Anne Donovan, a 6-foot-8 center who was one of the most dominating players of the early 1980s in women’s college basketball and who later won championships as a coach in the W.N.B.A. and the Summer Olympics, died on Wednesday at her home in Wilmington, N.C. She was 56.
Her brother John said the cause was a heart ailment.
A lanky star at Paramus Catholic High School in New Jersey, Donovan was recruited by more than 100 colleges in 1979. Her size, her soft shooting touch and her strong rebounding made her nearly impossible to guard — and a coup for any college that she chose attend.
She selected Old Dominion, in Norfolk, Va., then a powerhouse in women’s basketball.
In her first year, playing alongside the All-Americans Nancy Lieberman and Inge Nissen, Donovan led the Lady Monarchs in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. The team won the 1980 national championship, which was then overseen by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (two years before the N.C.A.A. started its women’s tournament).
“She’s improved 200 times since she first came here,” Marianne Stanley, the Old Dominion coach, told The New York Times in 1980. “I expected her to develop, but not this quickly.”
Her improvement continued. Over four seasons, she averaged 20 points, 14.5 rebounds and 5.9 blocks a game.
The Lady Monarchs (since renamed the Monarchs) never won the N.C.A.A. title while Donovan was on the team. The closest they came was in 1983, when they reached the Final Four but lost to Louisiana Tech in a semifinals matchup in which Donovan scored 22 points, blocked 6 shots and had 10 rebounds. It was her final college game.
When asked afterward if she was prepared for her career to end with a loss, she said, “Not this way, no,” as tears rolled down her cheeks.
Anne Donovan was born in Ridgewood, N.J., on Nov. 1, 1961. She seemed fated to be tall. Her father, Joseph Sr., was an engineer who stood 6-foot-6. Her mother, Anna Mae (Mann) Donovan, who worked as a secretary after her husband died in 1966, was close to 6 feet tall.
Anne was the youngest of eight children, who were separated by 15 years and whose height ranged from 5-foot-10 (her sister Michele) to 7-foot-1 (her brother John).
They all played basketball in the driveway of the family home.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, so it was an inexpensive thing to do,” she said in an interview for the website Six Foot Sports in 2016. John Donovan said the siblings had played hard. “There were a lot of bloody elbows,” he said.
Anne Donovan was already close to her full height in eighth grade when she attended a basketball camp run by Rose Marie Battaglia, who would soon coach her at Paramus Catholic. Donovan was coached at the camp by Carol Blazejowski, who had just entered Montclair State University, where she would become one of the great scorers of her era.
“Annie wasn’t as coordinated as I thought she should have been,” Blazejowski said in a telephone interview. “I was frustrated that someone that big wasn’t dominating the camp. We’ve laughed about it for years. I said, ‘Annie, you’re never going to go anywhere.’ ”
When Donovan finished her career at Old Dominion, she played in Japan and Italy and then won gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 Summer Olympics as a member of the United States women’s team.
She began coaching at Old Dominion as an assistant, which led to a peripatetic run of head coaching jobs at both the college and professional levels. She was the coach of the East Carolina University team from 1995 to 1998; the Philadelphia Rage of the American Basketball League in 1998, until that short-lived women’s league folded; and W.N.B.A. teams in Indiana, Charlotte and Seattle.
Donovan guided the Seattle Storm to the 2004 W.N.B.A. championship and the United States women’s team to a gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
In 2009 she was hired as assistant coach of the New York Liberty of the W.N.B.A. by Blazejowski, the team’s general manager. With the team floundering that season, Blazejowski fired the head coach, Pat Coyle, and promoted Donovan.
“I wanted to ride her success,” Blazejowski said. “She had done it on the collegiate level, in the pros and in the Olympics.”
Despite a 22-12 record in the 2010 season, Donovan left the Liberty to coach at Seton Hall in New Jersey.
But after three losing seasons there, she returned to the W.N.B.A. to coach the Connecticut Sun. She resigned after her teams compiled a 38-64 record over three years.
“It’s not easy walking away from a team that I put my heart and soul into,” she said at the time, “but I think it is in my best interest to move on.”
Her brother John said she had been enjoying retirement but had also been contemplating a return to coaching.
In addition to him, she is survived by another brother, Kevin, and four sisters, Kathleen Donovan, Michele DiPiano, Patrice O’Donnell and Mary Grab. Her brother Joseph Jr. was one of four people murdered in rampage at a home in New Orleans in 1997.
Donovan attended the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony last weekend in Rose Marie Battaglia was inducted.
“She developed from a girl who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time,” Battaglia told NorthJersey.com this week, “to someone athletic enough to play the point on our 1-2-1-1 press.”
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