Feature Story on Anne Donovan ('83)
July 25, 2008
By Erik Brady, USA TODAY, July 24, 2008
Anne Donovan is the dutiful daughter of two families -- by birth the youngest of eight in an Irish Catholic clan and by merit a member of USA Basketball since she was 15. This summer the twain shall meet: Her sisters and brothers are going to Beijing to see her coach the U.S. women's Olympic basketball team.
"They're all coming and I'm as excited about that as the actual competition," Donovan says. "The most important things in my life are my family and my basketball family."
She can be herself with either one. In the wider world, that's not so easy. She is 6-8 -- 15.4 inches taller than the average American woman. Strangers stare when she walks into a room.
The same happens to the U.S. men's coach, but they gawk at Mike Krzyzewski because he is famous, not because he's 6-1. Donovan, 46, is famous in the literal sense -- she's in the Basketball Hall of Fame -- but is rarely recognized save for inside WNBA arenas, which is fine by her.
"I like to be under the radar," she says.
Trouble is it's hard to be under the radar when it's hard to fit under the transom. Her reciprocal families help her past that: She is lovingly accepted in the Donovan clan, where her siblings range from 7-1 to 5-11, and on the teams she has played for and coached, where height is a blessing, not a curiosity.
"She deals with all those things that all of us who are too tall for ourselves deal with," says Kathy, her sister, who is 6-2½. "When you're growing up, it's hard to be different. A lot of our closeness was banding together against the world. We didn't have to be alone."
Except that Donovan is. She is the only unmarried Donovan sibling and lives in Charlotte with Romeo, her epileptic cat. "I'm a total introvert," Donovan says. "That's the label I put on myself."
But isn't coaching, by nature, a business for extroverts?
"It's a conflict I've wondered about all my life," she says. "I never suspected I'd get into coaching. When I did, I loved it. But the core of who I am, when I leave the court and go home, is a pretty solitary life."
On the court she has a dozen daughters, the women of the U.S. Olympic basketball team. They come from the WNBA, which will suspend play for most of August so these 12 -- and as many as 10 others for other countries -- can play in the Olympics.
"If she's an introvert, she's done an excellent job coming out of her shell," says Olympic point guard Sue Bird, who also played five seasons for Donovan with the Seattle Storm. "Anne is a real players' coach. She's in tune. She knows when we need a day off or when we need to go hard."
She is, in other words, a mother figure who knows when to dole out tough love.
"That basketball family is the reason I got into basketball," Donovan says. "So when I left my family I went into a different family where I could be myself, expand a little bit and get comfortable in my own skin. And I think that's what has been so addicting for me. The basketball business for me, it's my own family, my own way, and it's very comfortable. It's not a stretch at all." Tragedy forges a bond The Donovan clan -- 25 strong, including sisters, brothers, spouses and kids -- gathered in a rented house on the Jersey shore for their annual reunion this month. Donovan, who resigned as coach of the Storm after last season, was free to come for the first time in nine years.
"A lot of the conversation" among the siblings, she says, "was about what to pack for China. It was great because as we said our goodbyes, we knew we'd see each other again" soon.
The family reunions were started years ago by their mother, Ann, who died 4½ years ago. Their father, Joseph, died when Anne was 5. Their brother, Joseph, died at 44 in 1997, murdered in his sleep in New Orleans.
"Four people were living in a house and all of them were killed," Donovan says. "I don't like to go into it much except to say it is really difficult, even now. Your life is forever changed.
"I didn't think it was possible for our family to get much closer, but it certainly did tie us together even more. We share in something that is deeply painful and never really goes away."
Prosecutors said a drifter used a stone from the porch foundation to bludgeon Joseph. The housemates had allowed him to stay for a while but he grew angry when asked to leave, according to news reports at the time. Douglas Whitton was convicted on four counts of first degree murder and sentenced to life.
"You never expect anything like that to happen in your family," says Mary, another sister, who named her son Joseph. "It makes you treasure what you have when you have it."
And so the Donovans will treasure their time in Beijing. Anne is footing much of the bill, not that she wants anyone to know. Her sisters told on her.
"It's important for people to realize how generous she is," says Mary, 6-2, a teammate of Anne's at Paramus (N.J.) Catholic.
"I know a lot of tall girls and one thing they do is they slouch," says Rose Marie Battaglia, who was their high school coach. "The Donovan girls never did that. They always stood tall. I think that is a tribute to their mother."
