Anne Donovan stands head and shoulders above most women who have played the game of basketball. Not just physically, but also in terms of accomplishments. She won a national championship as a player on the college level, at Old Dominion University, and a WNBA Championship as the head coach of the Seattle Storm. Anne also has four Olympic gold medals and is the only woman to win gold medals playing for the U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team, and as the team’s head coach. Representing the United States against the best athletes in the world, and bringing home the gold, still holds a special place in her heart.
“It is so hard to put into words, but I don’t think there is any Olympic athlete for any country that doesn’t feel a significant internal gauge that is off the charts about the meaning of that competition, or that particular game, even before you get to the medal round, just what it means to put on the red, white and blue and represent your country,” Anne said. “For me it was the ultimate, by far surpassed anything else I was able to do.”
Anne was a freshman at Old Dominion when she made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that never got to compete because of the country’s boycott of the summer games staged in Moscow. She had started her professional career in Japan when the 1984 games rolled around in Los Angeles. Ann made her second U.S. Olympic team, and won her first gold medal, in the games that were boycotted by Soviet-bloc countries. Four years later, she won a second Olympic gold medal as a player when the U.S. defeated all challengers in the summer games held in Seoul, South Korea.
“I have a photo someone gave me from the ’88 Olympics, just after they put the medal around my neck,” Anne says. “I’m bawling, just sobbing. Tears of relief, and joy. It was the end for me. I look at that picture and I can feel it today, but I can’t describe it.”
Anne’s playing career continued overseas for another season before she became an assistant coach at her alma mater. Anne was head coach of the Seattle Storm of the WNBA when she joined Head Coach Van Chancellor’s staff on the 2004 U.S. Women’s Olympic Basketball team that won the gold medal in Athens. She was named head coach of the national team in 2006, which did not have several stars that led the U.S. to gold in 2004. Anne’s team fell short of the gold in the World Championships in Brazil, making the already pressure-filled leadership position even tougher.
“In women’s basketball, it’s the expectation that you’re going to win gold, and men’s basketball I guess,” Anne says. “Anything less is just not acceptable. For me, I coached the World Championship team that won a bronze medal. I know what that felt like and it wasn’t good. So, coming back two years later in the Olympics in Beijing, there was enormous pressure that we not bronze, not silver, but we get back to gold medal level.”
They did, rolling through the field to a perfect 8-0 record in the 2008 Summer Games, winning every game by at least 15 points. Anne had cemented herself in the upper tier of women’s basketball history.
Anne’s toughest competition may have come in the family driveway in Paramus, New Jersey. The youngest of eight sports-oriented children, she says basketball was a way of life around the Donovan home, even used to settle arguments.
“What is very prevalent in my memories is when we would get to fighting in the house,” she says with a smile. “My mom would just throw us out in the backyard and say, ‘go settle it at the hoop’. So, we learned at an early age how to be competitive.”
One of the most sought-after recruits in high school, Anne enrolled at Old Dominion University to join established players like Nancy Lieberman and Inge Nissen, who Anne credits with improving her game dramatically. She talks about their relationship at 8:15 of the podcast.
“She was tough as nails, and I thought everything I wanted to be as a college player,” Anne says. “I felt like going against Inge everyday in practice would eventually get me where I wanted to go.”
2,719 points, 125 victories, three Final fours and a national championship later, Anne graduated from ODU and wanted to continue her basketball career. But without the opportunities of a WNBA, playing overseas was the only option. Anne signed with a team in Japan.
“In order to stay at the top of your game you had to go someplace for playing time and score,” she says. “The added proponent for me to pick Japan was they were small and fast, and it was really going to help my game develop at that point, too. It was tough being there, but the decision to go was not hard, because I wanted to be better and I wanted to contribute on the Olympic team.”
When her playing career ended, Anne coached on the college level before taking a step into the pro ranks. She coached Philadelphia’s franchise in the American Basketball League, and when the league folded she became an assistant in the fledgling WNBA. She became the coach of the Seattle Storm in 2003, and won the league’s title the next season. She coached several other teams in the league before resigning as the head coach of the Connecticut Sun in 2015.
“I’ll go down on my dying days and be thankful for David Stern for giving us that opportunity, for really putting the feet to the fire of the NBA executives on their teams to give us a chance,” Anne says about the women’s league. “But without David Stern’s foresight, and Val Ackerman who initiated the league over 20 years ago, it never would have happened.”
Anne Donovan’s accomplishments are celebrated in Halls of Fame around the world, including the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame (enshrined in 1995), the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (enshrined in 1999) and the FIBA (International Basketball Federation) Hall of Fame, which enshrined her in 2015. Anne says that honor stands out as especially meaningful.
“Just internationally being recognized for what I did as a player,” she says. “But it’s really the memories that mean the most, and I know that sounds hokey. But it was a very special time in my life to be able to play for as long as I did, and to carry it into the coaching ranks which I never in my life thought I would do. Basketball has been a very special part of my life.”
One special moment in Anne’s life happened recently, and it’s captured on a video for the First Hoop Project. The family moving into Anne’s childhood home in New Jersey planned to discard the basketball hoop she and her siblings used for years, until a neighbor stepped in to preserve it.
“When I stepped back into that snapshot, if you will, with that hoop, everything came flooding back,” Anne remembers. “The hours I stood out there. I had my own game where it had to be nothing but net. So, I’d stand under the basket trying to get 25 in a row that didn’t hit the rim, didn’t hit the backboard, nothing but net. Those kinds of memories came back, reminding me of how I got to where I was.”
Having a conversation with someone as legendary and accomplished as Anne Donovan is a treasure trove for someone like me. We talked about her earliest days on the court, how she learned to cope with usually being the tallest person on and off the court during her school years, how she received a call from a well-known college football coach trying to get her to his university to play basketball and many other stories. I hope you enjoy listening to the conversation as much as I did having it with Anne.
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