PARAMUS, N.J. -- Anne Donovan was remembered as a gentle, kind, patriotic and loyal woman at a memorial service Saturday.
The 56-year-old Basketball Hall of Famer died on June 13 of heart failure and a few hundred people, including former players, coaches, referees and friends, filled the Paramus Catholic High School auditorium where she starred in the late 1970s.
Dawn Staley, who played for Donovan with the Charlotte Sting and coached with her at USA Basketball, gave a touching speech. South Carolina's coach had the audience laughing when she recalled how the 6-foot-8 Donovan earned the nickname "Big Sexy" by the way she was dressed before one game. Staley, who is the current U.S. women's national team coach, then broke down at the end of her talk when remembering how Donovan would often text her after many wins or milestones.
"Every single time," Staley said, choking back tears. "Anne was always there. Every single big victory, small victory, there was a text message. I appreciated them, but now I appreciate them a lot more."
Staley said Donovan's name could have easily been Grace.
"She was generous, polite, she was the definition of grace," she said.
Donovan's high school coach Rose Marie Battaglia was in the audience along with women's basketball greats that included Nancy Lieberman, Carol Blazejowksi, Swin Cash and Teresa Weatherspoon. Former coaches Lin Dunn, Carol Ross and Sylvia Hatchell were also in attendance. Battaglia had just seen Donovan earlier in June when the longtime New Jersey coach was enshrined in the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.
"I was so happy that we got to have everyone together at the Hall of Fame before Anne passed away," Battaglia said.
Donovan's love of USA Basketball was evident throughout the hour-long service by the stories told by her family and friends, as well as the playing of the national anthem before the tributes began. She was a member of three Olympic teams as a player. The 1980 team did not go to Russia because of a boycott. The Americans won the gold in 1984 and `88, and she coached the winning 2008 team.
"Anne loved her family, her friends and USA basketball in that order," said former USA Basketball assistant coach Gail Goestenkors, who worked with Donovan at two Olympics.
Outside the school cafeteria, where a reception was held after the ceremony, were tables set up with awards that Donovan had won throughout her career, including the 1983 Naismith Player of the Year Award and Olympic memorabilia from her time as both a player and coach.
Former New York Liberty and Connecticut Sun trainer Lisa White recalled how people would always come up to Donovan asking if she played basketball. Always humble, Donovan would simply answer, "a little bit."
Her brother John said the family took his sister's ashes to a North Carolina beach, near where Anne lived, for one last happy hour earlier this week.
The ceremony concluded with a tribute video of Donovan , showing footage of her as a player in high school, college and also as a USA Basketball and WNBA coach.
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