“Basketball,” said Anne Donovan, quoting the classic Saturday Night Live skit, “has been very, very good to me.
And she has been very good to basketball.
As a freshman at Old Dominion University, the 6’8” Donovan won the 1980 AIAW national championship. A three-time All-American, in 1983 she was named first women’s winner of the Naismith Award for player of the year. Donovan’s tenure with USA Basketball began in 1977 as a 15-year-old on the inaugural Jones Cup team. Named to the 1980 Olympic team that didn’t play because of the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games, she won Olympic gold in 1984 and in 1988.
Inducted as a player into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995 and into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999, Donovan has found coaching from the sidelines equally successful. An assistant for the 1998 and 2002 World Championship gold medal winning squads, she also served as an assistant coach to Van Chancellor in 2004 as the United States claimed the gold medal in Athens. After the Olympics, she returned to coach the Seattle Storm and made history as the first female coach to win a WNBA championship.
This past August, she achieved another milestone as she guided the USA National team to its fourth consecutive gold medal during the Beijing Olympics.
THEY JUST DON’T HAND THESE THINGS OUT
While many may take US gold as a fait accompli, Donovan knows better. Hers was the team that won bronze in the 2006 World Championships, forcing the US to have to qualify for Beijing. It was a shock to many both in and out of the US. But perhaps not to those who’d been paying close attention.
“I remember with being with Van in 2004 and in 2002,” recalled Donovan, “and I don’t know those scores off the top of my head, but if you look back we barely won the World Championships in 2002 and the Olympics games in 2004. We were close to being exposed, but we weren’t completely exposed until ‘06. On my watch. I knew it was coming. I mean, it was clear it was coming because our training time was going down bit by bit every year.”
Reflecting on that semi-final loss Donovan noted, “I’m not one that believes that you got to lose to get the lesson, to get your players to the ‘next level.’ I don’t like those lessons,” she added dryly. I try to avoid them at all costs. But, when we went to the 2006 [Championships], we lost key players from that team — Yolanda [Griffith] and Lisa [Leslie] — at the last minute. Now, looking back at 2006, Candace Parker being thrown into a major role before she should’ve been that helped her development for us as a national team. But, said Donovan, “We were completely exposed.”
“After giving myself a box of Kleenex to get over the world championship loss,” it was, “All right, let’s figure out we can do to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
PATCHWORK QUILT COACHING
Most coaches would agree that the first step in assuring there was no repeat of the World Championship performance during the Olympics would be to pull the team together and practice for an extended period of time. But the summer season of the WNBA, the “off-season” of more playing overseas, and the need to actually rest one’s body, all pull players away from the long-term commitment USA Basketball demands.
“Everybody wants to go to the Olympics,” said Donovan. “But, once the Olympics are over, it’s really difficult to get players to commit to that next three-year period in the quadrenium.” As a consequence, every time Donovan and her coaching staff would think they would have a full unit to train together, something –- professional commitments, injuries, personal commitments — would get in the way.
“You couldn’t think about what you didn’t have,” she explained. “You had to really focus on who was there. You had to keep in mind that, ‘Of this group of eight players or nine players who’s really going to be with us in Beijing and let’s really concentrate on how we can make them better.’ There was a resilience there that I had to have, and we had to have as a staff.” And, added Donovan, “It was a matter really of keeping our thinking looking forward thinking and not being so concerned with the loss we were facing or the lack of players.”
THE WHOLE GREATER THAN THE PARTS
What’s is intriguing about being a USA Basketball is that the players are chosen by the Selection Committee, not the coach. “It can be frustrating to not have complete control, but having 30 years of being associated with USA basketball, I know why those rules are place,” said Donovan. “But, this is the first time that I’ve been confronted with, you know, just wanting more control. Every coach wants control right?” she laughed.
“But I have to say, the mentoring that went on. I talked with Tara [VanDerveer] about it. And Pat [Summitt] and Van. Just good conversations about what to think about and what to look for and how to approach a delicate situation with the committee. About having conversations with committee members outside of committee meetings just to make sure they understood why my needs were what they were. And then feeling like I had to let it go.”
