Like the Statue of Liberty brandishing her torch, Elena Delle Donne stood on the perimeter, holding a ball above her head. She attracted a swarm of defenders, as she inevitably does—two, then a third and a lurking fourth. Her head up the whole time, Delle Donne feinted left and looked right, causing one opponent to back off and play the passing lane. Indifferent to the six hands in her way, she dribbled, took a step back and uncoiled her 6'5" frame like a jack-in-the-box. With the ball off to the side of her head, she extended her arms, flicked her right wrist and released a shot that started its arc almost 10 feet off the ground, traced a perfect rainbow and, bypassing the rim entirely, came to rest in the bottom of the net.
This is an article from the Jan. 23, 2012 issue
It was one of 13 field goals Delle Donne would make this night, from various spots on the floor, leading her team to a road win at Princeton. But it was a tidy snapshot of her basketball gifts: an alchemy of coordination, instinct, agility, footwork, ballhandling and a shot so sweet it could rot teeth. It was indicative of how Delle Donne—nominally a forward but an impossibly versatile player, as likely to bring the ball downcourt as she is to post up—leads the nation in scoring, averaging 29.8 points a game. It helped explain how she could break Delaware's career scoring record in just 63 games, 50 fewer than it took the previous record holder. It was a glimpse of what she contributed as the star of the U.S.'s gold-medal-winning entry in the World University Games last summer. It attested to why she'll be an all-WNBA player one day soon—"a player with a game that translates so well to the next level," says former Washington Mystics general manager Angela Taylor.
But apart from the players on both benches exchanging did-you-see-that? looks, the sequence didn't draw much reaction. Delle Donne simply jogged back to the defensive end with an unchanged expression. No fist pump. No self-congratulatory gestures. Not even a smile of satisfaction. There were no ESPN courtside commentators to rain praise and hype, no cheerleaders, no raucous crowd reaction.
So it goes when the most exciting player in college hoops suits up for Delaware, a program that has never won an NCAA postseason game and until now never held a Top 25 national ranking. (The Blue Hens are currently No. 16.) Delle Donne playing for Delaware is like Adele singing in the church choir. It's Oprah on public access, Serena Williams in the ladies' scrambler at the country club. "Let's be honest, from a basketball standpoint there was nothing I could do to top a UConn or Stanford or Tennessee," says Delaware's bracingly candid coach, Tina Martin. "But for Elena, this was home."
TRANSLATED FROM ITALIAN, the family name means "of the women," and it could hardly be more fitting. The clan is extraordinarily close-knit, living together on a 35-acre compound outside Wilmington. Not only do the Delle Donne females outnumber the males three to two; the entire offense runs through the family's oldest daughter, Lizzie. "She's the boss," says Ernie Delle Donne (6'6"), the paterfamilias and a former basketball player at Columbia. "And the happiest of my kids." Adds Gene Delle Donne, 25, who at 6'7" played tight end for Middle Tennessee State, "Lizzie's the captain of the boat; we're just the crew."
Now 27, Lizzie was born deaf, blind and with cerebral palsy. "She's severely handicapped, functioning at the level of an infant—and she's incredible," says Elena, age 22. "The battles she fights to get through a day put everything in perspective." Lizzie knows her sister by her scent and her feel. As Helen Keller did, Lizzie can communicate using hand-over-hand sign language. "She can [distinguish] my hugs and kisses," says Elena. "I can't even describe how close we are."
That Lizzie has never been aware that her little sister played basketball made her unique. Starting in third grade, Elena's body and skills grew commensurately. By the start of eighth grade she was nearly 6 feet and had a scholarship offer to play at North Carolina. As a sophomore Delle Donne set a national record by hitting 80 consecutive free throws and then dropped 50 points in her team's final game to lead Ursuline Academy to a state title. As a junior The New York Times wrote that she could become the LeBron James of the women's game. As a senior, she was the Naismith Award winner.
If Delle Donne had nature on her side, she also had a heaping portion of nurture. Her father, a successful Delaware real estate developer, and mother, Joan, spared no expense with their youngest daughter's training. Starting in elementary school, she had a personal skills coach, John Noonan, who still works with her now. The philosophy was simple. She could always develop a low-post game later on. If she had guard skills—dribbling, passing and range on the velveteen shot—she could be unstoppable.
In a game Delle Donne could single-handedly break a full-court press; but she was nearly broken by the full-court press of college recruitment. Exhausted by the process, she finally committed to the dynastic UConn program, figuring to play alongside eventual four-time All-America Maya Moore. She made the five-hour drive from Delaware to Storrs, Conn., in the summer of 2008 and, famously, lasted two days on campus before leaving. Her departure was discussed endlessly on blogs and message boards; the diagnosis was, charitably, burnout, and less charitably, head-case-itis.
