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At Casino, Sun Betting On Anne Donovan

Jeff Jacobs

9:28 PM EST, January 3, 2013

UNCASVILLE —

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There is a small yet uncomfortable — even agonizing — difference between winning big and winning it all. On Thursday, a day when she was named the coach of the Connecticut Sun, Anne Donovan insisted she's comfortable squeezing all 6 feet 8 of her frame into that tight space.

"Remarkably so, to be honest," Donovan said.

She had better be.

There has been little romance with the state's women's professional franchise — one that Donovan called the "premier" one in the WNBA — since the 2012 season ended with a Game 3 playoff meltdown against the Indiana Fever. Mike Thibault, who won big yet never won it all over a decade as the Sun's only coach, was fired after a 25-9 season.

So much of the WNBA is about building and nurturing the sport for girls of future generations. So much about the game is about empowering girls for an equal opportunity in life. What the Sun have done this offseason is much colder and familiar to those who follow men's major league sports. They want to win their first title so badly they are willing to roll the dice every bit as much as the gamblers upstairs at the casino.

"Our objective is to win championships," general manager Chris Sienko said. "Anne knows that. It has been made very clear."

So they fired a fine coach and a fine man in search of that hard-to-quantify quality that differentiates a winner and a champion. Obviously, there's risk involved for Sun CEO Mitchell Etess and Sienko in search of that ultimate reward. Just as obviously there's pressure on Donovan.

It's not just win, baby. It's win it all, lady.

You know what I liked best about Donovan's introductory press conference at the Cabaret Theatre? She essentially said, "Bring it on!"

"Pressure is something I enjoy," Donovan said. "I think if you're a coach, you better enjoy it. There's always pressure internally for me no matter what position I'm in. At the same time, there's tremendous confidence with my background and experience. The challenge and the pressure excite me.

"I'm respectful that you can line all the ducks up and one duck can fall aside and things can go awry. It's my job to make sure we keep the ducks lined up and march down that championship road."

Donovan, 51, has done more than quack the duck quack. She has walked the walk, waddled the waddle, if you will. That's why Etess and Sienko insisted she was the name at the top of their wish list the entire time.

"Anne has won every level as a player and a coach," Sienko said.

Actually, Donovan, desperately trying to rebuild the Seton Hall program, hasn't been winning much as a college coach. Yet she also has two unmistakable gold bars on her coaching uniform as a coach of elite performers.

She took the 2004 Seattle Storm to the WNBA title.

She took the 2008 U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal in Beijing.

"That was very important to us," Sienko said.

"[The gold medal] was the pinnacle of my career," Donovan said. "But I also was happy when I won that gold medal and was able to walk away. No pressure will ever come up like that."

Gene Mauch was one of the smartest baseball men in history. He never won a pennant. Few would rank K.C. Jones as one of the great NBA coaches. He won two NBA titles. Buck Showalter is a terrific manager, as fine a baseball man as there is. Hasn't won it all. When the Yankees replaced him with Joe Torre, he was called "Clueless Joe" in the tabloids. Four World Series titles later, he was St. Joe.

My point is the best X's and O's coaches aren't always champions. There are so many factors, some not within their control. And sometimes it's damn hard to know exactly what the X Factor is.

"There is change everywhere," Sienko said. "The best example right now is Lovie Smith. Nine years in Chicago, got to the Super Bowl, had a winning record. He was let go because he didn't get them to the next step.

"We thought we needed a new voice."

Sienko talked about a new voice. Donovan, too.

"Obviously, this team isn't far off," she said. "Maybe with a different voice and different experience and hopefully a different mind-set will help."

Who is this voice? And what the heck is it saying?

"Where I have used that term in the past was when I left Seattle [Nov. 30, 2007]," Donovan said. "I was at Seattle five years, won a championship, at the end of my tenure I was juggling the Olympic team and staying there to win another championship. I felt like at that point, it was in both mine and Seattle's best interest to have a new voice.

"I can't speak to Mike's case. But in my case, it was just about a freshness. We had reached some goals, it was time for the roster to be turned over a little. It was time for a new voice to be heard in practices and to reiterate maybe even the same goals with just a different way of phrasing it, a different tone to it. I felt sure it was the right decision and I think it worked out for both us."

Donovan won the gold. The Storm won another WNBA title under Brian Adler in 2010.

"Ten years with the same voice," Sienko said of Thibault. "You know how it is. You all were kids. You're parents said the same thing. You leave your house and it's all different because you look at things differently. You hear different stories. There's no ill will toward Mike. He did a great a job. We want our players to have something that is said or done differently to hopefully motivate them to help us get to the next step."

Sienko said he talked to several players and they didn't want to be part of the process of selecting a new coach. They didn't want to have a war among themselves. The captains were told Wednesday and the feedback from the players, Sienko said, has been positive so far.

"Anne's a calm presence, very strategic, plays a little more defense," Sienko said. "I think she's going to be very aggressive in how we're going to attack different teams. Our core group is right on. I think we were one step away. A tweak here or there, I think, is what you need."

Donovan, inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame as a post player and who helped develop a young Lauren Jackson, is excited to be working with league MVP Tina Charles. She's hoping to bring another talented post, Sandrine Gruda, back to the Sun. She's also excited to coach at Mohegan Sun Arena, which she says is the toughest place for a visiting team to play in the WNBA.

It's funny. If Nykesha Sales, who had scored 32 points against Donovan's Storm in Game 2 of the 2004 Finals, had hit a wide-open three at the end, Thibault would have his WNBA title and there probably would have been no press conference Thursday.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Donovan said. "With expletives in there, slow-mo, my mouth going, 'Oh, no!' As I stood on the baseline opposite where she took that shot it looked like it was good. We came out of the timeout, talking about how we had one foul to give. We didn't get the foul. We switched on a screen we weren't going to switch on. The player who killed us all game long got a wide open look."

Sales hit the side of the backboard. Serendipity?

"Game 3 was serendipity for me," Donovan said.

"Yeah, they kicked our butt in Game 3," Sienko said.

Anne Donovan became the first woman to coach a team to a WNBA title. The Sun are betting she can do it again.