Interview with Anne Donovan

U.S. Olympic Team Women’s Basketball Head Coach Anne Donovan
Part I – Growing Up, The Player
Part II - From Player To Coach | 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 I of the series appears below. Parts II, III and IV will run on FeverBasetball.com throughout the rest of the week leading to her return to Indianapolis.

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

FeverBasketball.com: I understand that you grew up in New Jersey, you played basketball in high school and at Old Dominion University. But before all of that, when did you first become interested in basketball?

Anne Donovan: “You know, I’m the youngest of eight kids in my family. All tall, we all played basketball, so at my earliest memory I was bouncing a ball in the backyard.”

FB: Did you play any other sports?

AD: “I high jumped a little bit, played some volleyball until my junior year in high school and then it was just basketball.”

FB: There weren’t many female athletes to look up to, so who where your role models?

AD: “For me at that time it was easy, just within my own family. I had a sister, Mary, who was just two years older than me. She did everything, she ran cross country, she ran track, played volleyball. She got a scholarship to Penn State to play basketball, so my role models were really in my own family, my sisters and my mom.”

FB: What kinds of goals had you set for yourself as a young lady?

AD: “You know, I don’t know if I knew about goals, and the possibilities, I guess. I don’t think I knew much about that until I got heavily involved with basketball. What’s memorable to me is a trophy for a most valuable player on my team in 5th grade. At that point I realized that I was not only tall, but that I had a shot to be good at this game. And I loved it. There in fifth grade I was really having a good time with it. At that point I think I probably started to think about a direction in practicing the game.”

FB: Well I have to ask, were you always the tallest player on the teams you played on?

AD: “Always the tallest player and tallest coach on any team I’ve ever coached. Unless I was in my backyard, my brother’s taller than I am, so that was pretty much our legacy.”

FB: Would you ever have imagined that you’d not only play professional basketball overseas, but coach the U.S. Olympic team on the biggest stage in the world?

AD: “You know, absolutely not. There are some real memorable highlights in my history that, in my mind, are such milestones. Winning a national championship in college and being on the Olympic platform getting a gold medal. Visiting the Hall of Fame and going into the Hall of Fame. Some of the things that have happened to me … years before I would watch the vOlympics and watch people get gold medals and never dreamed that it would be me. I watched basketball hall of famers and never believed it would be me going into the Hall of Fame one day. I don’t know that I ever could’ve imagined just how blessed my life would be.”

FB: Besides when women’s basketball adopted the 5-man game rules, what other major changes do you think helped elevate the women’s game?

AD: “The progression of coaching. Girls at an earlier age are getting coached by much more qualified people. That matures and advances the skill level at a much younger age, and that has truly advanced our game. Over the last 10 years – exponentially.”

FB: In college, you led your team to the national championship. Since then, how has the women’s college game changed?

AD: “Number one, there’s so much more awareness for it. In college we got to the Final Four and it was still a very small spotlight in a small pocket of the country. Now the NCAA tournament is a magnificent event that has really captivated a lot of people who didn’t know much about women’s basketball. Number one is public awareness. It’s completely changed.”

FB: Back then at Old Dominion, what do you think were the greatest challenges female basketball players faced?

AD: “We were accepted at Old Dominion as a traditional powerhouse in women’s basketball. We kind of woke people up in our area of the university to women’s basketball. But stepping outside of northern Virginia, there were very few areas that recognized women as basketball players.”

FB: As far as scholarship is concerned, what kind of advice can you give student-athletes in high school and college?

AD: “I think it’s imperative to keep your focus on why you’re in school. You’re in school to get an education. For women, that still holds true. The number one thing is getting a college degree, and of course your sport takes up a lot of time, and there’s a lot of commitment that goes with that. And it is a job. In some sense you’re ‘getting paid’ through your scholarship dollar to perform. But keeping perspective and balance on your education and athletics is absolutely key.”

FB: You were a member of the ’84 and ’88 gold medal Olympic teams. How did it feel not only to represent the U.S. but stand as a strong, accomplished female athlete?

AD: “I’m so blessed that I was able to live through the boycott in ’80, then the boycott of 75 countries in ’84, and then make it through ’88 when there was no boycott and we were clearly gold medalists with all the top competitors being in Seoul (South Korea) for the Olympic games. So for me, I was proud that I was able to endure through a lot of difficult times politically in our country. To make it to an Olympics that wasn’t affected by a boycott. To me, some of the best memories of my life involved wearing red, white and blue, and continue now with this job.”

FB: Tell us about your most vivid Olympic memory, can you identify one or two that stand out above the rest?

AD: “For me, the pinnacle would have been the platform when we got gold medals in ’88 in Korea because I knew that was my last go-around. At that point, at 26, people were asking me why I was still playing and said that I was so old, ‘what was I thinking?’ (laughing). At that point, all I knew was that I was getting the gold medal around my neck and hearing the National Anthem. That team had been together for a long time, the core had been together from ’84 throughout. We had achieved a lot and finally beat the Soviets for the first time in 1986 and carried that through the gold medal in ’88. So it was the end of my international basketball career and I was just really proud to be there and be sharing it with such great individuals, and being with my teammates and staff.”

FB: As far as pride, you’ve accomplished so much, coaching and playing, at every level of the game. How can you describe or identify the pride that you feel in the growth of the women’s basketball game? You’ve obviously been a part of it at every level.

AD: “It’s hard to articulate it, hard to put into words. To see where the game was, and you know, with the pioneers before me. In 1976 was our first Olympic team, and from ’76 to ’80, the woman before me paved the road. To see it go from very small participation and recognition levels to the national spotlight that we’re at now, with the WNBA, the financial gains that our players are seeing overseas, it’s tremendous growth that I am sure I never envisioned in my lifetime.”

Check back tomorrow for Part II in FeverBasketball.com's interview with Anne Donovan.