Meet Elena Delle Donne.
The 6’5” tall, Delle Donne is an athletic forward phenom who has recently completed her rookie season in the WNBA with the Chicago Sky. In late September she was named the winner of the WNBA Rookie of the Year Award and it wasn’t even close. She was the top vote-getter for the 2012/13 WNBA All-Star Game – the first time a rookie has ever held that distinction – and, barring injury, she will almost certainly be a part of Team USA at next year’s World Championships in Turkey.
Delle Donne possesses silky smooth skills, especially considering her size, and an all-round game. In her rookie campaign she finished inside the top 5 in the WNBA in points (18.1), blocks (1.8), FT% (93%) and 3P% (44%). That’s right, blocks and 3’s!
She’s the female version of Dirk Nowitzki.
But there is a lot more to Elena Delle Donne than her funky name and her classy game. And while her game might resemble the big German, the Della Donne story has a whole lot of Larry Bird about it. Dirk Nowitzki and The Legend – not a bad combination.
To properly tell the Elena Delle Donne story, we first need to take it back to the summer of 2006. It was 7am in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, and the ballers had assembled on the local court for the daily morning pick-up games. Amongst all the fellas sweating it out on the asphalt court was the then 16-year-old Elena Della Donne. She was clearly taller than most of the men on the court but what was also evident was that she could dribble, pass and shoot better than most, if not all, of them as well.
EJ Kusnyer was sitting in the bleachers that morning, watching his younger brother play. Kusnyer, who averaged 19 points per game with Kilsyth in the SEABL last year and is now playing in Hungary, remembers being blown away by the tall blonde girl that was running the point, crossing dudes over and sticking pull-up after pull-up.
“I had never seen a girl that tall that could dribble, shoot and see the floor like she could,” Kusnyer reflects. “I remember seeing one guy drive to the basket and have his shot sent off the surrounding chain link fence. That was the moment I started looking for answers.”
When he was told that Della Donne had only just completed her sophomore year of high school, Kusnyer could not believe it.
“I was blown away.”
By the end of her stellar high school career at the little-known Ursuline Academy, Della Donne was a McDonald’s All-American and was the nation’s number-one overall high school recruit (as ranked by www.scout.com). The scholarship offers came flooding in. In the end she did what most thought was inevitable, she signed on to attend the most famous women’s college basketball program in America, the University of Connecticut.
UConn had done it again. They had once again recruited the country’s best freshman prospect and, in 2009 and 2010, the UConn Huskies went on to have two consecutive undefeated seasons and win back-to-back National Championships. They finished those two years with a remarkable 78-0 record.
But Elena Della Donne didn’t have a single thing to do with it.
After arriving at the school in 2008, after only 48 hours on campus, Delle Donne left UConn and returned home. She left in the middle of the night without telling anyone. Never to return again.
“At that point in time I wasn’t ready to leave home and my family – especially my sister,” Delle Donne told ESPN earlier this year.
You see Elena’s older sister, Lizzie, who is her closest friend and inspiration, has special needs; she was born deaf and blind, has cerebral palsy and is autistic.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have an angel as my sibling, my entire life. She really has shaped me into the person I am today.”
Lizzie is Elena’s biggest supporter, despite never having seen her sister sink a single shot or grab a single rebound.
Delle Donne has a tattoo of Lizzie’s name nestled in angel wings on the side of her torso. She touches it for strength and courage during a tight game.
“Being 18, leaving [Lizzie] was very difficult,” Della Donne recalled. “All of our communication is in person through touch, smiles, hugs and hand-over-hand sign language. Leaving her crushed me at that point in time.”
And so, just like Larry Bird left the Indiana Hoosiers after less than a month and returned home to French Lick, Elena made her way back to Wilmingon, Delaware to re-join her family. After leaving a voice-mail message on the UConn coach, Geno Auriemma’s phone the next morning, her career as a Huskie was officially over before it had ever really begun.
The media had a field day. Della Donne was crazy. She was pregnant. Even former Huskies All-American, Carol Walters, got stuck in – labelling Delle Donne ‘a cancer’ and ‘whacked’.
Eventually Delle Donne had enough and quit the sport.
She enrolled at the local University of Delaware – a school that was, importantly, only 20 minutes from home – and spent the year playing middle-hitter for the volleyball team instead.
For 5 months Elena Delle Donne did not touch a basketball.
Eventually in May 2009, after a year of digs, sets and spikes, Delle Donne approached Tina Martin, the University of Delaware Women’s Head Basketball Coach, about the possibility of pulling on a jersey for the Blue Hens. Tina, not surprisingly, said yes. That would be fine.
The Blue Hens improved overnight but it would take until Delle Donne’s junior year, in which she led the nation in scoring, for them to finally break their NCAA Tournament hoodoo. The school had never previously won an NCAA tournament game but Delle Donne’s huge game and 39 points led the Blue Hens to an historic tournament win over Arkansas (Little Rock).
In her senior year, Della Donne led the Blue Hens all the way to the NCAA’s Sweet Sixteen. Unfortunately however, Delaware fell 62-69 to the University of Kentucky in the tournament’s Regional Semi Finals, despite Delle Donne’s 33 points. Ironically, it was Connecticut that was waiting for the victor in the next round. And, of course, it was Connecticut that went on to win the National Championship – their third in five years.
“She missed out on a bunch of National Championships,” UConn Coach Auriemma recently remarked to ESPNW. “But maybe that’s not as important to her as some other things.”
That, Mr Auriemma, is an understatement.
“That’s not important to me,” explains Delle Donne. “National Championships obviously are huge… but there’s a lot more to it for me.”
Earlier this year Elena Delle Donne was picked #2 in the WNBA draft by the Chicago Sky and she is absolutely flourishing as a pro. This year the Sky made the playoffs for the very first time in the history of franchise, thanks largely to Delle Donne’s outstanding play.
Now that she is a bit older, Delle Donne has grown more comfortable with living and playing basketball away from home. Away from her sister.
“Now I’m able to spread my wings and still know that the love exists whether I’m in the same room with her or miles away,” she said.
“Growing up with my sister has always kept me humble. All I’m doing is putting a ball through a basket. When I see her fight her struggles every single day that’s far more incredible than anything I’m doing on the court.”
Elena Delle Donne is a superstar athlete with perspective.
The next time you watch the Australian Opals go head-to-head with Team USA you may very well be watching the gold medal game of next year’s World Championships. And if that game is going down to the wire, keep a close eye on Elena Delle Donne. If she’s touching the side of her torso, watch out.