Saturday, August 23, 2008

Donovan's Day

The great thing about the Olympics is how much they mean to players and coaches. The tough thing about the Olympics is how much they mean to players and coaches. Those of us who have worked with the Storm for some time saw familiar faces on both sides of this morning's gold-medal game. While it was great to get a chance to see Sue Bird and Anne Donovan celebrate, it was at least equally as tough, if not more so, to see the disappointment etched on the faces of Lauren Jackson, Tully Bevilaqua and Suzy Batkovic.

At the end of the day (not quite literally, since the men's final will keep me up late), the person I'm happiest for is Donovan, who joined Pat Summitt as the only two women ever to win gold medals as players, assistant coaches and head coaches, Donovan having also done so as an assistant coach. It's easy to see how much this means to Donovan.

"I bleed red, white and blue," Donovan said when she was named the USA's head coach through the Beijing Olympics. "From the time I can remember, the Olympics were it. Staying up until all hours and watching the Olympians go for medals was something from a child that was a complete dream for me. When I stepped into the position as an athlete to fulfill that dream as a player, I thought that was the pinnacle. And then here I am as the coach. So it's truly life-long dreams for me."

It was evident to observers the kind of pressure Donovan put on herself in her dual role as head coach of the Storm and the national team in 2006 and 2007. That only increased when the U.S. was upset by Russia in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championships, snapping a 50-game winning streak in major international play and forcing the Americans to settle for bronze. In the wake of the loss, Donovan came under heavy criticism for her coaching, some of it justified but much of it ignoring the fact that Russia had played close before against USA squads that had the fortunate luxury of having Lisa Leslie at center.

That was before Donovan came under more fire this spring when she questioned Becky Hammon's patriotism because of Hammon's decision to play for Russia in the Olympics.

Ultimately, the 2006 loss proved a valuable learning experience for Donovan and her coaching staff. They recognized the need to return to the level of defense the U.S. won with despite subpar offensive efforts in the medal rounds in Athens. Defense was the focus of the USA's brief training camp in Palo Alto, and the results were obvious. The U.S. women put together 80 minutes of incredible defense in their wins over Russia and Australia, and that translated into a gold medal.

The final +37.8 average margin of victory for this year's team was the best ever for the USA in an Olympics, and when you consider that the conventional wisdom heading to Beijing was that the rest of the world had caught up, that's pretty remarkable. Even the closest U.S. win, coming from behind against Russia in the semifinals, was far more decisive than the Russia-USA matchups in Athens or in the 2002 World Championships.

I watched the gold-medal game this morning with a handful of Storm co-workers, and at one point during the second half the discussion turned to whether this might be the best U.S. Olympic team ever. I took the dissenting position - the legendary names of '96 and that team's incredible year-long run is tough to beat in my mind - but the mere fact that this is a discussion is testament to the coaching job Donovan and her staff did in the Olympics.

After the game and her USA head-coaching tenure were over, Donovan reflected publicly for the first time on the pressure she felt to win gold.

"There was no more pressure on me than the pressure I put on myself," Donovan said. "That was just extremely disappointing to be the leader of that team that came away with bronze. And to know that we were better than that and could be better than that, drove me every day since 2006."

Later, she added, "I’m not coaching the team any more, so I can sleep at night now."

The last question of Donovan's portion of the press conference asked her whether winning gold as a head coach was different than doing so as a player or assistant coach.

"It's way different," she said. "There is so much more … I think there is a lot of pressure I put on myself for this and there is just a tremendous amount of satisfaction to know the last three years … there have been a lot of challenges … so this is a great way to go out."

Indeed it is. Congrats, Anne, and I hope you sleep well tonight.


Patrick said...


I am a huge Donovan fan, and I hope a fair critic of her weaknesses.

Her Olympic squad was not any more talented than any previous one, but her coaching staff was well designed and well executed. It is a testament that Anne needs an unbiased eye in the GM spot in the WNBA. I expect a third finals with a third team from AD in the near future.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Dawn staley a assistant coach? She won gold as a player and coach?

Kevin Pelton said...

Donovan joined Summitt as the only two to win as players and *head* coaches (both won as assistants too). Staley might eventually join that list, but not yet.

Kevin Pelton said...

Let me quickly correct myself. Pat Summitt was not an assistant coach on a gold-medal-winning squad. She was an assistant in 1980 when the USA boycotted the Olympics.

So Anne's triple is unprecedented.

Kendal said...

Thank you Kevin for this post. I don't know if you read Rebkell's but many over there are far from Coach D, fans, they think she had nothing to do with the women winning the gold. Many won't give her one ounce of credit. There are those that can see the good she did and where she needs improvement, we are far and few at least at Reb's. Then there are Becky's blind, rabid fans. To them what she said was an insult about Becky becoming a Russian. I post less and less over there as it takes too long to wade through the crap to get to the few that are intelligent, and well thought out posts. As always I enjoy reading your blog, great job!