This story was printed in Dime #69…
Every so often, a player will come along with the potential to redefine a sport. But passing up this chance? That almost never happens. Elena Delle Donne was considered a future legend coming out of high school before she gave it all up. After taking a detour, she’s playing basketball again, history in her sights. This is her story.
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It’s a misty late January Thursday night in Newark, Delaware, home base of the eighth-ranked University of Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens women’s basketball team. Excited fans rush to pack the Bob Carpenter Center for a tilt between the Lady Hens and Hofstra Pride. It’s the hottest ticket in the First State. It has been since November. While head coach Tina Martin has built a respectable program, the buzz in this community stems from the college game’s biggest secret.
That secret is Elena Delle Donne, the preeminent scorer in women’s college basketball. The Wilmington, Delaware native is in the “you can’t stop them, only hope to contain them” category of players. Delle Donne put up a nation-leading 28.1 points per game, over four points per game more than the closest competitor, Oral Robert’s Kevi Luper, and was also among the top 20 rebounders nationally with a 10.3 average. Delle Donne possesses a smooth handle unfitting for a 6-5 player, nifty footwork down low and protractor-like form on her jumper.
So what’s a defense to do? If you guard up on Delle Donne she gets to any spot she wants or simply shoots right over the defense. Play off at your own peril; she led UD by shooting 41 percent from three-point land.
Coaches are always scheming. Double and triple teams, zone defenses and box-and-ones, you name it Delle Donne has faced it. If her shot isn’t falling, she can dish it off just as well, finishing second on the team with 75 dimes.
During Delaware’s matchup with Hofstra, a gentleman expecting to see a Jordan-esque performance seems underwhelmed. He demands to see more than her 16 points at the half. Don’t worry. We will.
Eventually you look up to the scoreboard and see an effortless 41 next to her name, breaking her previous Carpenter Center record, in addition to a game-high 15 rebounds, five assists and a couple of blocks. At this point the junior is chasing herself in the record books, owning 12 of the 13 highest scoring outputs in program history.
She’s even chasing legends. After scoring 22 and grabbing nine rebounds in a 64-56 win at Villanova in November, Wildcats head coach Harry Perretta stated, “She’s like Larry Bird.” With size and unlimited scoring ability, younger fans compare her to Kevin Durant or Dirk Nowitzki.
“I’ve also heard Dirk Nowitzki because of his size and his ability to shoot,” Delle Donne says. “I started playing when I was four against my brother (Gene, a former quarterback for Middle Tennessee State). Playing against boys was definitely something that helped a lot. But I always worked on my guard skills. My dad (Ernie, who played hoops at Columbia) knew I was going to be tall and he knew that if I was going to be tall with guard skills that would be a pretty versatile player. The post moves came later on.”
What also came later on included four state titles at Ursuline Academy and an unprecedented high school resume spotlighted by an all-time Delaware scholastic record 2,818 points. Along with that came the national player of the year honors, the All-American nods and boatloads of mail from pillars like Summit, Auriemma and Stringer.
Ursuline coach John Noonan first saw the early signs of Delle Donne’s future greatness as a “tall for her age” second grader.
“Super, super skilled,” recalls Noonan. “You can just see that the kid was born to play the sport. I sort of put her through the paces with some different drills and she was just unbelievable. Everything she did was super smooth, really good technique, just a terrific talent. I started making things a little bit more complicated for her. Instead of giving her a good pass, I throw her a bad pass. She would catch the ball, go behind the back with it and then go in and finish.”
You’re wondering how the top player in the class of 2008 ends up playing Colonial Athletic Association ball? As much as Delle Donne prefers not to dwell on the past, it’s a part of her story and a key to her bright future.
A few months after finishing her high school career, Delle Donne took the usual rite of passage for a top-ranked prospect. In June of 2008, she waved goodbye to her hometown and enrolled in summer classes at UConn. However, after two days she decided to come back home and attend Delaware. Message boards were filled with criticisms of her desire. Former UConn standout Kara Wolters was quoted in The Connecticut Post saying, “She’s so good. What a waste. It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard. To have an opportunity like that to play, obviously, at the best college women’s program in the world and she threw it away.”
But most didn’t know about her loving relationship with her sister Lizzie, who has cerebral palsy. Delle Donne was homesick.
“I needed to be near my family and I realized family was the most important aspect, ahead of basketball, ahead of anything else,” says Delle Donne. “Transferring back and being at UD was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
She also addresses the rumors of basketball burnout.
“No, I wouldn’t say that at all,” says Delle Donne. “I love the training aspect of the sport and I love working hard. I love everything about it. It was just burn out of being pulled away from my family. I would definitely say the biggest thing is to kind of sit back and look at what’s most important to you.”
Still, the pressure and recruiting attention in high school had been overwhelming at times. At one point, Delle Donne flew to Arizona for a photo shoot, and then came right back for a game in Pennsylvania. Noonan says that while she handled it well, she never felt comfortable.
“I went on a lot of her recruiting visits,” say Noonan. “The thing that I was kind of surprised with her about was the fact that when she would leave Tennessee, she would leave Connecticut, she would leave Notre Dame or she would leave Duke after a visit, I was always kind of waiting for her to say that’s it. That’s the place or I love that coach or I love that area. I just never got that sense. She just never seemed to have that place that she truly fell in love with.”
During her first year at UD, Delle Donne traded in boxing out and zone defenses for spiking and serves on the volleyball team. She was even named to the All-CAA Rookie Team. But her basketball jones wasn’t going to up and leave. Delle Donne still had a burning passion for the game, and after the volleyball season, she reached out to head coach Tina Martin to talk about the possibility of a basketball comeback. She just needed time and space to get the feeling of the game back. Martin provided that with access to the gym late at night away from prying eyes.
For those few months in the spring, Delle Donne went through each dribble, each jumper and each drill in the shadows. Her future teammates didn’t even know about her late-night sessions. Neither did the UD community. Delle Donne had to come face to face with the game she had left behind, the expectations and yes, the pressure.
But this time felt different. Delle Donne would be home playing the game she loves in front of the people she loves. It was time. For the 2009 season, Delle Donne would do the once unimaginable as the top prep player: suit up in the Delaware blue and gold. She didn’t skip a beat in her first season on the collegiate hardwood, earning the school’s first All-American nod. Then in the following season, Delle Donne put up 25.3 points and 7.8 boards a night.
Some of Delle Donne’s most explosive performances this year included a 40-point, 15-rebound effort against George Mason in January. She eclipsed 2,000 points for her career in a February tilt at Hofstra, producing a season-high 42 points to go along with 14 boards and six blocks.
Delle Donne showed off her clutch gene three days later at Drexel, nailing a leaning jumper with two seconds left in the Hens’ 40-39 victory. Her 12 points in the game earned her the title of Delaware’s all-time leading scorer for both the men’s and women’s programs.