Anne Donovan was so much more than just a basketball coach

The Day - - SPORTS - MIKE DIMAURO m.dimauro@the­day.com

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-ahalf 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

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.

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