Delle Donne was amused by all the speculation because, truthfully, she couldn't pinpoint why she suddenly had such little passion for basketball and such little desire to play for what was likely a championship team. But it made more sense when she came home and hugged Lizzie. "Remember, if I don't have physical contact with her, I don't have any contact with her," she says. "It's not like I can Skype with her or e-mail or text her."
A week before the fall semester in '08, Elena enrolled at Delaware, 10 miles from home. On a whim she joined the volleyball team as a walk-on. After the coach explained the rules of the sport, Delle Donne started and made the all-conference rookie team. She also made friends in bunches. She enjoyed her classes. She went home for family dinner every Sunday and plenty of times in-between.
As for basketball, she treated it like a romantic breakup and cut ties. She didn't work with her skills coach or even touch a ball, and she didn't go to many games. "I stayed away because I wanted to give myself a chance to miss it," she says. Though Martin marveled that the country's top-rated high school senior from the previous year was on campus—and playing for the friggin' volleyball team—she backed off. "I told our staff don't approach her, don't go near her, she needs time," the coach recalls. "She's under emotional stress. If she's going to play again, it has to come from her."
In the spring of Delle Donne's freshman year—cue the music—she watched the women's NCAA tournament and shook her head. "What am I doing, not playing basketball?" she asked her family. When the answers were slow in coming, she quietly asked Martin if she could use the gym. Wary of drawing attention to herself, she came early in the morning or late at night, squeezing off jumpers and going through footwork drills. She was relieved that she still had the touch. Finally, she told Martin she was interested in joining the team. Suppressing the urge to scream, Martin said, "All I got for you is a jersey and a pair of shorts. But we lift weights next week. Be there."
The rest, of course, is history. In 2009--10, she averaged 26.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and hit 194 of 206 free throws. Despite missing 11 games because of a bout with Lyme disease—she still gobbles a fistful of pills every morning to combat the effects—and despite the inevitable double teams, box-and-ones and other gimmick defenses, Delle Donne averaged 25.3 points last season. At the University Games in China in August she feasted on the straight-up coverage and dominated, clearly the toast of a team that included such All-Americas as Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins and Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike. "Elena is as skilled as any player I have been around," says the coach of the team, Bill Fennelly of Iowa State. "I told my staff she's like Dirk Nowitzki with the skill sets she possesses."
Delle Donne says she's never considered transferring from Delaware to a big-time program, the kind that plays on TV and doesn't have to lure fans with the slogan DARE TO BE THERE. Of course, there's the proximity to Lizzie and the rest of her family. Besides, she loves her teammates and is happy to take the freshmen under her wing or cook them dinner at the off-campus apartment she shares with senior guard Meghan McLean. And if anything, elevating an underdog program, an underdog school and an underdog state has been part of the appeal. "People have asked me what state Delaware is in," she says. "It's small but it's a great place. If we can bring some extra exposure, great."
If Delaware is the unlikely alternative rock band suddenly playing the big arena, it hasn't been without complication. Much as UConn's Geno Auriemma did in the '90s with Rebecca Lobo, Martin hopes to build on Delle Donne's presence. But recruiting has been a challenge. "Some kids are excited to play with someone as good as Elena," says Martin. "But more than you'd think, kids—or their parents—have said no to coming here because they think Elena's going to get all the touches."
The presence of Delle Donne has also been an adjustment for the other Blue Hens. There's a pressure that comes from playing alongside an All-America. "When she's drawing triple teams, reading, reacting and passing, you really want to hit that open shot," says junior guard Kayla Miller, who has played with Delle Donne since high school. "On the other hand, it takes pressure off knowing you have a teammate who can score from anywhere."
Martin has done a deft dance, acknowledging that the team has a clear-cut star but stressing the importance of complementary play; challenging Delle Donne but making sure basketball "is fun for Elena and kept in perspective." While she, too, can be reduced to an awestruck onlooker at times during games, the coach isn't above giving her best player some grief.
During a recent game, Delle Donne shook free of the defense and had a rare open look on a three-pointer. She dished to a teammate, who wasn't expecting a pass. As the ball dribbled out-of-bounds, Martin bellowed, "Elena Delle Donne, you shoot the ball or your ass is sitting on the bench!"
A few possessions later, Delle Donne complied. She caught the ball on the elbow, and though she had a path to the basket, she dribbled twice, faked, stepped back and drained a three-pointer.
Sometimes the circuitous route is the best path of all.