Sunday, June 17, 2018

Anne Donovan truly larger than life, both on and off court

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

As the New York Liberty were battling the Las Vegas Aces Wednesday evening, an the opportunity to check social media during a timeout gave a shock of an announcement, as women’s basketball guru Mel Greenberg informed us that Anne Donovan had passed away.
The 56-year-old Donovan seemed to be in good health, and was in Knoxville for the Women’s Hall of Fame induction the prior weekend. As it turned out, Donovan succumbed to heart failure. It was the cruelest of ironies, that a person with a heart of gold would literally fall to a heart-related fatality.
Anne Donovan was a grade school player at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Ridgewood, New Jersey. She was about fully grown to her 6-foot-8 stature, but in need of development. Dr. Rose Battaglia told the Bergen Record when Donovan started, “she could not walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Donovan attacked the game with a relentless work ethic. At the same time, she gained more coordination and confidence. Soon, she was beginning to dominate. Battaglia recalled how the once-struggling Donovan soon had the agility and ability to play like a guard while playing for her at nearby Paramus Catholic. The Lady Paladins dominated the New Jersey girls’ basketball scene. After that, she went on to Old Dominion, at the time a power in the women’s college game. International ball and the Olympics followed before Donovan embarked on a coaching career.
The accolades are phenomenal: Three major halls of fame (Naismith, Women’s and FIBA), national championships in both high school and college, Olympic gold medals as both a player and coach, as well as becoming the first female coach to win a WNBA championship. Honors, distinctions, and superlatives aside, everyone -- yes everyone who was able to come into contact with Anne Donovan -- was impressed regarding the type person she was, to everybody.

A personal note that remains vivid in the mind’s eye and epitomizes Donovan came at a Home Depot in Clifton, New Jersey a few winters ago. While shopping the aisles, I ran into Anne studying designs for a second home renovation, and introduced her to my wife, Karen. After a few minutes of basketball small talk, Anne was actively conversing with Karen, asking opinions on what she wants to do and what may look best. After about 15 minutes, we said goodbye and headed off. I later informed Karen about some of Anne’s achievements. Impressed, my wife’s first comment was on what a nice person Anne was.

The aforementioned Mel Greenberg had another recollection among many of who Donovan was. When Ginny Doyle of Richmond -- who assisted Anne at East Carolina -- passed away a few years ago, Anne conducted a morning practice with her Connecticut Sun team. She drove five hours to be at Doyle’s celebration of life service. Donovan paid her respects, then immediately drove back to Connecticut to coach that evening. There is a long list of players and coaches that Anne has reached out and helped, and those are not limited to the collegiate and professional ranks.

Al Roth, with Anne’s recommendation, became the girls’ coach at Paramus Catholic in the early 1990s. Roth would hold the position for a quarter-century. The veteran mentor would often say that Anne frequently texted him at least once a year to stay in touch. Roth also told the Bergen Record that Our Lady of Mount Carmel was having a fundraiser one year during a Ridgewood street fair. Anne would be heading home from a international trip from the Orient. A 20-plus-hour flight was on tap, meaning  Anne would get home the night prior to the street fair. Needless to say, she was out there the following day in support of her first alma mater.

Anne’s last college coaching position was at Seton Hall. When The Hall went looking for a successor to Phyllis Mangina in spring of 2010, the administration was thrilled to hear she had interest in the position. During her three years in South Orange, she began the process of turning the program around. Tony Bozzella followed Donovan, and recently on social media, expressed how honored he was to follow and build on what Anne established during her brief time in South Orange.

Anne was always gracious, cooperative, and a pleasure to cover. She was demanding of her players in the area of giving an effort, playing hard on both ends of the floor. She would never call out a player in the media. A poor team effort may have been alluded to, but never singled out an individual player. She seemed to enjoy her time at Seton Hall, but the opportunity to get back to the WNBA was too much to pass up. Donovan left Seton Hall for the Connecticut Sun, which turned out to be her final stop on the coaching circuit. Beyond the numbers on the floor and wins on the sidelines, Anne Donovan was a pioneer and inspiration in the women’s game. She was honored by her Old Dominion alma mater in 2008 as an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters for her contributions to women’s basketball.

An outstanding inside player, Donovan could relate and teach players at all positions during her coaching days. Sue Bird, a standout with Seattle for years, credits Donovan for being responsible for much of her professional and international success. Bird was a key member of the 2004 WNBA championship outfit in Seattle.

The last few days, the messages and tributes for Donovan have been numerous, the memories morphing into an outpouring of love and devotion from so many involved in the women’s and men’s game as well. Anne Donovan was a true inspiration, an inspiration to someone with a basketball, a desire and a dream to reach a certain height through hard work. She inspired not only players, but coaches as well. In fact, all who love the women’s game undoubtedly find her an inspiration and an icon.

Very often, icons are placed on a pedestal and not available, per se, to the average person. Not so with Anne Donovan. She had time for everyone who she came in contact with. It was a sincere interest and giving time on her part that set her apart.

Anne Donovan will be missed. The lives she impacted, though, are significantly better. Her legacy lives on.

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