On the Line

Juggernaut Elena Delle Donne rocketed to the heights of college athletics, then dropped off the map. Now she’s back—happy, fired up, and ready to change the game.

The return of Elena Delle Donne has Blue Hens fans buzzing. Advance season ticket sales for women’s basketball jumped from 422 in 2008 to 742 so far this year.  Photograph by Michael SahadiIn August Elena Delle Donne bought a puppy, a puggle she named Riley. Descending the stairway at the Bob Carpenter Center, the site of each of her three Delaware girl’s basketball championships, she reaches into her pocket and produces a cell phone picture of her new pet. “Isn’t she cute?” she asks.

The pup is wearing a miniature Blue Hens basketball jersey. “You can buy UD anything,” she says, all smiles.

After a tumultuous two years that saw the hoops star suffer from burnout and homesickness enough to abandon the top college team in the country, Elena Delle Donne will make her long-awaited return to the basketball court this month as a University of Delaware Blue Hen.

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The new chapter in her already-famous career will commence in Newark with a refreshed and confident Delle Donne ready to face new challenges.

At UD, Delle Donne is close to her tight-knit family. Her amazing basketball career, which just one year ago appeared to be dead, is resurrected.

“I feel like I’ve been able to figure things out so much, and I’m so much closer to my family as a result,” Delle Donne says. “I had a problem and I kept it inside for five years. Now if I have a problem, I can easily get through it.”

Friends and family members report Delle Donne seems happier than she’s been in years.

“As soon as she decided to play basketball again, that’s when I noticed her happiness pick back up,” says Ernie Delle Donne, Elena’s father. “It was almost like she’d been to hell and back.”

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In high school Delle Donne led Ursuline to three straight state titles and became the top college recruit in the country.At Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Delle Donne became known as the female LeBron James—a 6-foot-5 superstar who was nationally recognized as playing in a league of her own. With Delle Donne as its centerpiece, Ursuline won three straight state championships. She averaged just under 30 points per game and set a national record by hitting 80 straight free throws during her sophomore year. By the time she was a senior, Delle Donne was the country’s top recruit.

A nine-minute clip of her high school highlights on YouTube has totaled more than 45,000 hits. The video shows Delle Donne at her most dominant—executing circus-style lay-ups, grabbing rebounds, blocking shots and draining three-pointers. It’s the kind of amazing skill and versatility that made The New York Times proclaim, “She’s 6-5 and 17, with the potential to alter the game.”

The top women’s college basketball programs in the country courted Delle Donne relentlessly. After her final year at Ursuline, Delle Donne committed to powerhouse UConn.

“I think the expectations were almost surreal from the minute she stepped onto the court,” says Mechelle Voepel, who covers women’s basketball for ESPN.com. “The fact that she was going to one of the two most visible college teams in the country only increased expectations.”

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That’s when Delle Donne’s inalienable path to hoops greatness took an abrupt detour. She lasted only two days in Storrs, Connecticut, home of the Huskies. Those who followed Delle Donne’s career were astonished when she negated her scholarship and announced that she was burned out from basketball.

“I have a lot of personal issues to fix,” she said at the time. “Only my family understands what’s going on. Right now I am going to take a long personal break.”

That year she told ESPN cameras for the program “Outside the Lines,” “I was trying to force happiness upon myself, which I couldn’t find. I faked it really well, because I didn’t want other people to know.”

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Delle Donne questioned her own passion for the game, but was afraid to show weakness. She didn’t think people would understand, so she continued to mask it. The thought of wearing a UConn uniform, she hoped, would reignite her passion for basketball. It didn’t.

Delle Donne transferred to UD that fall. UConn went 39-0 and captured its sixth national championship without her.

The idea that Delle Donne could be sick of a game at which she excelled confused many. UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, as well as her parents, told Elena she was just feeling homesick. No, that’s not it at all, she’d reply. She just didn’t have the passion.

Today Delle Donne says what she thought was burnout was, in fact, a form of homesickness. “I always took basketball very seriously,” she says. “There came a point where it seemed that basketball was going to take me away from my family. So I think I started getting a bad feeling about basketball when I got my first college offer the summer before eighth grade. I associated basketball with going away from home.”

