A Legend at Lunch

The first Naismith female college player of the year — and acclaimed WNBA coach — bites down with gusto at Pine Valley Market

By Dana Sachs

For nearly three decades, Anne Donovan played a leading role in women’s basketball, transforming herself from college superstar to international pro to successful coach in the Women’s NBA, earning herself a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame. She helped lead the U.S. Olympic team to gold medal victories in 1984 and 1988. Ten years later, she guided the team to gold again, this time as coach. Anne, as much as anyone, has helped set the tone and style of this prominent American sport.

So she has a lot of memorabilia.

But Anne, who retired from coaching in 2015 and relocated to Wilmington, only displays one photograph from her years in basketball. It’s a 1988 image of Anne and the rest of Team USA standing on the medal platform listening to “The Star-Spangled Banner” — a personal reminder of a profound experience. Of all her time in basketball, those minutes spent listening to our national anthem mean the most. Anne calls it “indescribable” to bring such honor to the United States, “which is the greatest country in the world.”

Anne and I get together for lunch at Pine Valley Market. When meeting Anne, people probably notice her height first — she’s 6-foot-8 — but she has another equally noteworthy quality: an intense gaze. Over lunch, that intensity makes her an engaging conversationalist, but I suspect that, on the courts, it intimidated her opponents, too. Born in New Jersey in 1961, Anne gravitated to basketball early as, she says, “the youngest of eight kids, all tall.” She and her siblings “grew up [playing the game]  in the backyard” and by the time Anne reached high school, her skills had attracted national attention. She couldn’t know for sure, however, that she’d play in college. It wasn’t until 1972, when Congress passed Title IX, which guaranteed equal funding for women’s college sports, that scholarships become widely available for talented female athletes. Title IX made a difference in Anne’s own family. Her older sisters, also outstanding players, received few scholarship offers for college. By the time Anne applied, in 1979, she received 300. “I was a Title IX baby,” she says.

Consequently, Anne had her choice of the country’s top programs. She picked Old Dominion University because she wanted to learn from coach Marianne Stanley and play with the team’s roster of talented athletes. “What I love about basketball is the relationship piece of it,” she tells me. Quiet and observant — she calls herself “an introvert” — Anne liked playing on teams that felt like “mini-family” to her. Years later, she decided to create the same sort of community when she became a coach. Success took time, though. “My first players still talk about what a witch I was,” she says, laughing. “If there’s no trust there, then (criticism) is perceived as negative.”

She graduated from college in 1983. Despite making two trips to the Final Four, setting an NCAA record for blocked shots — which still stands — and becoming the first female Naismith College Player of the Year, Anne found few professional opportunities in this country. After Old Dominion, she moved to Shizuoka, a village in rural Japan, and became the only American player on her team in the Japan Basketball League, Chanson. “I was just out of college and not very worldly,” she says. “When I first got to Japan, it was a disaster.” Suddenly, the shy girl who loved being one member of a “mini-family” found herself singled out. “The team’s owner always had me sit next to him at banquets,” she says, because “the foreigner was perceived as important.” Those banquets presented another difficulty, too — the food. “I was the kid who had to have everything separate on my plate,” Anne says. Suddenly, the unadventurous eater found herself face-to-face with raw fish and other dishes she’d never seen before.

Those days were “really challenging,” Anne tells me, but they also helped her grow. She played in the Japan league for five years and, over time, even developed a passion for sushi. Now, she says, she’s “a little bit braver” about food. At Pine Valley Market, the first thing to arrive at our table is the Jersey Sloppy Joe. If you hear the phrase “Sloppy Joe” and immediately think “Manwich,” well, think again. The Jersey version is a gigantic club sandwich, with layers of turkey, ham, roast beef, corned beef and Swiss cheese stuffed between three slices of marble rye. “I don’t think I ever would have ordered that,” Anne tells me, eyeing the monument of protein. Then, she takes a bite. “Wow,” she says, after a pause. Shredded super slaw and Thousand Island dressing give the sandwich a tangy crunch. “That’s delicious.”

Pine Valley Market first established itself as a gourmet shop and caterer, so its lunch menu is both innovative and wide-ranging. On the Turkey Apple Brie Hoagie, for example, thinly sliced red onion and raspberry aioli not only sweeten and deepen the flavors, but also give the otherwise pale ingredients a fantastic blush of pink. Another shocker comes with the Big Pim, a BLT packed between two (yes, two) grilled pimiento cheese sandwiches. To our surprise, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. “It has a different texture and flavor,” Anne points out. “And I love cheese, so if you add cheese to a BLT, that’s remarkable.”

When Anne retired from professional basketball, she left her position as head coach of the Connecticut Sun. “I felt pretty beat up after that last go ’round,” she says. “It was a good time to see if my heart was still in it.” She doesn’t rule out returning to coaching, but for now, she’s focusing on her own health and well-being. After she moved to Wilmington, she tells me, she wanted to get back in shape, so she joined Crossfit.

I try to imagine that scenario. “What did they say when an Olympic athlete started working out with them?”

Anne shrugs. “They didn’t say anything.” The basketball legend seems gratified to be treated like any other 50-something at the gym, but I hear something else in her voice as well — an acceptance of the fact that life takes us through many stages. “That was 30 years ago,” she tells me gently. “Most of us change in 30 years.”

Pine Valley Market is located at 3520 South College Road. For more information, call (910) 350-3663 or visit www.pinevalleymarket.com.

Dana Sachs’ latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.

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