Reflections on Being Named the USA Basketball
Women's Senior National Team Program head coach for 2006-08 to her time
spent in a USA uniform ... and much more.
January 12, 2006
|Anne Donovan and Tamika Catchings share a
hug following the 2004 U.S. Women's Olympic Team's gold medal victory.
What does it mean for you to be able
to coach the USA Basketball Women's Senior National Team over the next
"It's the hardest thing to put into words. As a player, a
coach, I think anyone associated with USA Basketball gets it. They understand
what that emotion is. If I try to articulate, the best way to say it is
that it's the deepest sense of pride that I could possibly have."
How do you feel about the fact that USA Basketball
wants you to head up the USA Senior National Team for the next three years?
You're not just being asked to coach the USA World Championship Team with
the thought that the Olympics might be next, but you're being selected
to coach through Beijing if the U.S. qualifies.
"It's quite an honor and it helps you breathe a little easier.
We all know that we're not just waltzing into a World Championship, winning
a gold medal and going to Beijing. It's a sense of continuing the tradition
of the great women's program we've had and fighting through the next three
summers of keeping our excellence in the gold medal hunt. Just knowing
I've got three years, it is certainly our goal to win the World Championship
gold, but to know I'm there through Beijing is quite an honor."
You mentioned the tradition of success our women
have had. Do you feel there is more pressure on you to win the Worlds?
"It's our entry into the 2008 Olympics so the pressure is
a welcome pressure. There's a lot of pride around that. Fortunately we
have a lot of players who understand how important the World Championships
are to us. Of course it generates pressure, but I'm going to be working
with athletes who have been dealing with that kind of pressure and understand
how to channel that pressure into a gold medal."
What is your coaching style and how does that fit
into the international game?
"I like to defend. I don't like to give up points. We're going
to have a system where we do that, individually and collectively as a
team, where we're going to really try to hold people down. Hand in hand
with that, is being able to run. Get some steals and rebound the ball,
and you're able to push tempo and run the other way. Make it exciting,
play to the strengths of the athletes who will represent us."
Aside from the United States, who do you see as
being among the top four or five medal contenders in 2006?
"We know very well that Russia and Australia have been breathing
down our necks. They will continue to try to displace us. Brazil has been
very competitive. China has been building towards to 2008, every year
getting better and more competitive. That's their hope, to use that as
a springboard forward."
Russia has taken the U.S. to the wire in the past
two World Championships and Australia has claimed silver behind the USA
in the past two Olympic Games. In fact, in three of the last four 'international
majors' Australia, Russia and the United States have been on the podium
- what do you think they're doing to try and knock us off the top spot?
"It's interesting. What they've been doing is that they've
been learning from us, they've been studying us. Much as we did back in
the first days of my playing career when we were second to Russia. USA
Basketball really studied (Russia), broke their game down and figured
out how, through athleticism, we could topple them. Much like that they're
all analyzing us and working on their athleticism. I think players who
have some versatility, players who aren't just one-position players, they're
trying really hard to get more athletic, get stronger, to be able to compete
with us and try to take us down."
As they work on their athleticism and other aspects
of their game, what do we need to work on?
"We need to continue to use our strengths. We're tremendous,
we have some of the best players in the world. Our biggest challenge is
keeping that cohesiveness together so that a team of 12 players, not 12
individuals, walks away with a gold medal. We need to keep our sight set
on that, and maintain a sense of urgency. As long as we remain cohesive
and we don't break down into individuals, keep channeling all those great
individual players into a tremendous, best of the best team, we'll continue
to win gold."
Looking back through your USA Basketball career
- back to the 1977 USA R. William Jones Cup Team - you probably had aspirations
of playing in the Olympics. Did you see yourself on four Olympic teams
thus far, three as a player and one as an assistant coach?
"No, no way (laughs). Looking back, I think '77 was my first
team, I was 15. I had my bags packed to go home because I was sure I couldn't
possibly make the team. Now fast-forward it to almost 30 years later and
think about where it is. No. I never could have imagined it. But I have
to say that I am the prototype American. From my first experience wearing
the red, white and blue, I've been so proud to represent my country. I'm
so thankful for the opportunities because it's taught me as a person to
be so appreciative for the opportunities that we have here in the U.S.
I don't get that same experience, I don't get that same value to what
we have here, if I don't travel with USA Basketball. Through all my experiences
I've learned so much as a player, as a coach, but most importantly, as
What are some of your fondest Olympic memories?
