It was 2 a.m. in Italy when the phone in her hotel room woke Tina Martin. The University of Delaware women’s basketball coach was in Venice, nearing the end of her first real vacation in 10 years. “Who in the world?” was her first thought as she reached for the phone.
Though a bit groggy, Martin immediately recognized the voice of Edgar Johnson, then the UD athletics director. “Edgar?” she said. “Is everything OK?”
Johnson, calling from Newark, assured her that yes, things were OK, but he had some news—news important enough for him to disregard the six-hour time difference: Elena Delle Donne, the top women’s basketball
recruit in the country, the player whose five-year career at Wilmington’s Ursuline Academy was the stuff of legend, who had recently returned to Delaware from Storrs, Conn., where after just two days she had decided to reject a scholarship from the top women’s program in the country—that Elena Delle Donne—was enrolling at UD.
Then, before the coach could entertain visions of the 6-5 superstar, clad in blue and gold, drilling three-pointers and posting up smaller players, Johnson added this shocker: “She’s going to play volleyball, Tina, not basketball. We’re holding a press conference to make the announcement.”
That was in August, 2008, and Delle Donne had just started to emerge from an emotional abyss, her passion for basketball, a game she had dominated since grade school, nearly gone. That, and homesickness, had prompted her well-chronicled return from the University of Connecticut. She wasn’t ready to be separated from her family, especially her older sister, Lizzie, who has cerebral palsy and is blind and deaf.
Four years later, Delle Donne, with Martin as her Sherpa, has climbed to the top of women’s college basketball. Now, in her last season, Delle Donne, Martin and a veteran team are poised to challenge the sport’s perennial powers.
Luring the four-time All-Stater back to the court was accomplished through a series of incrementally bigger steps engineered masterfully by Martin. It began with a decision the coach made during that Newark-to-Venice call: Neither she nor her staff would attend the press conference. Martin surmised that Delle Donne was still stressed and skittish from her UConn experience and the media frenzy surrounding it, and she feared more pressure might make her bolt.
When Martin got back to campus she met with her four-person staff and told them to give Delle Donne plenty of space, not to approach her. Then she called volleyball coach Bonnie Kenny to tell her she and her assistants would not be attending any games, even though they were big fans.
Volleyball ended, and Delle Donne seemed to have fun with it, even making the All-Conference rookie team. Then, in January, Martin got a call from John Noonan, the Ursuline coach and Delle Donne’s personal coach, saying Elena would like to meet with her. The meeting took place in Martin’s office at 8 a.m. on the day of UD’s home game against Drexel. For 45 minutes, says Martin, they discussed everything but basketball. “We talked about our families, talked about our backgrounds, talked about how school was going.” At the end, Delle Donne said she was still undecided about whether to come back to basketball, but the two exchanged cell phone numbers. And then they hugged.
A couple of weeks later, Delle Donne texted Martin to ask if she could come in to the Bob Carpenter Center gym and shoot. “She said she missed basketball a little, but still wasn’t sure about coming back,” Martin says. The coach arranged for Noonan and Delle Donne to come in one evening, greeted them at the door, turned on the lights, then left. She later learned from Noonan that Delle Donne was surprised and pleased that the coach had not stayed to watch her work out.
Says Martin, “I didn’t need to see the young lady shoot. I knew what she could do.”
Over the next few weeks Delle Donne used the gym several more times. Next, she texted Martin to let her know she was going to attend a game. She did, trying to disappear into the crowd, but of course people recognized her and soon dozens of kids were clamoring for her autograph. Martin says she was afraid that would spook her, but it didn’t, and Delle Donne texted that she had had fun at the game.
In all of their conversations and texts, Martin says, she was careful to avoid introducing the subject of basketball. Only if Delle Donne brought it up did they discuss the sport.
In April 2009, just after the season ended, the 19-year-old came to Martin’s office and said she wanted to put to rest the rumors that she planned to transfer. “She told me she loved Delaware, she was happy here and she wasn’t leaving,” says the coach.
Then in the same conversation came the breakthrough Martin had hoped for: Delle Donne revealed that she was thinking about joining the team; she would let the coach know soon. “Great,” Martin said. “Whenever you’re ready, Elena, if you want to play, great. If you decide not to play, that’s fine too.” That last sentence no doubt was uttered through gritted teeth.
A month later, Delle Donne joined the team.
Without a trace of irony, Martin sums up this chronicle in quasi-biblical language: “Over that five-month period—January to May—it came to pass that she decided to play again.”
