Four years ago, the nation’s No. 1 recruit stunned the women’s basketball world by walking away from one of the top programs in the country, heading home to Delaware and putting her basketball career on hold.
Elena Delle Donne was the 2008 USA Today Player of the Year out of Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Del. She was being recruiting by all of the nation’s elite women’s basketball programs, and chose Connecticut to play college ball. But just two days into taking summer classes before her freshman year, Delle Donne knew something just was not right. She missed her family, especially her older sister Lizzy, who is blind and deaf and suffers from cerebral palsy.
|ELENA DELLE DONNE’S SEASON STATS|
|Field Goal Pct.||.570|
|Free Throw Pct.||.924|
|NOTE: Statistics as of Dec. 25, 2011|
Delle Donne decided to leave UConn before playing a minute for the Huskies — a decision that sent shockwaves throughout women’s college basketball. She decided and take a step back from the game that she had played all her life. There were questions of burnout, but it really came down to Delle Donne’s closeness to her family.
“I lost the love of the game because it was pulling me away from my family,” Delle Donne said. “During the recruiting process, I was only looking at the top schools in the country and they were at least five hours away. I didn’t think it through during the process … I was just thinking ‘go big’, rather than looking at what was important to me.”
“I think she was overwhelmed by the whole thing, especially when she realized she wouldn’t get to go home that much to see her sister and family,” Delaware head coach Tina Martin said. “She realized when she got there her life wasn’t going to be the same. She knew what was important to her. When you grow up in a household with someone who is severely handicapped, you gain a whole new appreciation for everything in life.”
Being close to Lizzy was extremely important for Delle Donne as their only way to communicate is through physical contact.
“There is some hand-over-hand sign language, but not much,” Delle Donne said. “Hugging, kissing, her laughing is really the way we communicate. Leaving her was way bigger than I could have ever imagined. When I left [for UConn], I realized there was no way I was going to be able to be in contact with her or be around her, so she’s a huge reason why I came back home.”
Martin had been watching Delle Donne play basketball since she was on the varsity team as an eighth grader, but knew Delaware was out of the recruiting race for the superstar after her sophomore year. Like many others in the First State, Martin followed Delle Donne’s recruitment and watched situation unfold, but even she was a little surprised by the next move.
Two months after Delle Donne left UConn, Martin was enjoying her first vacation in 10 years. It was 2 a.m. in Venice, Italy, when her phone rang. She answered and it was Delaware’s athletics director Edgar Johnson to tell her the latest new in the Delle Donne saga.
“He said ‘Elena Delle Donne is transferring to Delaware.’ … I thought I was dreaming,” Martin said.
Johnson also explained that Delle Donne was going to play volleyball for the Blue Hens, and told her the school would hold a press conference when Martin returned from overseas. But Martin thought it was best if she was not involved in the process at all, and stayed far away from Delle Donne. She did not attend any of Delaware’s volleyball matches, and told her staff to leave the walk-on volleyball player alone. If Delle Donne was to ever return to basketball, she was going to have to make the decision on her own.
Martin’s first contact with Delle Donne was in December 2008, when the two exchanged hellos in the hallway of the Bob Carpenter Center.
That same month Kayla Miller, a high school teammate, called to tell Delle Donne she was transferring from George Washington.
“I called her and said I left the school and am going to try to see if Delaware has scholarships,” Miller said. “We were about to hang up and she said she was thinking about playing basketball again the next season. It was one of the best things to happen in my basketball career.”
But Delle Donne was still far from a final decision. About a month later, Delle Donne asked for a meeting with Martin through her former high school coach.
“We talked about everything but basketball for 45 minutes until the very end,” Martin said. “She said, ‘Coach, I’ve got to be honest, I really don’t know if I’ll ever play basketball again. I’m still contemplating that, but I wanted to tell you in person because you’ve been so great. If I ever change my mind, I’ll be in touch.’”
Of course, every person Martin ran into at the grocery store or movie theater would ask if she was recruiting the homegrown star, but Martin continued to remain out of the picture in Delle Donne’s basketball future.
“She didn’t contact me or do anything to try to influence me to play basketball,” Delle Donne said. “She stayed away the entire time. She didn’t even come to my volleyball matches because she didn’t want to think it was pressure.”