"For me, it has to be all the Olympic experiences. '80, even
though we boycotted the Olympics, I was really young and we went through
the whole process. Back in '80 we were still the underdogs. That whole
training process and the experience of my first senior national team.
That whole summer of preparation, working with Sue Gunter, that whole
experience was just phenomenal. I think the progression to '84, playing
in my first Olympics, for Pat Summitt, but still having a boycott effect
in L.A. Then, for me as a player, culminating in '88. Going to Korea and
capturing our first real gold medal with Kay Yow. In my mind (because
of the Soviet Union-backed boycott of the Los Angles Olympics in 1984)
that was our first real gold. Those are my fondest memories as a player.
Then certainly Athens tops the list as a coach. Working with Van (Chancellor)
and Gail (Goestenkors) and Vivian (Stringer), and the tremendous players
we had was just such a great experience."
You were also a member of four World Championship
teams - two as a player and two as a coach - is your memory of cutting
down the nets in Moscow after toppling the Soviet Union for gold in 1986
one of your best memories of the Worlds?
"Definitely. We had gone there earlier in the summer for the
Goodwill Games and won gold medal, but everybody attributed that to 'well
they weren't really playing, wait until the World Championship.' So to
go back to Russia and beat them twice in the same summer, that's when
the guard changed. The U.S. women were now the best of the best and from
that point on we've been running."
Can you put into words the feelings you had when
you won the 1986 Worlds in Moscow?
"It was unbelievable. At that point I had been with USA Basketball
for close to 10 years and a lot of the players had been around the block.
We were definitely fazed by the significance of that win. We all felt
really good about the Goodwill Games gold medal, but to go back and win
gold in the Soviet Union again, when everyone said it wasn't going to
happen. There was tremendous joy to think we might be a part of the shift
in the women's game."
What are the major changes that the international
game has undergone over the last 30 years?
"It's gone from being internationally - taking the Americans
out of it - a robotic, methodical style to being a very athletic up and
down tempo. It's a much bigger game. The Europeans have, not just big
players because they've traditionally had big wing players, but they have
these big 6-3 wing players who can put the ball on the floor. They're
much more versatile than they used to be."
As both a player and a coach, you've been among
some of the most talented women in the more recent history of women's
basketball, how has that shaped who you are as a coach?
"It's really been significant as a player and being coached
by some of the greatest coaches. One of the benefits of USA Basketball
is that you're a player who gets to learn from all these tremendous coaches
who come in and teach you one summer, then you have a different set of
coaches come in and teach you the next summer. That was as meaningful
as it can be as my development as a coach.
"I think along the same lines, the same level of impact is coaching
the best players in the world.
"Watching the common denominator that's always been there, that
always will be there: the greatest players in the world are the ones who
have the greatest work ethic and are willing to sacrifice self for the
benefit of the team. That being said, being around those kinds of athletes,
it keeps me fired up to continue to do what I do."
What kind of lessons are you passing on to your
players with USA Basketball and in Seattle? You can't teach the work ethic
that comes with the greatest athletes, so what else have you passed along?
"To appreciate the opportunities and experiences. It's human
nature to look at the negative side. But through USA Basketball and the
length of time I've been involved with the organization I've learned so
much about how positive things are and how much we have to be appreciative
of and thankful for. I pass that along to my players in Seattle on a continual
You're coaching Australia's Lauren Jackson in Seattle,
how will that help come World Championship time?
"I tell you, Athens was interesting. I was doing the scouting
report on Australia there, so that made it even more interesting. Watching,
at that point, a 23-year-old Lauren Jackson, her focus was difficult for
her. As for me, I'm giving a scouting report to the rest of the WNBA on
how to defend Lauren Jackson. It is a little bit complicated (laughs).
The bottom line, though, is that Lauren is as competitive as I am. When
she puts on her Australian uniform and I put on my red, white and blue,
we're both fighting for the same thing."
Where was your favorite place to play basketball?
The Olympics in L.A. to me was the best. Because it was the most
major event that you could possibly play in as an athlete and it was in
our own country. So to me it was very special.
Growing up, I'm sure you got teased a lot about
being so much taller than the rest of your classmates. Do you go back
to high school reunions and have those same people look up at you in awe?
"It's funny because I grew up in a relatively small Catholic
high school (Paramus High School, N.J.) and I've been back to a reunion
here or there. Some of my elementary school classmates will occasionally
email me. That's the power of the Internet now. People can reach out to
you from 40 years ago and send you an email. But it is kind of neat. People
thought I was destined to do some things in basketball, of course. I was
always tall, I always towered above everybody. But I was also very shy.
