Anne Donovan remembered for impact on and off court at ODU memorial

In one of the most iconic women's basketball photos, Anne Donovan towers over Old Dominion teammates Nancy Lieberman and Inge Nissen. Old Dominion University

NORFOLK, Va. -- Legend. Pioneer. Championship coach. Power on the court. Hall of Famer. Academic stalwart. Beloved great.

Family, friends and teammates used those words repeatedly at a celebration of life on Sunday at Old Dominion's Constant Center in memory of Anne Donovan, who died of heart failure on June 13 at the age of 56.

Marianne Stanley and Nancy Lieberman were among those in attendance, in addition to Donovan's family: sisters Mary Grab, Patrice O'Donnell, Michele DiPlano and Kathleen Donovan and brother Kevin Donovan. Wendy Larry, who coached ODU for 24 years, was also in the house along with former players, administrators and community members, each with a story to tell about the native of Ridgewood, New Jersey, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995 and in the inaugural class of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame four years later.

Every school in the nation wanted Anne Donovan, a 6-foot-8, 165-pound center from Paramus Catholic High who decided on Old Dominion, which had won an Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) championship the year before.

"She fit in seamlessly," said Lieberman, a senior when Donovan, a lanky kid with size 15 feet, joined Old Dominion as the No. 1 recruit in the nation in 1979. "We were hard on her because we wanted her to come in and be at the standard of a champion. We had a certain level of excellence, and we wanted her to rise to that occasion. Plus nobody wants the new kid on the block to get all the attention and the hype. We were like, 'If you're that good, prove it.' "

That she did. Donovan's mark on one of the most storied programs in the sport holds up today. She remains ODU's all-time leading scorer (2,719 points) and rebounder (1,976 rebounds). Her 801 blocked shots stands as a national record. She was integral to three Final Four teams, including the one that won the 1980 championship.

"Far and away ODU's most decorated athlete of all time," said Old Dominion athletic director Wood Selig, a lofty statement about a school that touts Lieberman and Ticha Penicheiro in addition to a nine-time NCAA championship field hockey program.

Donovan was a three-time Olympic gold medalist, twice as a player and once as a coach, and was the first female coach to win a WNBA championship (Seattle, 2004). But Sunday was a day to highlight the gentle giant known to be genuine and witty, with a soft heart for cats and a toughness demonstrated on the floor.

Stanley recalled the Dec. 14, 1979, game when ODU hosted a Soviet national team that had not lost in 21 years. It was an exhibition played in a sold-out arena that many today say has never been as loud as when the defending national champions took a 10-point lead into the half. Donovan matched up against a 7-footer more than twice her weight.

"Little Anne was a freshman," Stanley said. "There is a still photograph of Anne Donovan guarding Uljana Semjonov. ... All you see is Uljana with four legs and a hand sticking out by her hip. Anne is obliterated. You don't see her. You see her hand and two feet. Anne is standing behind her, and this is what she had to go against as a skinny, little freshman."

Stanley also shared a story from Inge Nissen, a teammate of Donovan's from the 1980 championship.

Donovan changed out of her No. 22 jersey, only then revealing bruises up and down her back and ribs -- battle scars from the 68-53 victory over Tennessee.

"She never said a peep," Stanley said. "That was Anne. She would fight, she was with you in the trenches, gave you everything she could. She didn't want any special treatment."

Larry, a graduate assistant under Stanley back then, felt a New Jersey bond with Donovan instantly. Both hail from the north part of the state.

"She had a mild persona but there was a toughness about her," said Larry, who later had Donovan on her staff as an assistant for a decade. "She's someone who had to deal with being a tall woman who was in a society that wasn't used to dealing with tall women. She'd always be explaining, 'I am 6-foot-8 and, no, it's not raining up here.'

"She handled that with such grace."

Pam Elliott celebrated a softer side of her college roommate, reminiscing about tooling around campus in a Ford Country Squire station wagon with wood paneling inside, a family car Donovan was gifted for her senior year at ODU. In 1982, that car full of Lady Monarchs cruised to Philadelphia to watch the school's field hockey team win a national title, a good enough reason for Donovan to initiate a party that night in her dorm room.

"Let's celebrate their championship," Donovan suggested.

Hours later, a resident advisor warned them they were in violation of quiet hours. Donovan spoke to him outside and noted this wasn't just any party, it was a victory party.

"She told him in a way that only Anne Donovan could that he did not understand the reason for the party, that cooperation and cohesiveness were this university's forte and that as a RA, he should have known this," Elliott said with a laugh.

Elliott also recalled Donovan's soap opera addiction and a request that went up the chain to Stanley to move practice due to Luke's and Laura's wedding on "General Hospital," a TV treasure that attracted 30 million viewers on Nov. 17, 1981.

While practice time might have been moved, Stanley refuted the idea that television nuptials had anything to do with it.

"Anne had a way; she definitely had a way," Stanley said. "But I didn't change practice for that reason!"

Lieberman trumped that with her own scoop she called the "secret to winning championships" -- an untold story until now that involved a strip poker version of free throw shooting after the final practice before the title game. "Anne had never shot so well from the foul line," Lieberman said with a chuckle.

Grab, two years older than her sister and opposite her when her Penn State team met ODU in a Detroit tournament, remembers going against Donovan in backyard hoops.

"Anne was always much more skilled that I was," she said. "We'd go against each other and then it was all groovy afterward."

The five sisters were especially close and regularly planned an annual weekend away "minus boys and kids," Grab said. It was Anne Donovan's turn to arrange the 2018 retreat, set for next weekend in Wilmington, North Carolina.

The other four will be there, missing the baby in the family who was the youngest of eight.

"They'll be tears," said Grab, who held most of hers in during the two-hour memorial that was followed by a reception.

Lady Monarchs fans, many of them with strong memories of Donovan playing in the now-demolished ODU field house, were on hand, too, fitting given the connection she maintained to her alma mater and its supporters over the years.

Carolyn Disparti has been attending ODU games since 1978. She called Donovan "graceful under pressure. She was always getting mugged by three people and the foul was called on her."

ODU president John Broderick admitted he didn't see Donovan play in person but was touched by her generosity when she became coach of the Connecticut Sun in 2013. He congratulated her in a note and mentioned his father was a longtime Sun fan. Donovan sought out his dad's address and sent him a box of Sun gear.

"My father is 90 years old today and not in the best of health," Broderick said, "but he still has that Connecticut Sun hat proudly displayed in his bedroom."

Nikki McCray-Penson, in her second season as head coach at ODU, got to know Donovan after starring in the WNBA for eight seasons. Pictures of Donovan are in the Constant Center lobby, including the famous one where she towers over Lieberman and Nissen, the three standing in a line. The newspaper story of her committing to ODU is behind glass. Donovan's signature is on a pole with the other ODU greats in the locker room. Her jersey, of course, is retired. Her Naismith Award glistens in a case.

Lieberman and Donovan's family huddled with the current team, which McCray-Penson ensures is fully aware of the program's most decorated player.

"They know our history, our culture, our tradition," McCray-Penson said. "In order to get where we want to go, you got to know where it all started."