The world of women’s basketball was stunned Wednesday by the death of one its legends, Hall of Famer Anne Donovan, who died of heart failure at age 56, her family said in a statement.
“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,” the statement said. “Anne touched many lives as a daughter, sister, aunt, friend and coach.”
Donovan was a giant in the sport, and not just because she was 6-foot-8. Her impact extended beyond the court, where she starred as a player and a coach.
In her decades-long career, Donovan continually shattered expectations, her achievements earning her a coveted spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995. She also was part of the inaugural class of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999, and in 2015 she was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame.
She first gained national attention in the late 1970s, when she was just a student from Paramus Catholic High School in New Jersey.
By the spring of 1979, the native of Ridgewood, N.J., already was cementing her status as a star, fielding offers from more than 200 colleges and universities.
Because she was one of the most highly recruited players of the year, her college selection process “drew media fanfare of the type usually accorded male recruits,” The Washington Post’s Nancy Scannell wrote at the time, drawing parallels between Donovan and Ralph Sampson, who would go on to be the National Basketball Association’s top pick in 1983.
Donovan, who played center, eventually committed to Norfolk’s Old Dominion University, which at the time held the No. 1 ranking in women’s college basketball. The then-17-year-old told The Washington Post that her ultimate goal was to make the 1980 women’s Olympic team.
“If I don’t go in ’80, I’ll shoot for ’84. After that, I don’t know,” she said.
Not only did Donovan make the 1980 Olympic team, but she also earned a spot in 1984 and 1988, helping lead the United States to two gold medals.
When she retired as a player and turned to coaching, her success continued. In 2004, while coaching the Seattle Storm, she made history as the first female coach to win a Women’s National Basketball Association championship. Four years later, in Beijing, she helmed the U.S. Olympic team, this time as head coach, and led the American women to another gold medal.
In an interview with ESPN, former professional basketball player Nancy Lieberman, who was Donovan’s teammate at Old Dominion, remembered when the university’s coaches were hoping to add the center to their roster.
“I know that when we were recruiting her, the coaches were saying, ‘You’ve got to see this kid. She’s amazing,’ ” Lieberman said. “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.”
Although it may have been just talk between teammates then, Donovan did go on to create a legacy that will forever be part of basketball history, her name always accompanied by words such as “trailblazer” and “pioneer.”
As news of Donovan’s death spread, players, coaches, teams, journalists and fans took time to honor her.
“Anne was a giant in every sense of the word, and I know the women’s basketball community is saddened beyond words by this tragic news,” said Val Ackerman, who was the WNBA’s first president. “She was a pioneer and icon in the women’s game and made a profound and lasting impact at all levels as a player, coach, colleague and friend.”
Social media was quickly inundated with tributes from every corner of the sports world as admirers remembered her.
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist DeLisha Milton-Jones tweeted, “My heart literally has hit the floor with an overwhelmingly instant feeling of grief.”
On Facebook, Michelle Brooke-Marciniak, a former WNBA point guard, called Donovan a “TRUE players coach in every sense.”
“She is the kind of coach you look back on and you are grateful for the balance she brought to you as a player,” she wrote. “Anne knew what we needed as players, was very tough yet was never unfair or unreasonable. She cared and we knew it and you wanted to run through brick walls for her. I really loved playing for Anne. She won in basketball but more importantly she won in life.”
Aside from the Seattle Storm, Donovan coached WNBA teams in Indiana and Charlotte, which she led to the 2001 WNBA Finals, New York and Connecticut. She also returned to the collegiate level to serve as head coach at Seton Hall University from 2010 to 2013.
Beyond her achievements, Donovan is remembered for her character and dedication to the sport, many praising her for her humility and integrity.
“Annie was so quiet and kind, but she was such a competitor,” Lieberman told ESPN. “She didn’t have to brag. She just did her business, and everywhere she went, she won.”