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Charlotte's Loss, Seattle's Gain 

Sting lets Donovan get away

For weeks, Charlotte Sting fans have been trying to figure out how the team's popular, successful coach got away, and who might be in line for her job. The answer to neither is clear, but one has to wonder about the WNBA's commitment to the Charlotte market.Ed Tapscott, executive vice president of Charlotte's new NBA team, which owns the Sting, says he "hopes to have a new coach in a month to a month and a half. We have been receiving quite a number of inquiries. We have people who are in their seasons we'd like to consider (college coaches) and in-house talent as well." Trudi Lacey, who was the Sting's top assistant the past two seasons, is a contender for the job.

I'm baffled as to how Anne Donovan got away. Now the head coach of the Seattle Storm, she slipped through the team's fingers when it was owned by the league, just days before Bob Johnson was named the new owner for Charlotte's NBA and WNBA teams. How that was allowed to happen is disconcerting, especially if the WNBA is truly serious about Charlotte becoming a strong market. One of the WNBA's original eight teams, the Sting has struggled to build attendance and sponsorship in recent years. Donovan herself says, "Over the last year and a half, we were a product they (Shinn and Wooldridge) wanted to get rid of."

Donovan was one of the best things the team had going for it. In her first season with the team (2001), she turned the Sting around and led it to the WNBA championship series. In 2002, the team made the playoffs again. Donovan did an artful job of blending young and old talent, developing Tammy Sutton-Brown and Kelly Miller and drawing good leadership from veterans Dawn Staley and Andrea Stinson. In short, Donovan quickly developed into a heavyweight among WNBA coaches.

In mid-December when Donovan had to give Seattle an answer, the league offered her a one-year deal to stay with the Sting, while Seattle anted up a three-year deal. It's amazing that the league didn't match Seattle's offer or ensure it would work out something suitable with the new NBA owner. The Sting has been to the playoffs six of its seven years, yet is now facing hiring its fifth coach.

The WNBA offered Donovan only a one-year deal because there was a new owner coming in, says Traci Cook, senior director of WNBA corporate communications. Understandably, the league didn't want to make long-term decisions for a new owner, but somehow, given the fragility of the Sting's situation and the NBA's symbiotic relationship with the WNBA, the league should have worked out something. What's really going on here?

Leaving Charlotte was "probably the hardest decision I've ever had to make," Donovan says. She liked the success she had built, the chemistry of the players and coaching staff and the city. "I feel like I found a home here, and I am going to keep a home here," she says. She expects to live in Charlotte during the off-season, where she'll have a good location from which to evaluate college talent, most of which is on the East Coast.

But apart from team personnel and the city, staying in Charlotte was a colossal crapshoot. When Donovan had to make her decision, she didn't know who was going to own the Sting and whether Bob Johnson or the Belkin group was committed to keeping it beyond next summer. "It was very frustrating," she says.

According to Tapscott, he was prevented by NBA rules from contacting Donovan before Johnson was named the owner. "I would have loved for Anne to stay," Tapscott says.

As for the Belkin group, Donovan had positive conversations with partner M.L. Carr, who was also president of the Sting last summer, but she didn't know the long-term intention of the group.

I know that Larry Bird, who would have headed basketball operations for the Belkin group, doesn't like women's basketball. So, if Bird had wanted to minimize or eventually usher the Sting out of town, my guess is it would have happened.

Leaving "was not about money," Donovan says. "Seattle is a great situation, a great organization, and it offered a little bit of security."

Who wouldn't want to coach a team with an organization behind it, that has the number one draft picks of the last two years (Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson) and made the playoffs for the first time in 2002? Sue Bird was the league's media darling this year, and lots of WNBA marketing rides on her considerable shoulders.

Makes me wonder if the league liked the idea of someone skillful like Donovan developing Bird, who could become the best point guard in the league; and grooming Jackson, an underachieving six-foot, five-inch post player from Australia. Maybe that's why nothing was done to stop Donovan from leaving.

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