Anne Donovan was much more than just a basketball coach

Anne Donovan is introduced as the new head coach of the Connecticut Sun during a press conference on Jan. 3, 2013 at the Mohegan Sun.   (Tim Cook/The Day)
Anne Donovan is introduced as the new head coach of the Connecticut Sun during a press conference on Jan. 3, 2013 at the Mohegan Sun. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Mohegan – The following juxtaposition applies to all of humanity:

There’s what we do: Anne Donovan was a basketball coach who led the United States to Olympic Gold, the Seattle Storm to a WNBA championship and later walked among us, coaching the Connecticut Sun.

And then there’s who we really are: Anne Donovan was a gentle soul. Yes. This is where it begins and ends with her. A gentle soul with a puckish sense of humor, big family and many friends who were lucky enough to be in her life.

It was with unspeakable sorrow that we learned of Anne Donovan’s death during Wednesday night’s Sun-Mystics game, the most surreal night in the history of the franchise and the arena.

Anne Donovan died the night the man she replaced here in Connecticut, Mike Thibault, was coaching the other team.

She was 56.

“A great friend,” Thibault said. “I don’t know what to say. All the basketball stuff goes away when you have this kind of stuff happen.”

For someone who didn’t know what to say … Thibault said it all. All the basketball stuff goes away. Quite literally in this case. Sadly, we judged Anne Donovan here on the basketball. She didn’t win enough. But if nothing else, mortality is the winner and still champion on delivering perspective.

Because Anne Donovan was a really good person.

“I spent basically three-and-a-half years of my life in the offseason traveling with her all over the world,” Thibault said. “World championships, tours of Russia and France. We did Normandy beach together. Hikes in Spain. A lot of late night dinners with a lot of red wine.”

Thibault was Donovan’s assistant coach during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

“I know she took my place here but she and I maintained a close relationship. It’s just sad. I just saw her probably a month and a half ago,” Thibault said. “The experience we had in Beijing was incredible. My son (Eric, an East Lyme High grad and current Mystics assistant) had his 21st birthday with her and (former Duke coach and Olympic assistant) Gail Goestenkors buying him drinks. She was great to be around.”

Full disclosure: "There’s what we do … and then there’s who we are" is a Mike Thibault line from many years ago. Maybe his best. He knows Connecticut never got to know the true Anne Donovan.

“On the basketball court, she won championships. She won Olympic gold. She was a Hall of Famer,” Thibault said. “The other part: just a good human being who cared about her friends. She has a lot of close, close friends. This is just heartbreaking. One of the reasons (you coach) is for the friends you meet and the people you deal with. We’ll see over the next few days how many friends Anne had. Tons of them.”

Anne and I would talk about food (she loved the Sushi at Spice Club in Niantic) and drink (Grey Goose, straight up with an olive). After a few notable losses (and wins here), Anne would report the next day it was “a two Goose night.”

One of the loves of her life was her cat, Romeo. She had a big family. Lots of love there. And yet it came back to this a lot for her: Her stature, a woman who was 6-foot-8, belied the gentleness of her spirit.

“Anne was one of those people that once you got to know her, she would make you laugh and laugh at herself,” longtime Sun public relations director Bill Tavares said. “We would enjoy Starbucks together. She’s the one who made me get the Starbucks app. Even after she left, I’d text her once in a while, ‘I’m thinking about you, I’m at Starbucks.’

“I just texted her last week. A Japanese film crew was doing a documentary and wanted to talk to her because she played in Japan. Our texting went back and forth. She sent me this really long, eloquent text about the challenges of raising kids in today’s society.”

Tavares’ children are all grown up now, an illustration of time’s merciless passage. And then time seems to stop on days like this when we ponder our own mortality.

“There was no finer human being than Anne Donovan. I am devastated by her loss,” said Mystics assistant Marianne Stanley, who coached Donovan at Old Dominion. “Her loss, like her impact on the women's game, is immeasurable.”

And while Connecticut fans are enjoying the Sun’s recent success under Curt Miller, lest we forget Anne Donovan’s fingerprints are here, too.

“This team is built on the toughness of Anne. I talk a lot about how we understand what struggle is. She taught us how to fight through that and be confident players,” Sun forward Chiney Ogwumike said.

Donovan drafted Ogwumike first in the 2014 draft.

“She was intimidating in her stature, but man, she was nice,” Ogwumike said. “I remember the whole year she never really showed her emotion. When I had my exit meeting with her, she was warm, almost in tears, about the fight we had and how proud she was of me. That had a huge effect on me. It taught me how the WNBA works. You handle your business on the court. You’re tough. But off the court, we care about each other.

“Last time I saw her was in Seattle at the all-star game,” Ogwumike said. “I ran over and gave her a big old hug. We went through a lot as a team. The toughness Alyssa Thomas plays with is a product of Anne empowering her. She was a gentle giant.”

May we all raise a Grey Goose in Anne’s honor.

Rest in peace, gentle soul.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

 

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