Over the next few months, Delle Donne attended some Delaware games, and began working out with her high school coach and team. In May 2009, Delle Donne contacted Martin to tell her that she would play basketball at Delaware, but did not want to make the announcement until she returned from a weekend at her grandparents’ house in Maryland.
Martin kept the secret for three days, not even telling her staff. Meanwhile, she tried to figure out how to showcase Delle Donne’s talents on a squad laden with freshmen and sophomores.
While Delle Donne’s basketball future seemed bright, returning to the court was not a piece of cake. She battled through injuries as a freshman and missed 11 games in her sophomore season due to Lyme’s Disease. Still, in her first year of collegiate basketball Delle Donne averaged 26.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game en route to becoming the Colonial Athletic Association’s first player to earn both Player and Rookie of the Year honors. She also became the school’s first All-America selection.
“She came back her sophomore year and I thought she was ready to go,” Martin said. “We started the season 6-1 and all of a sudden she started complaining of flu-like symptoms. She had never asked to be taken out of a game and she did at Penn State with 11 minutes left in the contest because she felt like she would pass out.”
In a six-week ordeal, doctors finally determined she had Lyme’s Disease, but she had lost eight pounds and was weakened by the illness.
“It was very trying,” Martin said. “We were all sitting on pins and needles wondering what was wrong with her.”
Delle Donne returned for the final third of the season, leading the Blue Hens to a run to the finals of the CAA Tournament and a berth in the Women’s NIT.
But it was this spring when she was training to play with the Team USA squad participating in the summer’s World University Games when Martin knew that Delle Donne was developing into the player that every college coach had dreamed about four years prior.
“I knew the way she was training last spring, I said, ‘watch out world,’” Martin said.
Team USA claimed the gold medal at the international tournament held in Shenzhen, China, as Delle Donne topped the team in scoring (15.7 ppg) and rebounding (8.5 rpg).
“It was awesome to hang out with and play with some of the top players in the country,” Delle Donne said. “I think we all elevated each other’s games. We were playing at a different pace than any games we’d ever played in I bet. I was able to learn a lot of leadership qualities from players like Nnemkadi Ogwumike from Stanford and Skylar Diggins from Notre Dame.”
The experience has definitely boosted her confidence and game this season, and the Blue Hens are benefiting with their best start in program history at 9-0.
“Elena has improved her game every year, whether it is her ball-handling, her shot or adding more moves to her game,” Miller said. “You think there’s no way she can get any better, and the next year she comes back better than the year before. She’s one of the hardest-working people I know and it is evident on the court.”
“She’s grown by leaps and bounds,” Martin said. “She’s matured and become a leader for our team, and taken her place as one of the best women’s basketball players in the country.”
Delle Donne currently leads the nation with 29.2 points, and is posting 10.4 rebounds per game. The Blue Hens knocked off No. 11 Penn State earlier this season, and claimed their first victory against an Atlantic Coast Conference team with a win against Wake Forest.
“This season is something I’ve envisioned and hoped for and worked really hard for,” Delle Donne said. “It keeps me motivated to try to put Delaware on the map, and try to have our team improve. I think it took a little while for us to get used to each other and playing together, but transfers like Akeema Richards [West Virginia] and Trumae Lucas [Florida] have been able to give us more of a spread out attack.”
“In my opinion, she’s the best player in the nation,” Miller said. “We have a lot of double teams and triple teams because of Elena, but she has such good vision on the floor that she is able to dish it off to whoever is open at the time, and that gives us easy baskets. Eventually, teams can’t double team us and Elena can do what she does best.”
The Blue Hens also broke into the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in program history on Nov. 28, and moved up to No. 23 in the latest poll released Dec. 19.
“We talk about it that we are making history as a team this year,” Delle Donne said. “That’s something that not many teams can do. We’re very proud of that, but it also motivates us to continue the success and keep our eyes on the next game or practice instead of looking too far ahead or even looking behind us.”
But more than winning games or breaking records or scoring points, Delle Donne is happy to be close to home.
“At Delaware, she gets to go home every weekend and her family comes to all the games,” Martin said. “Even Lizzy and her friends from her special school come to some games, which is really cool. Even though some of them can’t see or hear, they’re there. Lizzy knows Elena by her smell, and they have signals with hand touches and taps. Elena is happy because she is with the people she loves the most.”