Anne Donovan, a Basketball Hall Of Famer who won championships at the highest levels of her sport, has died at age 56. The former Old Dominion University star and WNBA coach died of heart failure on Wednesday, her family said.
"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 family said in a statement published by the Associated Press.
"Anne touched many lives as a daughter, sister, aunt, friend and coach. Anne was a person with strong faith, courageous spirit, a giving heart and love for everyone."
A 6'8" center who was blessed with an array of physical gifts – she could both shoot from outside the lane and dominate around the basket, for instance — Donovan won a collegiate championship as a freshman at Old Dominion in 1980.
She went on to win two Olympic gold medals as a player in 1984 and 1988, and a third as a head coach at the 2008 Summer Games.
Donovan was the youngest of eight children – all of them tall – who grew up playing basketball together. When she was enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995, she took a moment to recognize them from the stage.
"I'm your baby sister," she told her sisters and brothers.
"You guys — your lives, your examples, your guidance, the backyard pickup games, the threat of being beaten up --" Donovan said with a laugh, "those things shaped me. And I love each one of you so much."
Donovan was seen as a prototypical center, setting a new mold in the sport as a complete player with a wide-ranging game. Her name often comes up during discussions of the phenomenal centers who followed her, from Lisa Leslie to Brittney Griner.
"I saw Anne when I was in the 10th grade," Leslie said on ESPN last night. "She came to... Inglewood High School. I would wake up every morning to watch the Olympic team, and Anne stood 6'8", she was the center — and I'm like, 'I can do this, I want to be like her. I actually thought I could take her place, because Anne was just, she was amazing.' "
Donovan's pro career began overseas, playing in Japan and Italy. In 1989, she returned to the U.S. and began a second career as a coach, first as an assistant at Old Dominion and then as the head coach of East Carolina University (from 1995 to 1998). She then went on to other head coaching jobs in both the WNBA and the college ranks.
Donovan coached the Seattle Storm to its first championship in 2004, becoming the first female coach to win a WNBA title.
Donovan ran into several former players last weekend, when she visited the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee.
After news of the hall of famer's death spread, Tamika Catchings, whom Donovan coached on the Olympic squad, said via Instagram, "Words can't express how heavy my heart is right now. Literally just saw Anne this weekend."
Catchings added, "I will always be thankful for the impact she had on me, not only as a player, but more importantly as a person. Always taking time to pull me to the side to 'catch up' on life and just to talk about any and everything. I'm literally in shock."
Dawn Staley, the former WNBA star who has now won an NCAA championship of her own as a coach at South Carolina, said she was "truly heartbroken" to hear the news.
"Anne was known by her Charlotte Sting players as Big Sexy," Staley said in a tweet. "She would blush and glow every time we called her that. She was such a pleasure to play for & work with throughout the years."
"A decorated player and trailblazing coach, Anne Donovan played a seminal role in the growth of women's basketball," WNBA President Lisa Borders said in a statement. "For all she accomplished in college, the WNBA and on the international stage during her Hall of Fame career, Anne will also be remembered as a valued mentor and dear friend to so many in the game."
Donovan was born on Nov. 1, 1961, in Ridgewood, N.J., and attended Paramus Catholic high school. From 2010 to 2013, she returned to New Jersey as the head coach at Seton Hall, after leaving the WNBA's New York Liberty. She retired from coaching in 2016, after a stint leading the Connecticut Sun.