This story was printed in Dime #69…
Every so often, a player will come along with the potential to redefine a sport. But passing up this chance? That almost never happens. Elena Delle Donne was considered a future legend coming out of high school before she gave it all up. After taking a detour, she’s playing basketball again, history in her sights. This is her story.
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It’s a misty late January Thursday night in Newark, Delaware, home base of the eighth-ranked University of Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens women’s basketball team. Excited fans rush to pack the Bob Carpenter Center for a tilt between the Lady Hens and Hofstra Pride. It’s the hottest ticket in the First State. It has been since November. While head coach Tina Martin has built a respectable program, the buzz in this community stems from the college game’s biggest secret.
That secret is Elena Delle Donne, the preeminent scorer in women’s college basketball. The Wilmington, Delaware native is in the “you can’t stop them, only hope to contain them” category of players. Delle Donne put up a nation-leading 28.1 points per game, over four points per game more than the closest competitor, Oral Robert’s Kevi Luper, and was also among the top 20 rebounders nationally with a 10.3 average. Delle Donne possesses a smooth handle unfitting for a 6-5 player, nifty footwork down low and protractor-like form on her jumper.
So what’s a defense to do? If you guard up on Delle Donne she gets to any spot she wants or simply shoots right over the defense. Play off at your own peril; she led UD by shooting 41 percent from three-point land.
Coaches are always scheming. Double and triple teams, zone defenses and box-and-ones, you name it Delle Donne has faced it. If her shot isn’t falling, she can dish it off just as well, finishing second on the team with 75 dimes.
During Delaware’s matchup with Hofstra, a gentleman expecting to see a Jordan-esque performance seems underwhelmed. He demands to see more than her 16 points at the half. Don’t worry. We will.
Eventually you look up to the scoreboard and see an effortless 41 next to her name, breaking her previous Carpenter Center record, in addition to a game-high 15 rebounds, five assists and a couple of blocks. At this point the junior is chasing herself in the record books, owning 12 of the 13 highest scoring outputs in program history.
She’s even chasing legends. After scoring 22 and grabbing nine rebounds in a 64-56 win at Villanova in November, Wildcats head coach Harry Perretta stated, “She’s like Larry Bird.” With size and unlimited scoring ability, younger fans compare her to Kevin Durant or Dirk Nowitzki.
“I’ve also heard Dirk Nowitzki because of his size and his ability to shoot,” Delle Donne says. “I started playing when I was four against my brother (Gene, a former quarterback for Middle Tennessee State). Playing against boys was definitely something that helped a lot. But I always worked on my guard skills. My dad (Ernie, who played hoops at Columbia) knew I was going to be tall and he knew that if I was going to be tall with guard skills that would be a pretty versatile player. The post moves came later on.”
What also came later on included four state titles at Ursuline Academy and an unprecedented high school resume spotlighted by an all-time Delaware scholastic record 2,818 points. Along with that came the national player of the year honors, the All-American nods and boatloads of mail from pillars like Summit, Auriemma and Stringer.
Ursuline coach John Noonan first saw the early signs of Delle Donne’s future greatness as a “tall for her age” second grader.
“Super, super skilled,” recalls Noonan. “You can just see that the kid was born to play the sport. I sort of put her through the paces with some different drills and she was just unbelievable. Everything she did was super smooth, really good technique, just a terrific talent. I started making things a little bit more complicated for her. Instead of giving her a good pass, I throw her a bad pass. She would catch the ball, go behind the back with it and then go in and finish.”
You’re wondering how the top player in the class of 2008 ends up playing Colonial Athletic Association ball? As much as Delle Donne prefers not to dwell on the past, it’s a part of her story and a key to her bright future.