The symptoms—the regular pangs in her stomach—pointed Delle Donne toward burnout. “I didn’t realize what the feeling was, so I said I hate basketball,” she says. “I thought it was burnout because I hated it, but I didn’t realize the reasons for hating it. The idea of going away to college made me have this pit in my stomach. Whenever I picked up a basketball, that pit would come back.”

The Delle Donnes—parents Ernie and Joanie and progeny Gene, Elizabeth and Elena—are an extremely tight bunch. While star athletes Elena and Gene, a tight end at Middle Tennessee State University, grab headlines, Elena says it is sister Lizzie who holds the family together. Lizzie, 25, suffers from autism and cerebral palsy. She is blind and deaf. The collective effort to care for Lizzie is what keeps her family so close, Elena says.

“In all the years that I’ve covered women’s basketball, I do not know of anyone who had so much attention and pressure and the spotlight for so many years that young, and also had a profoundly disabled sibling and a family situation that was quite different than most of us could ever imagine,” Voepel says. “I think it made her ties to home so selfless. A lot of kids get homesick, but with her, I never thought it was a homesickness tied to immaturity. In fact, it was just the opposite. It spoke to what a selfless and loving sister she is. I think in her heart, she never wanted to leave Delaware.”

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Meanwhile in Newark, Delle Donne began taking classes as an early education major and made the school’s volleyball team as a walk-on.

The University of Delaware, which boasts a very good athletics program, though nowhere near the national-powerhouse levels of some larger schools, suddenly had one of the best young basketball players in the country soul-searching her way around campus.

“Was it exciting to know she was on our campus? Yeah, it was exciting,” says Tina Martin, who has coached UD’s women’s basketball team since 1996.

The two knew each other because Martin recruited high schooler Delle Donne to play basketball at UD. During the first meeting in January, one initiated by Delle Donne, the subject of basketball didn’t come up.

“I didn’t want to press the issue,” Martin says. “I wanted to get a feeling of where her mind was and where her heart was. You have to understand the circumstances with Elena. She was the No. 1 player in the country. She has been recruited to death. That was not something she needed more of, someone harping on her and bugging her to death. She needed time to sort things out for herself and find her passion for the game again. I was more than willing to give her that time.”

The two exchanged phone numbers, and throughout the remainder of UD’s season, Delle Donne would text the coach short messages like “good game” or “tough loss.”

Delle Donne attended a few home games, which led to her shooting around at the gym. In June, Delle Donne announced she’d suit up for Delaware this year.

“I didn’t really have an ah-ha moment,” Delle Donne says. “I showed up at a few UD games just to watch the team, turned on women’s basketball on TV a little bit. I started to miss it. I didn’t want to jump back into it, so I took my time.”

Perhaps most important, Delaware represented a level of comfort that Delle Donne hadn’t experienced in a long time. She was able to have a fulfilling college experience and still get home to visit her family twice a week. She could attend weekly Sunday dinners, a tradition in the Delle Donne home. She could visit Lizzie whenever she wanted.

With her head cleared and her batteries recharged, Delle Donne realized how much she missed the game. “When I picked up a basketball again, I didn’t feel burnt out at all,” she says. “I felt happy to be playing again.”

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“People are telling me she looks like a different person,” Ernie Delle Donne says. “I’m seeing that glee in her eye again, and as parents, you can imagine how happy that makes Joanie and I.”

At UD, Delle Donne will split time between power forward and guard, a testament to her versatility and unique skill set.

“I think she’s going to have a phenomenal career,” Voepel says. “I think she is such a talented player that she won’t just raise the level of the team, but she’s going to make that program so much more palatable for recruits. Her impact at Delaware will probably extend well beyond her time on campus.”

The buzz surrounding UD women’s basketball is at an all-time high. Advanced season ticket sales for women’s basketball jumped considerably this summer, reaching 742 as of late August, up from 422 the previous year, according to UD’s sports information department.

And though Delle Donne has freshman eligibility and can play all four years at UD, she hinted that she might forego her final year and make the leap to the WNBA, the 2012 Olympics and beyond.

“I was supposed to change women’s basketball,” she says. “I’d still like to do that.”

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