Donovan credits her mother with sending her brother, John, to elementary school in the same grade with her, though he was a year older. It helped having someone taller in class photos.
"I think in a subtle way it carried our family's closeness at home into school," Donovan says. "I found comfort in that."
Boys were intimidated by her stature in high school. "I saw four older sisters go through the trials of prom and dates and no dates and stares and jokes," Donovan says. "It helped me through it."
Donovan, top recruiting prize in the country, chose Old Dominion University. As a freshman, she won a national championship. As a senior, she was named first women's winner of the Naismith Award for player of the year.
She played five seasons professionally in Japan and one in Italy, then was assistant coach at Old Dominion for six seasons and coach at East Carolina for three.
She coached professionally for nine seasons, the last five for the Storm. She made history when Seattle won the 2004 WNBA championship -- only male coaches have won the league's other 10 titles -- but she resigned after last season's 17-17 struggle.
The team "was in a rut," Donovan says. Stepping down "was an easy decision with the Olympics on the horizon. I wanted to put every bit of my energy into that." Cold war thaws The entirety of women's U.S. Olympic basketball history can be measured in Donovan's lifetime. She was a teenager watching TV in northern New Jersey in 1976 when the first U.S. team won silver in Montreal, behind the Soviet Union.
A year later, she joined USA Basketball, playing on a junior team. She has been in the USA family almost continuously since, including as a member of the 1980 Olympic team that didn't play because of the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games. She won gold medals with the 1984 and 1988 Olympic teams.
"There are difficult days" at her height "and then there are days when they put a gold medal around your neck," Donovan says. "Since 1988 I've been involved with selection committees and boards of directors. I've seen the inner workings of USA Basketball at every level."
The 1992 Olympic team won bronze in Barcelona. The USA is on a 25-game Olympic winning streak since, capturing gold in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
The USA (with five) and USSR/Unified (three) have won all the gold in women's Olympic basketball. Donovan, a child of the Cold War, still thinks of Russia as the USA's most bitter rival. That's why, she says, she initially questioned the patriotism of Becky Hammon, the San Antonio Silver Stars guard who plans to play for Russia in the Olympics. (Hammon, 31, is from South Dakota but plays for a team in Moscow during the WNBA offseason and is a naturalized Russian citizen for basketball purposes.)
"I never should have said that," Donovan says. "Look, I lived through two boycotts and the men's loss to the Soviets in 1972 and the hockey win in 1980. I'm steeped in the history of that rivalry. For Becky and a new generation it is a different world and a different time." Life imitates art Donovan's business is to beat host China, defending world champion Australia and, as always, rival Russia. She was an assistant to Van Chancellor onthe USA's 2004 team. Now, as head coach, only more gold will do.
Donovan understands the pressure that comes with that, especially because her team will practice for the first time as presently constituted July 28, when it meets at Stanford for three days before flying to China.
"That's not optimal," ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman says. "But Anne is tough enough and smart enough to figure it out and get it done. She understands the international game so well. And she has been dealing with pressure her whole life.
"Don't let the Clark Kent glasses fool you. Underneath, she has an 'S' on her chest."
Lieberman and Donovan were teammates at Old Dominion and roommates on national teams. Lieberman recalls one game against the Soviet Union when Donovan seemed to vanish on the court: "I'm shouting, 'Where's Anne?' Turned out she was behind Iuliana Seminova, who was 7-2, 200 pounds. I said, 'Play big, Anne, play big!' "
Donovan did exactly that at the 1986 world championships: The U.S. won gold and Donovan blocked Seminova's shot in a key play that remains a career highlight. "She was double my width," Donovan says. "They called her the Refrigerator."
U.S. coach Kay Yow had asked her players before the game to visualize their moment -- and draw it. "I am not in any way an artist," Donovan says, but she fashioned a stick-figure drawing in which she blocked her rival's shot. And then life imitated art.
Does she have any premonitions about the Beijing Games?
"For a couple of years I felt kind of unsettled, because we have had very little preparation -- as a group, none," Donovan says. "That's scary. But we've had a lot of partial training and now I am at peace. I just have the confidence it is all coming together.
"The unsettled feeling is dissipated. I just feel like we're going to be ready. That's my premonition and it's a good one. I sleep well at night."