When women’s basketball legend Anne Donovan passed away in June, Lisa Blais (now Manning) logged onto the funeral home’s guestbook and posted an old grainy photo of Donovan in a blue warmup suit, with her arms outstretched, and the words, “The ODU salute.”
It was a tribute to Donovan and a shout-out to the teammates Donovan and Manning, Maine’s hall of fame high school hoop star, shared during the two years they played ball together at Old Dominion University in the early 1980s. All of them, like Manning, were in disbelief that Donovan, only 56, had succumbed to heart disease.
“I was shocked,” said Manning in a phone interview last week. She found out via Facebook when a former college teammate dedicated her page to Donovan. Later that day details were confirmed during a televised WNBA game.
“She was a junior when I was a freshman,” recalled Manning. “She was very influential in how I should handle myself … a really good role model and a leader.”
In many ways, Donovan and Manning were kindred spirits. When Manning went off to Old Dominion University in 1981 after her storied career at Westbrook High School, I was writing sports for the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. I remember talking to people who thought Manning was making a mistake. A shy, quiet kid off the court (but a fierce competitor without peer on it), some said she’d be better off closer to home. It was also wishful thinking for the many Maine women’s basketball fans who hoped she would head north to Orono to lead the UMaine women’s basketball program.
But Old Dominion in Norfolk, Virginia, was the powerhouse of women’s basketball back then, having won a national championship in 1980. To be recruited by Old Dominion was a dream come true and a chance to see how good she could be against the best competition in the nation. And for an admitted introvert like Manning, ODU was a place where the spotlight would not be shining quite so brightly on her, and instead would be focused squarely on star players such as junior center and everyone’s All-American, 6-8 Anne Donovan.
“I was really shy growing up….it’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable being vocal with people,” Manning says. (On the court) it’s such a different feeling. You’re so comfortable in that atmosphere.”
Donovan too had been a shy, quiet kid as a high school star in Paramus, New Jersey. She led her high school team to state championships in her junior and senior year. She earned all kinds of accolades as a high school star and was recruited far beyond her home state. Like Manning, she had decidedly mixed feelings about all the attention paid to her. Her fierce competitiveness drove Donovan to leave her familiar surroundings to play at the highest level of the women’s game.
As a freshman, Donovan led the Lady Monarchs to the AIAW championship and led the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. In her four seasons at Old Dominion, she averaged 20 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks per game.
Those who followed women’s basketball back in the 1980s cite the times Donovan matched up against the Russian National team’s 7-2 foot powerhouse, Uljana Semjonova, as an indication of Donovan’s single-minded determination. Donovan was dwarfed and outmatched by the beefy Russian star in their first exhibition game meeting in 1980 and again in the 1983 world championships (The teams didn’t compete against each other in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics because of reciprocal, political boycotts). Donovan was quoted as calling herself a “fly on Semjonova’s shoulder” in 1983. But Donovan got her revenge in 1986 at the Goodwill Games in Moscow. She literally drew a picture to help her visualize herself blocking Semjonova’s shot. She not only managed to do just that, she also achieved averaged 11 points and 10 rebounds, as the U.S. sent the Soviets to their first international defeat in two decades.
Back at ODU, Manning’s first memory of Donovan showed how respected she was by her coaches and peers and what an influence she could be on her teammates. It came before the team’s very first team meeting, to which Manning was a few minutes late. Hoping to slip into the room unnoticed, Manning recalls how Donovan came up to her the first chance she got and said, “You need to go apologize to coach right away.” Despite the sternness of that admonition, Manning knew that Donovan was simply taking her role as a team leader seriously and making sure everyone on the team was on the same page.
Manning’s favorite memories of Donovan involve the goofy things college kids do on team road trips, things that solidify the bonds among them and make teamwork that much easier once you’re back on the court. Donovan was usually at the center of it, like that day on their Alaskan road trip when she invented “the ODU salute.”
After college, Donovan continued to put basketball at the center of her life — coaching at the college level and in the WNBA (where she became the first woman to coach a team to both a WNBA and an Olympic championship). Manning, meanwhile, played two more years at ODU. The Lady Monarchs won their first NCAA national championship in her senior year. Manning played one year of pro ball in Ireland before coming home to Maine, starting a family, and coaching her kids during their growing up years. She still coaches at the high school level. And she will always remember the lessons she learned from Anne Donovan.
“Anne always wanted to make sure everyone was part of the team,” she says. “She was such a good and caring person…she wanted everyone to feel important.”