Seoul — By coming to the Orient, the Olympics have actually caught up to Anne Donovan, the 6 ft., 8 in. center of the US women's basketball team. For the past five years, the native of Ridgewood, N.J., has been a star in Japan, and a highly recognizable one, given her height (all her teammates are under six feet), blue eyes, and long sandy hair.
Playing for a cosmetics firm in a corporate league half a world away was not really her ambition. She would have preferred to stay in the United States after her 1983 graduation as an academic All-America and Naismith Player of the Year from Old Dominion University in Virginia. But with no American pro league for women, Donovan had to look elsewhere for playing opportunities - and Japan offered the best situation.
The other day, while wearing a T-shirt with the message ``Sole Goal Seoul Gold,'' she said the decision to head for Asia was instrumental in her being on the US team, which is favored to defend its Olympic title.
``I attribute my ability to stay in this [American basketball] program to the Japanese regimen,'' she said, sprawled in a folding chair. ``Playing there has really taught me discipline. Now when I'm back in the States and have to train by myself for three or four months, I know I can do it.''
Playing in Shizuoka, where she has learned to speak passable Japanese, is a labor-intensive experience, with practices running as much as six or eight hours a day. The environment, especially when she first arrived, was pretty joyless.
Her first coach was in the habit of slapping his players when they made mistakes, but she had it written into her contract that she was not to be hit.
Donovan was no prima donna, though, and feels that she and two other pioneering Americans, who have since departed, helped pave the way to a greater infusion of US players in Japan. (Each team is permitted two foreigners on its roster, but only one can play at a time.)
``We were the blue-collar players who went over there early on and weren't afraid to put in a hard day's work,'' she says. ``That got rid of the `lazy American' image.''
American women interested in pro jobs have generally wound up in Europe, but Donovan headed in the opposite direction for several reasons.
At the time she came out of college, European teams paid less and were notorious for ignoring contractual obligations. Europe also has a season several months longer than the four- to five-month Japanese campaign, which has allowed her more time to devote to playing for the various US national teams.
In a sport where few Americans participate in more than one Olympics, Donovan is rare in her ability to hang in and keep her competitive edge for so long.
Her international basketball credits date back to 1977, when she made the American junior team. From there she landed a spot on the 1980 US Olympic squad, which missed the Moscow Games because of the boycott. Thereafter followed assignments on teams that won the Pan American Games in 1983 and '87, the Olympic gold medal in '84, and world and Goodwill Games titles in '86.
The Soviets, who were defeated on the latter two occasions, could provide the ultimate test here, assuming that both reach the medal round. Each team won its first preliminary-round game, the Americans defeating Czechoslovakia 87-81 while the Soviets routed Bulgaria, 91-62.
In college, Donovan was a key figure on two national champions, and remains Old Dominion's career scoring and rebounding leader.
There don't seem to be too many worlds left to conquer, but there's still one thing she'd like to get here - a gold medal at an Olympics attended by every major basketball power.
Donovan's height, of course, makes her a valuable person to have around, but there are other reasons she has remained a team fixture. Durability and a sound grasp of fundamentals are among them. So, too, is a willingness to fit in however she's needed.
``I can blend well with other players, and I think that's a key for any player at this level,'' she says. ``You've got to be able to sacrifice some of what you do.''
Kay Yow, the US women's coach, believes this team is quicker and faster than the one that won the gold in Los Angeles. In some ways, the angular Donovan might seem challenged to keep up with a pack of swifter teammates.
Yow, though, doesn't ask her to operate at the same breakneck speed. ``I often compare Anne to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,'' Yow explains. ``We're a running team, and I think she fits in like Kareem does on the Lakers. She keeps moving ... and is involved in the secondary part of our fast break.''
When the Olympics are over, Donovan plans to play in Italy, where she expects that a laid-back atmosphere will be a welcome switch from the all-business approach in Japan.
She expresses surprise at learning that another attempt will be made at forming an American women's pro league next spring. ``I don't take that seriously,'' she says.
In her opinion, the best hope for launching a US women's league may lie in associating with the National Basketball Association.
``They could just open up the gym two hours early and turn on the lights,'' she says. ``It's a tax write-off. Why not try it?''
After performing before small crowds in a far-off land, Donovan would love to display her talents in American arenas. For now, however, playing in Seoul, before a global TV audience, represents the capstone to one of the longest-running careers in American women's basketball.