Elena Delle Donne Close To Home And Happy Again
Aug. 7, 2011 • Colorado Springs, Colo.
The old cliché that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone rang strikingly true for Elena Delle Donne, not once, but twice during her first year of college.
It wasn’t until she left the two things she loved most that she realized how much a part of her they were and how much she needed them.
At Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Del., Delle Donne was being recruited by all of the top colleges. After all, she held the Delaware Class 1-IAA record with 2,818 career points, was a four-time state champion, three-time Gatorade Delaware Player of the Year and, as a senior in 2008, took home the Naismith Trophy and McDonald’s and USA Today National High School Player of the Year awards.
Delle Donne was the nation’s top recruit, and selected Connecticut, one of the nation’s top teams over the past decade, as her school of choice.
But the decision lasted less than 48 hours before she realized she had made the wrong one.
“I started feeling this way long before the recruiting process,” Delle Donne said. “Before I got to UConn, before trying out for USA Basketball the first time, before high school even.”
The game that she had spent countless hours playing since a young girl, the sport that she was becoming a women’s icon for and had a successful future in was no longer fun.
“I had lost the passion for the game of basketball.”
So before even starting her collegiate career at UConn, Delle Donne was finished, leaving the Huskies and transferring to Delaware, located a short 20 minutes from home.
“I committed to UConn hoping the passion would come back,” Delle Donne said. “I got there and realized I needed to be home. Something was wrong. I didn’t love the sport anymore.”
So, instead of starring in basketball, the nation’s No. 1 recruit left the sport to play volleyball at Delaware.
“I felt a passion for a sport that I hadn’t felt in quite some time,” Delle Donne said about volleyball.
But the change of sport only lasted a single year for Delle Donne, whose volleyball success earned her 2008 Colonial Athletic Association All-Rookie Team honors. Basketball season rolled around, and she attended several games, starting to process the idea of getting back into the game in which she had previously lost interest.
“By being at Delaware, I was able to get away but still be close to home,” Delle Donne said. “It really helped me grow as an individual, and over time, I decided that I missed basketball and wanted to play again.”
Just a year removed from having every college coach scouting her, Delle Donne had many of the elite programs again calling her, and could have gone back to many of her top choices.
But she didn’t.
“I loved Delaware,” Delle Donne said. “There was no way I was going to change where I was. I wasn’t going to go back to Connecticut or look at other top schools; I wanted to stay at Delaware, stay in my hometown and represent my home state.”
Instead of playing for a perennial powerhouse, where she could receive more national attention, play in front of larger crowds and TV audiences and year-in and year-out compete for a national championship, Delle Donne chose a mid-major, playing close to home instead.
“It never crossed my mind,” she said on leaving. “I knew Delaware was the perfect fit for me, the perfect university. I wasn’t going to change where I was happy at for a sport. Instead I brought the sport to where I was happy.”
You see, there’s more to the story than just revitalizing a passion for a sport.
Delle Donne is a homebody. She has two loving parents, two siblings that are some of her closest friends and her favorite pastime growing up was going crabbing each summer with her grandfather.
Her older sister, Elizabeth, suffers from autism and cerebral palsy, leaving her blind and deaf.
“Lizzie is severely handicapped,” Delle Donne said. “That was another huge reason why I had to come back home. She can’t see, speak, anything. When I left, I was cut off from her entirely. I couldn’t call her, I couldn’t email her . . .
“She means the world to me, and my brother is my biggest fan. It’s awesome that I can have them watch me play; it’s a really good scenario for me.”
At Delaware, Delle Donne is majoring in early childhood education with a focus in special education. After her basketball days are over for good, like her mom, she wants to work with children with special needs.
Delle Donne admits that coming back to Delaware was the best decision of her life. She says things have been ‘incredible since’ and that she’s truly happy again.
And for her passion?
“It’s like I’m a 10-year-old playing AAU basketball again,” she said with a smile. “I’ve got the love for the game.”
Now that she has the joy, her focus is on becoming one of the best basketball players again.
In two seasons at Delaware, she has averaged 26.1 ppg. and 8.5 rpg., picking up an Associated Press All-America honorable mention in 2011. This past season, she led the Blue Hens to a runner-up finish in the WNIT, and has already set multiple school records. This summer she made USA Basketball’s 2011 World University Games Team and will compete for the USA for the first time after withdrawing in 2006 and 2007 due to injury and personal reasons, respectively.
Her immediate focus is on winning a gold medal next week in Shenzhen, China, saying it is a “once in a lifetime chance” and that she is willing to do “whatever her team asks me to do that will help us win gold.” In the long run, she wants to finish up an already successful career at Delaware, and play professionally in the WNBA.
But no matter what happens in basketball, Delle Donne has all she needs just 20 miles away.
“I love basketball again, and I don’t see myself losing the passion again,” she said, “but more importantly, I’m close to my family, and that’s what’s truly important to me. I’m in a good spot, and I’m truly happy again.”