Anne Donovan played essential role in growth of women's basketball

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Lisa Leslie remembers Anne Donovan (2:04)

Lisa Leslie looks back on her time with Anne Donovan, specifically the 2008 Olympic Games, in which Donovan coached Leslie to a gold medal. (2:04)

It was Dec. 14, 1979, and Scope arena in Norfolk, Virginia, was packed to the rafters with patriotic fever. The Soviet women's basketball team, on a tour of the United States, was meeting defending national champion Old Dominion in an exhibition.

American hostages had been taken in Iran in November. The Soviets' invasion of Afghanistan in late December would lead to the United States' boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The Cold War was still red-hot.

On the floor was a very tall, thin, 18-year-old center. A Catholic-school girl from New Jersey whose gentle nature coexisted with her determined competitiveness. Anne Donovan had always loved being on a team but never wanted to stand out. At 6-foot-8, she didn't have a choice.

Yet somehow, her Old Dominion point guard, Nancy Lieberman, briefly lost sight of Donovan in that game. Crazy as it sounds, Donovan was obscured by one of the few women bigger than she was: the Soviets' 7-foot-2, 250-pound star center, Uljana Semjonova.

The memory made Lieberman smile through her tears Wednesday night after the shocking news that Donovan, 56, had died from heart failure.

"I'm looking all over, like, 'Where the heck is Anne?'" Lieberman said. "She was behind Semjonova. I told Anne, 'Look, you can't move her, but you're just going to have to fight to get in front of her.'

"But she was so amazing even back then. Nothing really rattled her. Here's Anne, this gangly freshman doing her thing."

Donovan's death stunned the women's basketball world. It was heart-breaking news that was hard to believe. On Saturday, Donovan was at the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee, for the induction of her high school coach, Rose Marie Battaglia. The 89-year-old referenced Donovan in her speech, sharing a story that summed up the player and the person.

Battaglia told of how she had Donovan guard the inbounds pass in a game, with her height and reach continually forcing turnovers. But eventually, Donovan begged Battaglia to stop doing it.

"Why?" Battaglia said. "It's working perfectly. They can't even get the ball in against you."

"I know," Donovan replied, "but you're not the one who has to look in that girl's eyes."

As much of a competitor as she was, Donovan was kind and empathetic. She wanted to win but never wanted to embarrass anyone. She was very sensitive.

Her height was a great asset in basketball, but it wasn't easy away from the court. Donovan had to have specially made clothes and shoes. From a young age, she had to get used to rude questions and comments, the hackneyed "jokes," the thoughtless way some people would stare.

"People could be jerks at times, and they could say things that really hurt her feelings," Lieberman said. "She had to learn to deal with it, and she did. She was just so kind. She wanted everybody to get along and be happy."

Donovan understood people: what motivated them, what mattered to them. Her insight helped her be a successful player and coach, one who was in the thick of many of the most important moments and developments in women's basketball history.

Her college career bridged the end of the AIAW era -- helping Old Dominion win its second AIAW national title in 1980 -- and the start of the NCAA tournament for women in 1982.

Donovan was an Olympic team member in 1980. The boycott prevented the United States from competing in Moscow, and the Soviets' long reign in women's basketball continued. But Donovan's generation soon turned that tide: The United States has won all but one Olympic gold since the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Donovan started her coaching career in the college ranks. She was among the pioneers of coaching professional women's basketball in the United States, first in the ABL and then in the WNBA. She was the first female coach to win a WNBA title, in 2004 with Seattle.

"Anne was probably one of the first coaches that really was a players' coach," Storm point guard Sue Bird said. "She really understood what we as players were going through because she'd gone through it. I remember her telling us stories about her time overseas."

Donovan knew firsthand about the wear and tear on bodies, the loneliness of being far away from home, the steely commitment needed. She'd done all that even when there wasn't a pro league in the United States, as the short-lived WBL ended two years before she graduated from college. She was disappointed when the ABL folded in 1998 but then was determined to help make the WNBA last.

Her first chance to do that as a head coach came in Seattle in 2003, when center Lauren Jackson was in her third season in the league and Bird her second.

"We were like 21 and 22 years old. It was an important time in our careers, and we didn't even really know it," Bird said. "And Anne was there to guide us, in a way that I don't think any other coach could have at the time."

Bird said that Donovan's impact on the 6-foot-5 Jackson was especially profound.

"You can look at Lauren in 2002, and then the Anne came in 2003," Bird said. "And the change in Lauren from one year to the next was unreal. What Anne really instilled in Lauren was, 'You're big. You need to get down in the post.' Before that, Lauren liked to hover on the outside. But that was when you saw a dramatic change in Lauren's game, and that is 100 percent because of Anne. She saw, 'Here is a player who is pretty dominant already but needs a nudge.' "

Jackson was the league's MVP twice while playing for Donovan, in 2003 and 2007. She won the award once more after Donovan left, in 2010. As for herself, Bird said Donovan helped her think the game better from a post player's point of view.

"That was beneficial for me to have someone coaching me who saw the game from a different perspective," Bird said. "It helped make me a better player. And she understood things: what the WNBA meant, what the national team meant, what our overseas careers meant."

Bird chuckled remembering how Donovan would razz her and Jackson about the fact that they played overseas in Russia. They were still the Soviets to Donovan, the bad guys, the archenemy. In all seriousness, Donovan's patriotism was deeply imbedded, symbolic of the loyalty she felt to everything and everyone that was dear to her, including her country. Helping the United States win an Olympic gold medal as the head coach in 2008 at the Beijing Games was one of Donovan's proudest accomplishments.

It was a full-circle moment, coming nearly 30 years after she lost in her earliest taste of international basketball at the highest level. Old Dominion fell 76-66 in that exhibition game to the Soviet team in 1979, but the memory of 10,000-plus fans filling Scope and cheering like crazy during a women's basketball game remained a cherished memory for Donovan.

Her ODU coach at that time was just 25 years old: Marianne Stanley had been a player with the Immaculata teams that won three consecutive AIAW titles in the 1970s. Stanley is now an assistant with the Washington Mystics, who won a thrilling game at Connecticut on Wednesday.

But afterward, Stanley was crushed -- as were so many involved in women's basketball -- by the news of Donovan's death.

"There was no finer human being than Anne Donovan. I am devastated by her loss," Stanley said. "Her decency and her compassion made Anne more than just a coach to those who played for her and to those who competed against her.

"She was more than a mentor. She was more than a foe on the opposite bench. She was a friend to the players and coaches in this great game, as well as to the fans and, really, everyone who came in contact with her. Her loss, like her impact on the women's game, is immeasurable."

"She was more than a mentor. She was more than a foe on the opposite bench. She was a friend to the players and coaches in this great game ... Her loss, like her impact on the women's game, is immeasurable." Marianne Stanley on Anne Donovan

Bird was one of those who felt that impact. She thought back to the hug she shared with Donovan after the clinching victory of the 2004 WNBA Finals and the fun they had chatting in her exit interview for the season about a month later. She knew Donovan had accomplished what she came to Seattle to do.

"I just remember she was always right on top of things, with adjustments from game to game," Bird said, "figuring out the best ways to help us."

And Bird said for other big moments the rest of her career, Donovan was always quick to send congratulations.

"Like, when I broke the [WNBA career] assist record last year, she was one of the first to text me," Bird said. "And the last time I played for her was 2008 ... yet she still always reached out.

"And every time we saw each other, we'd go right back to those great memories. It was always so good to see her ... it was like coming home when you'd see someone like Anne."