A Night Of Celebration For Donovan

By Mel Greenberg

ASTON, Pa. – Until Tuesday night, every time Connecticut Sun coach and basketball Hall of Famer Anne Donovan has been in the Philadelphia area she has been in some mode of competition.

In 1980, she was a freshman on the powerful Old Dominion squad as a teammate of fellow Hall of Famers Nancy Lieberman and Inge Nissen when the Lady Monarchs, on the way to a second straight national title, paid a visit to Saint Joseph’s on Hawk Hill.

In later years, she was on the sidelines guiding the former Philadelphia Rage in the final months of the American Basketball League and then back in the collegiate ranks as the head coach of Seton Hall.

At Neumann University just outside the city’s southwest border on Tuesday evening, Donovan’s trip had a different purpose, one that reached beyond the quest for wins on the court.

Before a large group of mostly Neumann student-athletes and administrators at the NCAA Division III institution, Donovan became the third recipient of the University’s Institute for Spirituality, Character and Development Award at the Mirenda Center, which is the school’s multi-purpose arena and athletic facility.

Previous winners of the prestigious honor were the Philadelphia Coaches vs. Cancer endeavor in 2012 and former Philadelphia Flyers captain Keith Primeau in 2011. On hand to help celebrate the award were Donovan’s sister Patrice and Lisa White, the Sun’s strength and conditioning coach.

In receiving the award, Donovan underwent an emotional reunion almost 30 years in the making and gave an inspirational acceptance speech lasting just over 18 minutes. She also engaged the audience in a question-and-answer session following her remarks.

Donovan was chosen for the honor based on her philanthropic spirit, as explained by Neumann University.

In 1984, Renee Keister Balke was one of the most promising basketball players in New Jersey. In her first two seasons at McCorristin Catholic High School in Trenton, she had scored more than 800 points and big-name colleges were already expressing interest. On June 15 of that year, while doing gymnastic exercises at home, Keister fell and broke her neck. The accident left her paralyzed.

Sr. Marguerite O'Beirne, OSF, Neumann's vice president for mission and ministry, was principal of McCorristin at the time. She immediately began planning a fundraising event for Keister to help the family meet the tremendous medical expenses incurred in caring for their daughter. One of Sr. Marguerite's contacts suggested a benefit basketball game to raise money, and they wrote to basketball stars with New Jersey roots to ask for help.

Donovan, who played her high school basketball at Paramus Catholic, immediately agreed to play in the September 1984 game, which raised $10,500 for the Keister family. She even returned the next month for a second benefit game to help Renee. In addition to defraying medical bills, the proceeds also helped outfit a van for Keister, who graduated from McCorristin and went on to earn a college degree.

According to Sr. Marguerite, "We would never have raised the money without Anne Donovan."

Twenty-nine years after a stranger's act of kindness changed her life, Renee Keister will present the 2013 ISSCD Award to Anne Donovan.

At one point in her speech after accepting the award, Donovan noted that Keister, who is now age 45 and married with twin teenagers, had been all over the world since the accident and that she actually changed Donovan’s life.

Donovan stressed that the award is different than most where wins, points, even medals are the factors going into an honor. “The best part of sports is the relationships you guys are forming right now,” she said to the young men and women in the audience. “Some will last until your last day. For me that’s the most important part of sports.”

In her opening segment, as she gave a recap of her athletic life, Donovan joked, “I’m 6-foot-8. Anyone guess that? Usually I have a contest.”

The youngest of eight children, she said she grew up “Introverted and super-shy. My Dad passed when I was five years old, so my mother was saddled with a gaggle of kids. I struggled when young – the stares, being 6’8”, glasses and braces. It was not the prettiest of packages. But when I started playing basketball in 5th grade and left my family to play on the court, I found a different family. I found a group of people I could trust that gave me confidence and gave me a vehicle to feel good about myself.”

Donovan said the game gave her a sense of purpose, a place to be comfortable, to give her an identity. Sports give opportunities outside the playing field, no matter what they are, that’s when the big picture happens.

Donovan covered five themes in her speech – Fortitude, Attitude, Integrity, Trust and Humility – with examples from her experiences in the game. Together, the first letter of the five themes spell Faith.

On Fortitude: “I learned early you had to be pretty tough mentally and physically to get through practices and a long season – pushing through circumstances.”

On Attitude: Donovan discussed the opportunities to change that come through sport. She referred to how Keister got through her circumstance. “She taught me the power of being positive.”

On Integrity: “That’s a tough one. It comes in all shapes and sizes. Are you prepared? Are you a man or woman of your word? That’s what integrity is. When times are tough you show who you are. It’s not when things are going well.”

She recalled coaching the former Charlotte Sting as her first WNBA job. “Guess how I started out? We were 1-10. But we then went 17-4 and got to the Finals.” Donovan cited the leadership of her two captains –Dawn Staley and Andrea Stinson – as the catalyst turnaround. “It would have been easy to bail on the new coach. But they all stayed together and showed who they are in hard times.”

On Trust: Donovan emphasized that if you don’t trust a relationship it’s not much of a relationship. You see it every day. You build it or break it down.

On Humility: Donovan said that if you stay successful in your role, it’s not about who gets the credit. It translates far beyond athletics.

In the question and answer session, Donovan talked about the differences between coaching in the pros and in college. “There’s much more pressure in the pros,” she explained. “In college the players pick you, in the pros, you pick the players. You are usually on a shorter leash in the pros. That’s just the way it is.”