I don't think people would have guessed I would have carried (my basketball
career) to the level I was able to."
How important is it to the USA Basketball Women's
Senior National Team program to have a core group of athletes who are
passionate about playing for their country return again and again to don
the USA jersey?
"It's the biggest reason we've been able to keep the gold
in our hands. Having that quality of athlete motivated with so much pride
for what the red, white and blue represents. It is the sole reason we've
been able to hang onto the gold. Athletes like Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley
and Sheryl Swoopes who were committed to the growth of this program, who
carried the torch. When Teresa Edwards moved on, they carried the torch.
The fact that they're still with us and eventually they'll pass that torch
to Sue Bird, (Tamika) Catchings, (Diana) Taurasi and a handful of others.
That consistency is so important. It's a mind-set, it's a mentality, it's
a sense of pride that you can't necessarily cultivate. Lisa Leslie, she
had it the second she walked into USA Basketball. Same thing with Sheryl,
Dawn, I think that those kinds of things need to live on in order for
our tradition to continue."
Who was your favorite teammate and why?
"Teresa Edwards is one of my all-time favorites. Just because
personality-wise, we're very similar and we're both competitive. We were
a part of the growth of the game from the '84 Olympics through the '88
Olympics, beating the Soviets and all that. We kind of went through that
whole process together.
Who did you really enjoy going up against internationally
"(Brazil's) Hortencia (Marcari Oliva) was always a challenge,
always a thrill. Because she was a guard, she was never my match. But
in order to beat Brazil we had to contain her. All the match-ups we would
throw every guard at her, two or three, just to try to slow her down from
a scoring standpoint. As a match-up for me, it would have to be (the Soviet
Union's 7-2) Iuliyana Semenova. She was always my nemesis. It's a match-up
I grew to really enjoy because it was a challenge for me, not being the
biggest player on the floor. I got to see why people struggled trying
to defend my size when I had to defend her size."
If you didn't become a basketball player &
coach, what do you think you would have done career-wise?
"I think I would have liked to have been a psychiatrist. I'm
fascinated with that aspect of the brain. I would have liked to do something
Who's your favorite player of all-time?
"I have to say Michael Jordan is one of my favorite players
of all time for what he did both on and off the court. I felt like he
was a class act. I watched a lot of the men's games in '84, you could
see that he was going to be a superstar. You could see it even with Bobby
Knight coaching the team, the superstar status emerged above the team
concept and you could see it. He loved what he did and he took an interest
in the women's team. I think that's why I followed him so closely, because
of who he was as a person. He had an interest in what was going on in
our side of things and that's something that in '84 was not common."
What are some of your favorite non-basketball Olympic
memories? Did you get a chance to see any other events that really stand
"As an athlete, it's really hard to get out to other events.
But one of my highlights was in Korea when I was able to get out and watch
tennis. I love tennis. And that particular match I will never forget.
My mother and my brother met me at Steffi Graf's match. It was the singles
finals and it was like a four-hour marathon. You had to win by two games
and it went on and on. My family had to take the train and they left,
it was dark, she ended up winning. I don't even remember who she was playing,
but she won and I'll never forget that match.
"In Sydney I wasn't with the team, I was (there as a member of)
the USA Basketball Executive Committee, but the beach volleyball was incredible
at Bondi Beach. I love to go to events. Swimming and diving, gymnastics
all of it. There's just nothing greater than the whole ... it's
not individuals. You're watching countries compete against each other
and I'm fascinated by that."
In 1984 and 1988 you stayed in the Olympic Village.
Did you have any interaction with athletes from other sports?
"Yes, we did. It was great. There was so much energy flowing
through the whole place, you could just feel the electricity and excitement.
It was amazing and almost indescribable. It was energy. It's hard to explain,
it wasn't a celebration or a party, but you're mingling with all these
high energy people in a high energy environment. Everybody who was there
was important. I think part of what it was, was a mutual respect for getting
there. It was great if you got there and had a medal around your neck
in the dining hall, but everybody had paid the same price for getting
"To me those were some of the best memories of the Olympics. When
we were at the Olympic Village and we're sitting across the table (at
the dining hall) from the gymnast who won the gold medal last night or
the Chinese guy who won diving. I met many Olympic divers from the U.S.
"I also remember in '88, when Ben Johnson got stripped of the gold
medal and Carl Lewis got bumped up, the next morning when we were in the
hall for breakfast it was the buzz on the streets. Everyone was talking
"The Village was like a city within a city with all these celebrities
who didn't view themselves as celebrities. Those were some really great