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Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Updated: January 4, 9:30 AM ET
Donovan returns to WNBA with Sun

By Mechelle Voepel
espnW

Anne Donovan, Bill Laimbeer, and Mike Thibault
The winds have shifted toward the East in the WNBA with Anne Donovan and Bill Laimbeer returning to the fold and longtime Sun coach Mike Thibault taking the reins in Washington.

Coach Anne Donovan is headed back to the WNBA, taking over at Connecticut in an Eastern Conference that will have both a new and old look to it in 2013. It's intriguing -- especially because right up until the WNBA Finals started this past October, the Western Conference really seemed to have the East trumped.

At that point, no currently existing East team had won a WNBA title. The championship teams from each of the three previous seasons -- Phoenix in 2009, Seattle in 2010 and Minnesota in 2011 -- were from the West. The 2013 No. 1 draft pick was headed to the West, as Phoenix won the Brittney Griner sweepstakes in the lottery held after the regular season.

The East was pretty clearly the league's second banana. But then ...

Indiana surprised everyone in the WNBA Finals, playing hard-nosed, inspired basketball to upset the defending champion Lynx. The East had a champion again.

Then Laimbeer, the architect/coach of three title teams in Detroit before that franchise moved to Tulsa and the West, returned to the WNBA to take over at New York after a stint in the NBA. That gave the Liberty a needed personality transplant. Plus, it put the colorful, quotable Laimbeer in the largest local media market, which is good publicity for the league.

Mike Thibault was let go after 10 seasons at Connecticut, but was picked up to coach Washington, a franchise that was even more desperately requiring a transfusion of hope than New York was.

And Thursday, the well-traveled Donovan was announced as the Sun's new mentor, replacing Thibault. So while there are still plenty of interesting aspects to the West, the East will have considerable buzz going into the 2013 WNBA season, too.

How will Indiana do in defending its title? Will Laimbeer be able to transplant his swagger to the Liberty? How quickly can Thibault return the Mystics to competitiveness after their 11-57 record of the past two seasons? Will a different voice, that of Donovan, be the final ingredient in getting the Sun, who finished first in the East this past season, back to the WNBA Finals? Or even get the Sun the franchise's first championship?

Anne Donovan
Anne Donovan is looking forward to a "new beginning" after committing to the Sun.

Will Chicago, which has the No. 2 draft pick, go for the 6-foot-5 scoring versatility of Delaware's Elena Delle Donne, or the backcourt acumen (and Twitter popularity) of not-far-away Skylar Diggins of Notre Dame? Will Atlanta, which officially named Fred Williams head coach after his interim stint to finish last season, return to the form that got the Dream to the WNBA finals in 2010 and '11?

"It makes for more interest, I think," Donovan said Thursday of the coaching moves made in the East. "For me, it's a new beginning."

Donovan has had quite a few beginnings and endings in her coaching career, which began at the college level and overall has been pretty successful.

For a long time, there was no women's pro basketball in the United States. And success for women's hoops coaches typically was defined by whether they stayed at the same school for many years.

But in professional sports, moving around -- voluntarily or not -- isn't really all that uncommon. Just look at the amount of relocating going on right now in the NFL, for instance.

Donovan, who first coached professionally in the short-lived ABL, knows the WNBA as well as anyone. She won a title with Seattle, went to the league finals with now-defunct Charlotte, and also coached at Indiana and New York. She also led the U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal in 2008.

When Donovan decided to go back to the college game in 2010 at Seton Hall, it appeared to be an odd decision, frankly. That program has made just two NCAA appearances -- the last in 1995 -- and seemed a dead-end job. But Donovan is from New Jersey, and she said she thought Seton Hall could be revived to become a long-term stop. Maybe even her last.

It's kind of a mystery, actually, why she thought that. Other than the fact that hope springs eternal with coaches. But the Pirates were 16-45 in Donovan's first two seasons, and currently are 5-8. Now, she'll finish out this Seton Hall season -- as she prepares to go to Connecticut, where Chris Sienko is the general manager -- with a lot of multi-tasking.

Donovan has done that previously, such as when she coached the WNBA's Liberty in the summer of 2010 after already accepting the Seton Hall job for that fall.

"It's going to be challenging, but I've compartmentalized in this way before," Donovan said. "If I didn't trust Chris or was unsure about the roster we have, I might be a little more anxious about it.

"But there's not a whole lot that needs to be done with that roster. And any conversations we need to have, we'll have. I know we'll collaborate on decisions."

Donovan, a former All-American and U.S. Olympic team center, worked with a young Lauren Jackson in Seattle. Now, Donovan is eager to do the same with another extremely talented big woman: reigning WNBA MVP Tina Charles in Connecticut.

"I am really excited about that," Donovan said. "And also to reunite with Kara [Lawson], who helped us win that gold medal in Beijing [in 2008]. I come in with a big comfort level because this is a special group.

"And having been to [Mohegan Sun Arena] as an opponent, I know they have a tremendous home-court advantage. The way the arena is built, the fans feel like they're right on the court. It's a region that loves women's basketball."

So the coaching switches for the start of the 2013 WNBA season are done (unless something weird and unexpected happens). In the next few months, there will be draft-prospect evaluating and free-agent signings as teams prepare.

And we observers will try to predict how the changes in the East, in particular, will play out this summer. It's going to be interesting to watch.