Interview with Anne Donovan

U.S. Olympic Team Women’s Basketball Head Coach Anne Donovan
Part II - From Player To Coach
Part I - Growing Up, The Player | Part III - From Player To Coach | Inspiring Women Night

Anne Donovan was the very first coach of the Indiana Fever, and boasts distinction as the only woman ever to play on the U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team, and later serve as its head coach. In between those duties, she coached the Seattle Storm for five seasons and won a WNBA championship in 2004. In many ways, she has helped shape and helped define the direction and growth of women’s basketball as we know it.

Her basketball saga began as a player – one of the tallest women of her time, and one of the game’s best players at every level she ever played. One of eight children growing up in New Jersey, she became an All-American at Old Dominion and later coached in the college ranks at ODU and East Carolina before joining the professional ranks. She has been a part of USA Basketball for 31 years.

Anne Donovan will be the Fever’s honored guest during Inspiring Women Night, when the Fever hosts the Storm on Friday, July 18. She spent time with FeverBasketball.com’s Lesley George, to produce a four-part Q&A that dissects her career in basketball, life as head coach of the U.S. Olympic Team, and a look back at time spent with the Fever and the Storm in the WNBA. Part II of the series appears below, with Parts III and IV to follow on Wednesday and Thursday.

FeverBasketball.com would like to thank Anne Donovan for her time and cooperation during this lengthy interview.

FeverBasketball.com: Had you always envisioned yourself being involved in basketball even after your playing days were over?

Anne Donovan: “You know, I always thought I’d be involved in some capacity, but I never envisioned being a coach until I actually got into coaching. I gave it a shot as a volunteer coach, and it was a quick passion for me.”

FB: Coaching at the college level, what was your biggest challenge?

AD: “I think it was recruiting. And back then, it was a whole lot easier than it is now, per se. But I think recruiting is a never-ending challenge for coaches. For me and my personality it was definitely a challenge. It’s a hard job, period. But given my personality I think it made it even more of a difficult match.”

FB: Given that personality, how would you describe your coaching style?

AD: “I think I’d describe myself as a players’ coach because I’ve played the game for so long. I understand, I think I can read players very well, in terms of where they are emotionally, mentally, physically – and when they are fatigued or not. I like to give and take with players. I don’t ever feel like I know it all, because that exchange with players is important for me to be doing my job fully. And yet at the same time, I’m not a players’ coach who is an easy target, if you will. I think that I’m a demanding coach – I would say that as well.”

FB: After East Carolina, you started coaching with the Philadelphia Rage of the American Basketball League (ABL). What was the ABL’s ultimate downfall?

AD: “Gosh, I don’t know that I can go on record saying much. I think it lasted two months while I was there before the league went under. I think mostly they got in over their head financially. They wanted the players to be paid well, and in doing so it was to the detriment of the league.”

FB: Well Indiana was proud to have you as the expansion Fever’s head coach in 2000! Nine seasons later, how can you see how the WNBA can still be improved?

AD: “I think there’s room for growth, but it’s only growth that’s going to happen with time. As we get more established in finances we’ll be able to do more. I think our travel is something that I know is a burdensome thing for everybody involved, players and staff and the league office. I’d love to see that addressed at some point in time, when financially they afford to address that. I wasn’t a big fan of the summer season, but it certainly is the pocket of time we need to look at. I think we’ve found our niche with families in the summertime who are looking for something fun to do with their families. So I like the summer season. I don’t know that I have a lot of suggestions for big changes.”

FB: Do you think that the WNBA is probably locked in to that summer season? I think we all kind of like it, but we’re wondering do we start earlier? Do we start later? Can we expand, can we go longer? What are your thoughts on that?

AD: “I think we all are looking for a little more elbow room at both ends. I think the Olympic years are always a good test, because we end up going later and into October, if I recall, in 2004 the last time we had the Olympics. That was a good summer in Seattle anyway! It didn’t seem to affect our attendance or the league’s attendance in October. So I think we found some things that have shown that we can maybe increase the season at both ends and not be too adversely affected.”

FB: You were kind of partial to that last Olympic year weren’t you?

AD: “Sure was (laughing)! That was a lucky year for me!”

FB: Let’s talk a little bit about going from Indiana to Charlotte, and then Charlotte to the Storm. What were the biggest challenges going from the Fever to the Sting?

AD: “Well I had such a great time in Indiana. It’s so much work with an expansion team but it’s so exciting because everybody’s in the trenches trying to make it happen. Just the fan support [in Indiana], it was such a fun year. We were striving for double digit wins. That was our goal midway through the year. We didn’t quite get there but what a great process that was and what a great learning experience for me to go through the building process with Kelly Krauskopf and the organization.

So, going to Charlotte, it was similar experience in the fact that the team was not successful at all. And that the infrastructure of the Sting was struggling. It was a market here that was really struggling. So I found that we were doing a lot of the same things that we were doing in Indiana to build a franchise. I think the players were so ready for a change, and for us to win. They were very receptive and so loyal. I don’t know if you remember, but we started off 1-10, it was a rocky start. And then the players just stayed committed to the process. Because they did, we ended up in the WNBA championship game. I can’t say enough for the commitment of the players. It’s evidence that when players buy in and really set their minds to it, really good things can happen.

FB: Was Sutton-Brown on that team? Was that one of her early years?

AD: “That’s exactly right, I think it was Tammy’s rookie year.”

FB: What about going from Charlotte to Seattle? Of course Seattle had only had one coach prior to that point.

AD: “Yeah, that was a difficult decision for me because I loved Charlotte and I hated to leave the team. I was committed to that team and we were going through such rocky times with, what were they – the Hornets at that time. So once I got to Seattle it was clear that that was a fabulous professional move. Very well-supported, great fan support, and just good leadership within the organization. It was a difficult move personally because pretty much I’d been an East Coast girl other than my stint in Indiana. So the northwest was a brand new experience for me, but obviously proved to be a great experience in those five years.

FB: Now this question very personal to the fans in Indiana, joking obviously, what was your biggest challenge following Lin Dunn as a coach?

AD: “Definitely a challenge! When I took the job in Seattle there were a lot of people that said, ‘We love Lin!’ They’d keep looking at going, ‘We love Lin!’ (laughing) I think following Lin’s personality – that was my biggest challenge. She’s just larger than life. She’s one of the funniest people I know. From a personality standpoint I’m pretty much a sarcastic, more quiet personality. For sure, Lin’s personality was the hardest thing to follow.

FB: You mentioned Kelly a little bit ago, and kind of read my mind when I was going to ask you the question. You’re close friends and your careers have kind of paralleled one another recently. Give me a couple thoughts on Kelly Krauskopf. What has she meant, not just to the Fever, but to the WNBA and again the growth of women’s basketball?

AD: “Kelly, from her time in the league office, I mean, she set the stage. She developed the WNBA, along with Val Ackermann and all the others in the league office. Actually, I shouldn’t say all the others because there weren’t that many of them. She was one of the brainchilds of the WNBA and I didn’t know much about her until I came to Indiana. I was so impressed with her professionalism and her vision for the franchise. And her energy. I can’t say enough for Kelly, she is one of the best in the business, hands down. She is very true and loyal, very committed, and that’s all reflected in the Fever. You can see that in the way the team has stuck together, the players being brought in, and the way the team has been built.”