In the end, Donavan credits the committee for making sure that the right pieces were on her team. “To me that doesn’t mean the best 12 players in the USA. It means complementary players that understand their roles. And they are hugely important — that role player, number 11 and 12, is probably more important than 2,3, and 4. Kara Lawson (Sacramento/TN) is a great example,” continued Donovan. “So many people questioned her value to our team. We understood that Kara had so many intangible qualities — besides the fact that she is a fantastic ballplayer — but her intangible qualities were something we had to have on the team. She was just one of many quality women on the team. That selection process is more important than anything you do as a coach on the floor. Because you’ve got to have the right pieces that buy in to it the right way.”
The “right way” means they had to buy in to the concept of “team ball.” “It’s hokey. ’Team ball.’ It’s all coach-speak,” admitted Donovan with a grin. But, “in a nutshell, it means the team goals are more important than any individual goals.” No mean feat when you’re working with elite athletes drawn from a pool of players who have healthy egos. “They don’t rise to the top of their profession if they don’t have healthy egos,” said Donovan. “But, you have to devise a team that brings out the best in each other and covers up the weaknesses.”
Asked which is more satisfying, the gold medal earned as a player or as a coach, Donovan was hard-pressed to make a choice. “I was so proud as a player because I had to work hard at my craft,” she explained. “I just wasn’t an Olympian or repeat Olympian. I had to really work to be named in ‘80 and then to maintain that level and be selected for ‘84 and ’88. There was a great amount of satisfaction and pride that went with being on those teams and being part of gold medals.”
“As a coach it’s the same thing,” she continued. “I work hard at my craft and so there is a great amount of satisfaction in achieving the gold medal. I think when push comes to shove, if I had to choose, this experience in 2008 is so satisfying because of what we’ve been through in the last three years. The nature of women’s basketball right now has changed so much. The landscape is night and day from any other period in our history, with players having less time to dedicate to their national teams across the world, and less time to dedicate to building their system and building a real unit.”
Ironically, not having the entire unit together until just before the Games, made the experience even more satisfying. “I think in a lot of subtle ways we were able to develop our team through these three years in very painful ways. And yet, as hard as it was over these last couple of years and losing more games than I’m sure the women’s program has lost a long time, there still was learning going on and we were still adding to the process of putting together the team that showed up in Beijing.”
“I get long-winded about this because for me the most impactful thing about Beijing was the semi-final game against Russia. Here we are in exactly same position that we were in 2006. We had played really well. We had had no problems scoring. We were blowing people out. And here we are playing Russia in the semi-finals for the right to go to the gold-medal game and we can’t throw the ball in the ocean. It’s exactly the same game as 2006. Exactly.”
“Except for we could defend. Those players got down, locked down, and defended.”
“And that was to me even more significant than the gold medal win. We had come 360. All we’d talked about nonstop from before the world championships was basically, ‘What happens when we can’t score? What happens? You got to be able to get the stops.’ It sounds very elementary, but never before had we seen it and done it. So for me, those were the lessons: Your core beliefs of what your philosophy is as a coach, you stick with them. Even in the hard times, you’re going to get reinforced if you truly stick to what you believe in.”
QUIETING THE NAYSAYERS
Anyone following USA Basketball knows that those “hard times” were not just about the losses or missing players. Donovan was well aware that there was steady commentary of naysayers and doubters who questioned coaching abilities and questioned the ability of the team to succeed under her leadership. “I learned a long time ago to stop worrying about ‘them,’” she said. “They do hurt though. Their criticism and their judgment — most times completely unfounded judgment — is difficult. Anybody that lives in any semblance of a spotlight, as all of us coaches understand, we have to learn early to deal with criticism.”
“But there is a sense of relief that it went…not only went beautifully, but that it went as well as it did. There is tremendous satisfaction in what we were able to do. And again, it’s just the way it happened. To play Russia in the semi-finals, that was almost a gold medal experience just there — just seeing how we’d grown in two years. And then getting the opportunity to really beat Australia in a big way…. You couldn’t have scripted it any better.
“So for me there’s tremendous satisfaction, for my own self, for my own self worth and belief in myself. It’s another reinforcement that I’m on the right track.”