To many in the world of women’s basketball, Anne Donovan was a giant. And not just because she stood 6-foot-8.
She won a national championship at Old Dominion, two Olympic gold medals as a player and another as a coach in her storied career.
The 56-year-old Hall of Famer died Wednesday of heart failure, her family said in a statement.
“One of the greater basketball players in her time slot,” Las Vegas Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said. “She stood out for her height, but also her playing ability and continued that throughout her whole life, coaching, her ambassadorship. You name it, she did it.”
Donovan was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995, was part of the inaugural class of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999 and was inducted in the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2015.
“Anne was a giant in every sense of the word, and I know the women’s basketball community is saddened beyond words by this tragic news,” said Val Ackerman, who was the WNBA’s first president. “She was a pioneer and icon in the women’s game and made a profound and lasting impact at all levels as a player, coach, colleague and friend.”
Donovan was just in Knoxville, Tennessee, last weekend at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame ceremonies where her high school coach Rose Marie Battaglia was inducted into the 2018 class.
“People are going to remember her for what she did in basketball,” Seattle guard Sue Bird said. “But she also was just such a great person.”
Donovan led the Storm to the WNBA championship in 2004, becoming the first female coach and the youngest person (42) to win a title in the league.
“I have some amazing memories of Anne. We’ve gone through a lot,” Bird said. “Lauren (Jackson) and I were puppies when she came to Seattle. She had a clear image of what she wanted our team to be.”
Bird recalled one time the Storm came into the gym for practice and there were a bunch of dodgeballs on the court, so Donovan had the team play an impromptu dodgeball game, in which the coach participated.
“She also used to stand under the basket early in my career during practice and try to block our shot,” Bird recalled laughing. “She definitely got a few of mine.”
Bird also played under Donovan with USA Basketball. She was part of the 2006 world championship team that won a bronze medal. Falling short of the gold medal – the only time the Americans didn’t won gold in the world championship or Olympics since 1996 – fueled Donovan to not have the same thing happen in the Olympics in 2008.
“She was on a mission in Beijing,” Bird said. “We were a well-run team.”
Donovan was a member of three Olympic teams as a player. The 1980 team did not go to Russia because of a boycott. The team won gold medals in 1984 and ’88.
“She used to say she bled red, white and blue,” USA Basketball said in a statement. “As much as we remember her accomplishments in the game, we mourn a great friend who will be greatly missed.”
Donovan also coached the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, Charlotte Sting, New York Liberty and Connecticut Sun, working there from 2013-15.
“A decorated player and trailblazing coach, Anne Donovan played a seminal role in the growth of women’s basketball,” WNBA President Lisa Borders said. “For all she accomplished in college, the WNBA and on the international stage during her Hall of Fame career, Anne will also be remembered as a valued mentor and dear friend to so many in the game.”
The Liberty and Sun were playing games Wednesday night when news broke of Donovan’s death. Players from both teams were saddened to hear of the death of their former coach.
Connecticut was her last coaching job and many of the Sun players were drafted by Donovan. They were down 30 points Wednesday to Washington before rallying to take the lead in the fourth quarter. They ended up losing in the end.
“I think we didn’t appreciate her as much as we should,” Sun star Chiney Ogwumike said. “We were struggling as a team at that point in which she was the coach, and she gave us that fierce mentality that we should be proud to be the Connecticut Sun basketball team. She made us fighters.”
The New Jersey native also coached at Seton Hall for a few years.
“Throughout her college and professional career Anne was one of ODU’s best ambassadors both for the institution and Lady Monarch basketball,” Monarchs athletic director Wood Selig said. “Anne’s legacy will be permanent and everlasting and will forever remain as the foundation upon which the Lady Monarch brand became national and synonymous with success.”