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A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Emotional night at Mohegan

Things weren't exactly going the home team's way when I clicked the Twitter app on the my phone during the first half of last night's Connecticut Sun/Washington Mystics game

When I saw the tributes to former Sun coach Anne Donovan pouring in, I could hardly believe what I was reading. At the age of 56 and less than a week after she was seen at the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Donovan died of heart failure.

Whether it was in her time as the Sun's coach, her stint at Seton Hall or other WNBA stops including the one when she guided the Sue Bird-led Seattle Storm team to the 2004 WNBA title, I've interviewed Donovan so many times. One of those sessions, however, stood apart from all the rest.

A few months before Donovan would coach her final season with the Connecticut Sun came the news that Shannise Heady, who played for Donovan at Seton Hall, died in a car accident.

“I think it is another life reminder that you take nothing and nobody for granted,” Donovan said in that late January, 2015 interview. “The relationships and interactions that we have with people on a day to day basis, it could be your last opportunity to make an impact with somebody and it is just a reminder of how short life can be.”

Those words resonate now more than ever. Tributes began making their way onto social media during last night's game and continue to roll in. They speak of her incredible basketball career when she was an iconic star at Old Dominion earning her induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995, the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame four years later and the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2015. What followed would be coaching stops at East Carolina and Seton Hall, Philadelphia of the ABL as well as with Charlotte, Seattle, New York and finally Connecticut in the WNBA. She also coached the U.S. to the 2008 Olympic title.

Donovan's time in Connecticut was not easy. The surprising firing of Mike Thibault (who happened to be coaching the visiting Washington Mystics last night) did not sit well with the Sun's star players. Asjha Jones would never play for Donovan while Tina Charles and Kara Lawson appeared in a combined total of 35 games during the 2013 season. The Sun posted records of 10-24, 13-21 and 15-19 with the Sun. In her final season, the Sun lost two games in overtime and three others in regulation by five points or less.

Alex Bentley and Jasmine Thomas came to Connecticut during Donovan's time there in trades with the Atlanta Dream and both have thrived during their time in Connecticut. Bentley spoke about the team being determined to play with an extra jump in their step in the second half after hearing of Donovan's death. The Sun did that by rallying to take the lead before falling 95-91. Trailing by 30 points, it matched the largest deficit a WNBA team overcame to take the lead. Ironically, the Sun set that mark in a loss to Minnesota in 2010.

Bentley and Thomas both spoke about how Donovan would keep in touch with them and when they least expected, she would send them a text message congratulating them on their recent success. Donovan made those gestures in her typical understated fashion. She wouldn't want to do anything that would take the spotlight off of the current coaching staff.

On a personal note, I really enjoyed my dealings with her. She wasn't as comfortable around the media as somebody like Thibault and it is no easy task being "the other" prominent women's basketball coach in Connecticut. There is a shadow cast by the incredible success of Geno Auriemma's UConn program especially since many of the reporters who cover the Sun also handle the daily coverage of UConn and in the beginning of her tenure with the Sun I'm not sure that Donovan was completely comfortable with all of that. She grew to embrace that role in her own way. I recall doing a story on the impact of transfers on the women's college game and she gave me some great stuff and when you went to her on subjects that might be a little off the radar, she never failed to deliver thought-provoking responses.

Last night was not an easy one for the players, coaches or media members all coming to grips with the loss of a true basketball legend all while doing their jobs at one of the arenas that become Donovan's basketball home away from home.

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