Sweat, Pain, Tears. Those are the things I remember most vividly about playing under Coach Donovan. We worked hard. We were always sore, and as a freshman and sophomore, I shed a lot of tears in my dorm room trying to figure out if I had made the right decision to play basketball at East Carolina University.
20 years later, when I think about playing for Coach, I barely remember the sweat. I cannot recall the pain. I don’t remember the tears. I only remember the love, the professionalism, the character, and the life lessons she taught me.
It is funny how time has a way of showing you what really matters. As a freshman and sophomore at ECU from 1996-1998, I was too immature, too narrow-minded, and too stubborn to realize that I was in the presence of Greatness. Of course, I was aware of Coach Donovan’s great accomplishments: Olympian, Naismith Player of the Year, National Collegiate Champion, one of the world’s most decorated women’s basketball player. I just was not aware of her inner greatness-her heart and character. That’s what she gave us each and every day. She gave us her heart wrapped in discipline, integrity, commitment, and poise.
As a rookie collegiate player, I could not appreciate that. All I focused on was the pain-the pain of leaving my family for the first time, the pain of being out of shape and unprepared for preseason workouts, and the pain of trying to learn the game of basketball as opposed to just playing the game of basketball. There is a huge difference, and Coach was determined to make sure we understood the game line by line, principle by principle.
She was an excellent teacher of the game and she coupled that with discipline. For Coach, you could not separate the two. If we were going to be great, we had to be disciplined. Our workouts were rigorous. I can remember so vividly, her watching our individual workouts. She would stand at the top of the key looking much taller than 6″8, arms folded, work out agenda folded under her right arm, khaki shorts with no noticeable wrinkles, crisp purple or white ECU polo collared shirt, whistle dangling, eyes laser-focused on our routines: “You have to crash to the post hard. Do it again. Do it again. Is that game-like? Do you really think that is game-like? Do it again.”
Along with the fundamentals and physical discipline, Coach focused on the mental. Coach was always having talks with me about focus. I would come into practice one day looking all-conference and the next day looking all-defeated. She had a problem with my inconsistency-the way I approached the game. I just thought she was trying to change me-that she didn’t like me and didn’t believe in me. It was during one of these moments of being in my feelings that Coach really demonstrated to me that I was wrong.
She knew my birthday was coming up and she asked me what I wanted for my birthday. Without hesitation, I asked her to have breakfast with me at Krispy Kreme. I had an 8:00 am class so we would have to have an early breakfast. I am not sure if Coach was even an early bird, but she agreed to meet me around 7:00 am the next day or so for a birthday breakfast. I still don’t know why I made that exact request. I was partially testing her just to see if she was being serious, and another part of me really just wanted to get to know my coach better.
In all my time at ECU during and after my playing career, I have never driven by the Krispy Kreme on 14th street without thinking about me sitting and watching my sharply dressed, laser-focused coach walking into those doors to have a donut with me. I remember her joking that I must be special for her to be up that early. I don’t even remember if we actually ate a donut, but I do remember that we talked about life, school, our families, everything but basketball. It was a defining moment for me. I left feeling so proud and happy about my day. We had practice that afternoon, and Coach acted no different. She demanded our best, penalized us for not giving it to her, and demanded our best again. Yet, that day was different because I realized Coach wasn’t pushing us beyond our limits to torture us. She pushed us beyond our limits because we had set the bar too low and she knew we were capable of so much more. She was right. We were.
If you think the story turns into a happily ever after, it doesn’t. At the end of my freshman year our record was 13-16. The next year, we were 9-19. From a purely statistical perspective, there wasn’t much good to reminisce about. Those were tough years from a basketball perspective. There are no team records to speak of. No championship banners were hung. No jerseys were retired. I think everyone was glad to get to the end of that 9-19 season. Losing is never fun and in spite of our hard work and the foundation that was being laid, we just weren’t winning.
And that is why losing Coach so unexpectedly and so suddenly hurts so much. For so long I had viewed those two years of my collegiate basketball career as losses. But when my sister, Chasity, called to tell me Coach Donovan had passed, I realized what a real lost felt like. It is still hard to describe that pain.
I wish I could go back to that 18 year-old kid and have a one-on-one with her in her dorm room. I would tell her how blessed she was to be coached by Anne Donovan and her entire coaching staff: Coach Jinny Doyle, Coach Charisse Mapp, and Coach Danielle Charlesworth. I would tell her to suck up those tears, and stop complaining. Many people dream of playing college basketball. Few achieve it. Enjoy it. Enjoy it to the fullest.
I would also tell her one more thing. Enjoy Coach Donovan. Make all the memories you can. Visit her office as much as you can. Learn all you can. One day, you’re going to look back and regret that you didn’t take full advantage of having access to one of the greatest players and person that the basketball world has ever known.
Unfortunately, I can’t go back and visit my 18 year-old self and that is okay. I’d much rather follow in the footsteps of my coach and pay it forward by inspiring my family, being committed to my friends, and impacting young people through the game of basketball and more importantly, the game of life.
People will often forget what you say to them. Rarely, will they forget what you did to them. Coach, thank you for what you did to me…you instilled in me the keys to success-hard work, dedication, mental toughness, consistency and most importantly a relentless drive to be better than the day before.
Those lessons have proven to be priceless and they are the true essence of the legacy of Anne Donovan. She gave her best not just to basketball but to people. That type of humility and excellence is rare in our world of “whats-in-it-for-me.” We truly were blessed with a beautiful gift in Anne Donovan and I will cherish that gift for the rest of my life.
Rest in peace, Coach. You fought the good fight. You have finished the race. You have kept the faith. Thank you. See you on the other side.
Danielle Melvin Koonce,