that's when the guard changed. The U.S. women were now the best of the best and from that point on we've been running."
Can you put into words the feelings you had when you won the 1986 Worlds in Moscow?
"It was unbelievable. At that point I had been with USA Basketball for close to 10 years and a lot of the players had been around the block. We were definitely fazed by the significance of that win. We all felt really good about the Goodwill Games gold medal, but to go back and win gold in the Soviet Union again, when everyone said it wasn't going to happen. There was tremendous joy to think we might be a part of the shift in the women's game."
What are the major changes that the international game has undergone over the last 30 years?
"It's gone from being internationally - taking the Americans out of it - a robotic, methodical style to being a very athletic up and down tempo. It's a much bigger game. The Europeans have, not just big players because they've traditionally had big wing players, but they have these big 6-3 wing players who can put the ball on the floor. They're much more versatile than they used to be."
As both a player and a coach, you've been among some of the most talented women in the more recent history of women's basketball, how has that shaped who you are as a coach? "It's really been significant as a player and being coached by some of the greatest coaches. One of the benefits of USA Basketball is that you're a player who gets to learn from all these tremendous coaches who come in and teach you one summer, then you have a different set of coaches come in and teach you the next summer. That was as meaningful as it can be as my development as a coach.
"I think along the same lines, the same level of impact is coaching the best players in the world.
"Watching the common denominator that's always been there, that always will be there: the greatest players in the world are the ones who have the greatest work ethic and are willing to sacrifice self for the benefit of the team. That being said, being around those kinds of athletes, it keeps me fired up to continue to do what I do."
What kind of lessons are you passing on to your players with USA Basketball and in Seattle? You can't teach the work ethic that comes with the greatest athletes, so what else have you passed along? "To appreciate the opportunities and experiences. It's human nature to look at the negative side. But through USA Basketball and the length of time I've been involved with the organization I've learned so much about how positive things are and how much we have to be appreciative of and thankful for. I pass that along to my players in Seattle on a continual basis."
You're coaching Australia's Lauren Jackson in Seattle, how will that help come World Championship time? "I tell you, Athens was interesting. I was doing the scouting report on Australia there, so that made it even more interesting. Watching, at that point, a 23-year-old Lauren Jackson, her focus was difficult for her. As for me, I'm giving a scouting report to the rest of the WNBA on how to defend Lauren Jackson. It is a little bit complicated (laughs). The bottom line, though, is that Lauren is as competitive as I am. When she puts on her Australian uniform and I put on my red, white and blue, we're both fighting for the same thing."
Where was your favorite place to play basketball? The Olympics in L.A. to me was the best. Because it was the most major event that you could possibly play in as an athlete and it was in our own country. So to me it was very special.
Growing up, I'm sure you got teased a lot about being so much taller than the rest of your classmates. Do you go back to high school reunions and have those same people look up at you in awe?
"It's funny because I grew up in a relatively small Catholic high school (Paramus High School, N.J.) and I've been back to a reunion here or there. Some of my elementary school classmates will occasionally email me. That's the power of the Internet now. People can reach out to you from 40 years ago and send you an email. But it is kind of neat. People thought I was destined to do some things in basketball, of course. I was always tall, I always towered above everybody. But I was also very shy. I don't think people would have guessed I would have carried (my basketball career) to the level I was able to."
How important is it to the USA Basketball Women's Senior National Team program to have a core group of athletes who are passionate about playing for their country return again and again to don the USA jersey?
"It's the biggest reason we've been able to keep the gold in our hands. Having that quality of athlete motivated with so much pride for what the red, white and blue represents. It is the sole reason we've been able to hang onto the gold. Athletes like Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley and Sheryl Swoopes who were committed to the growth of this program, who carried the torch. When Teresa Edwards moved on, they carried the torch. The fact that they're still with us and eventually they'll pass that torch to Sue Bird, (Tamika) Catchings, (Diana) Taurasi and a handful of others. That consistency is so important. It's a mind-set, it's a mentality, it's a sense of pride that you can't necessarily cultivate. Lisa Leslie, she had it the second she walked into USA Basketball. Same thing with Sheryl, Dawn, I think that those kinds of things need to live on in order for our tradition to continue."
Who was your favorite teammate and why? "Teresa Edwards is one of my all-time favorites. Just because personality-wise, we're very similar and we're both competitive. We were a part of the growth of the game from the '84 Olympics through the '88 Olympics, beating the Soviets and all that. We kind of went through that whole process together.
Who did you really enjoy going up against internationally and why? "(Brazil's) Hortencia (Marcari Oliva) was always a challenge, always a thrill. Because she was a guard, she was never my match. But in order to beat Brazil we had to contain her. All the match-ups we would throw every guard at her, two or three, just to try to slow her down from a scoring standpoint. As a match-up for me, it would have to be (the Soviet Union's 7-2) Iuliyana Semenova. She was always my nemesis. It's a match-up I grew to really enjoy because it was a challenge for me, not being the biggest player on the floor. I got to see why people struggled trying to defend my size when I had to defend her size."
If you didn't become a basketball player & coach, what do you think you would have done career-wise? "I think I would have liked to have been a psychiatrist. I'm fascinated with that aspect of the brain. I would have liked to do something like that."
Who's your favorite player of all-time?
"I have to say Michael Jordan is one of my favorite players of all time for what he did both on and off the court. I felt like he was a class act. I watched a lot of the men's games in '84, you could see that he was going to be a superstar. You could see it even with Bobby Knight coaching the team, the superstar status emerged above the team concept and you could see it. He loved what he did and he took an interest in the women's team. I think that's why I followed him so closely, because of who he was as a person. He had an interest in what was going on in our side of things and that's something that in '84 was not common."
What are some of your favorite non-basketball Olympic memories? Did you get a chance to see any other events that really stand out?
"As an athlete, it's really hard to get out to other events. But one of my highlights was in Korea when I was able to get out and watch tennis. I love tennis. And that particular match I will never forget. My mother and my brother met me at Steffi Graf's match. It was the singles finals and it was like a four-hour marathon. You had to win by two games and it went on and on. My family had to take the train and they left, it was dark, she ended up winning. I don't even remember who she was playing, but she won and I'll never forget that match.
"In Sydney I wasn't with the team, I was (there as a member of) the USA Basketball Executive Committee, but the beach volleyball was incredible at Bondi Beach. I love to go to events. Swimming and diving, gymnastics ... all of it. There's just nothing greater than the whole ... it's not individuals. You're watching countries compete against each other and I'm fascinated by that."
In 1984 and 1988 you stayed in the Olympic Village. Did you have any interaction with athletes from other sports?
"Yes, we did. It was great. There was so much energy flowing through the whole place, you could just feel the electricity and excitement. It was amazing and almost indescribable. It was energy. It's hard to explain, it wasn't a celebration or a party, but you're mingling with all these high energy people in a high energy environment. Everybody who was there was important. I think part of what it was, was a mutual respect for getting there. It was great if you got there and had a medal around your neck in the dining hall, but everybody had paid the same price for getting there.
"To me those were some of the best memories of the Olympics. When we were at the Olympic Village and we're sitting across the table (at the dining hall) from the gymnast who won the gold medal last night or the Chinese guy who won diving. I met many Olympic divers from the U.S.
"I also remember in '88, when Ben Johnson got stripped of the gold medal and Carl Lewis got bumped up, the next morning when we were in the hall for breakfast it was the buzz on the streets. Everyone was talking about it.
"The Village was like a city within a city with all these celebrities who didn't view themselves as celebrities. Those were some really great experiences."