Anne Donovan, a legendary figure in women’s basketball who won Olympic gold as a player and as a coach for the United States, died Wednesday of heart failure. She was 56.
“While it is extremely difficult to express how devastating it is to lose Anne, our family remains so very grateful to have been blessed with such a wonderful human being,” Donovan’s family said in a statement. “Anne touched many lives as a daughter, sister, aunt, friend and coach.”
Donovan, a native of Ridgewood, New Jersey, was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995 and also was part of the inaugural class of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999. She was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2015.
A 6-foot-8 center, Donovan played collegiately for Old Dominion from 1979 to 1983, averaging 20 points and 14.5 rebounds for her career and helping the Lady Monarchs win the 1980 AIAW national championship.
Out of Paramus Catholic High School in New Jersey, Donovan was one of the most highly recruited female basketball players in the country in the late 1970s. She picked Old Dominion, in part, because of the success the program had with stars such as Nancy Lieberman, who was a senior when Donovan was a freshman.
“I know that when we were recruiting her, the coaches were saying, ‘You’ve got to see this kid. She’s amazing,'” Lieberman said by phone Wednesday night. “She and I talked a lot about the experience she’d have. We talked about building a legacy, even though we were so young. I don’t think we really knew what a legacy was at that point.
“Annie was so quiet and kind, but she was such a competitor. She didn’t have to brag. She just did her business, and everywhere she went, she won. I’m just sick at hearing this. I’m so sad.”
Donovan made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, which did not compete because of the boycott of the Moscow Games. She then helped lead the Americans to gold in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics.
After she retired as a player, Donovan became a coach, first as an assistant at her alma mater and then as head coach at East Carolina. She began her pro coaching career with Philadelphia of the American Basketball League, a short-lived women’s league. She then went on to coach in the WNBA for several years, including the Seattle Storm, for whom she was head coach from 2003 to 2007 and won a league championship in 2004.
“Anne Donovan will always be remembered as a championship coach and a championship person,” Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel said in a statement. “Her dedication, passion and winning spirit set the tone for Storm basketball. We are deeply saddened by her passing and share our heartfelt condolences with her family.”
Donovan’s other WNBA stops included Indiana; Charlotte, which she led to the 2001 WNBA Finals; New York; and Connecticut. She also was a head coach at Seton Hall from 2010 to 2013.
Donovan also had an extensive coaching career with USA Basketball as an assistant and as a head coach. In the latter role, she led the U.S. Olympic team to the 2008 gold medal in the Beijing Games.
WNBA president Lisa Borders called Donovan “a decorated player and trailblazing coach” who “played a seminal role in the growth of women’s basketball.”
“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,” Borders said in a statement. “On behalf of the WNBA, we extend our deepest sympathies to the Donovan family during this difficult time.”
Lieberman said that Donovan’s Old Dominion ties remained strong, because there was a bond among all of the former Lady Monarchs.
“From my generation in the 1970s to now, we all cared about each other and stayed in touch,” Lieberman said. “I just talked to Annie about a month ago. I was just remembering how in college, she’d come into my room and we’d just talk about our families, our goals. She was from New Jersey, I was from New York. We always understood each other. She was an icon as a human being.”
Donovan was in Knoxville, Tennessee, this past weekend for the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction of Rose Marie Battaglia, her former high school coach in Paramus.
“Anne was a person with strong faith, courageous spirit, a giving heart and love for everyone,” Donovan’s family said in its statement. “We are so proud of her accomplishments as a women’s basketball player and coach, but even more proud of her character, integrity, humility and kindness.
“We appreciate your respect for our family’s privacy during this very sad time.”