There’s no denying that “E Double D” has been a godsend for the Blue Hens (Sports Illustrated likened her playing for Delaware to Adele singing in the church choir). In her freshman season, all she did was average 26.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game while becoming the school’s first All-American. In 2010, a bout with Lyme disease caused her to miss 11 games, but still she averaged 25.3 points, and led the team to the Colonial Athletic Association final. At the University Games in China that summer, she was the dominant player on a squad loaded with All-Americans, and the coach compared her to Dirk Nowitzki, perennial NBA All-Star and former MVP.
Last season, Delle Donne and Delaware went on a historic run, going 31-2, achieving the school’s first national ranking (rising as high as seventh, finishing 14th) and getting their first win in the Women’s NCAA Tournament. Oh, and Delle Donne led the nation in scoring with a 27.5 average.
Martin says her star guard/forward has matured from a “shy, almost withdrawn” freshman to a vocal leader on and off the court. “This is her team now, without question,” says the coach.
That maturity served Delle Donne well as the SI profile and the NCAA tournament launched a series of heady moments for her and her teammates. During the tournament, Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant, one of her favorite players, tweeted her. Then, after the Hens were eliminated by Kansas, former Phillie and ESPN commentator John Kruk, who has become a friend, invited her to throw out the first ball at the Phillies home opener. On May 1, Vice President Joe Biden hosted the team and school administrators on a tour of the White House, followed by a poolside dinner at the vice president’s Washington residence.
After the season, as part of the Wooden Award All-America team, Delle Donne traveled to Los Angeles, where she says she was “thrilled” to meet Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins, and other nationally known players.
But now she and her teammates are focused on the upcoming season. She has deleted her Twitter account and Facebook page, and while UD is known as a party school, Delle Donne says, “I’ve never been much of a partier.” She prefers cooking lasagna and other Italian dishes for teammates in the campus apartment she shares with Meghan McLean, a teammate who graduated last spring  but has a job in the area and will continue to room with her. They’re movie fans, opting for such non-edgy fare as “The Vow,” a romance starring Rachel McAdams. On Sundays Delle Donne usually has dinner with Lizzie and the rest of her family at their 35-acre compound outside Wilmington.
She calls her mother, Joan, her best friend. Inspired by Lizzie and Joan, Delle Donne says that when she starts getting paid to play by the WNBA, she hopes to raise awareness of special needs children, perhaps through a foundation.
This past summer allowed no letup in her schedule. An honors student majoring in human services with a focus on special education, she took classes and joined teammates for pickup games. The team also hit the weight room three times a week—all except Delle Donne. She signed on for a fourth session in order to add more muscle to a body that, though still slim, is much sturdier than when she arrived at UD, and now tips the scales at nearly 200 pounds.
She’ll need the extra bulk to face the inevitable double- and triple-teams and full-court face-guarding aimed at wearing her down. She can count on help from a team that returns all five starters and shares a mutual affection. Says Lauren Carra, a senior guard, “Coming here, I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to play with someone like Elena. She’s a great teammate, a real leader. She picks the team up, she never criticizes, she’s always positive.”
For her part, Delle Donne says, “Our team dynamics [last] year were incredible, and the chemistry we had on and off the court really elevated our game.”
She’s also a big fan of Martin, calling the coach “an amazing person who has always wanted what’s best for me. She has always said she wants me to have fun and enjoy the sport, and playing for her has been the best time I’ve ever had playing basketball.”
Adding to the optimism for the coming season: the Carpenter Center is one of the sites for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, meaning if the Hens qualify, as expected, they’ll enjoy home court advantage in their quest to move on to the Sweet Sixteen.
Martin will have the Hens ready. She comes from the hills of central Pennsylvania, home to tough, no-nonsense people who always show up at gut-check time. And that’s the kind of team she has built.
As for Delle Donne, despite her current fame, she will essentially disappear from the national spotlight after this season. Yes, she’ll be drafted by a WNBA team, but you will need a GPS to find her games and a magnifying glass to read the agate type describing them. ESPN2 may carry a few games, but that’s pretty much it.
So here’s some friendly advice: Go to a UD women’s basketball game this season. Tickets will be hard to come by, but find a way to watch Elena Delle Donne play in person. See her bury three-pointers, freeze opponents with her cross-over dribble, bang the boards for put-backs, and swat away shots from lesser mortals.
Revel in her skills while you can, because you will not see her like again.