The high school superstar left the state for basketball glory in Connecticut, then gave it all up after being “burned out.” Look back at the winding road that now has Elena Delle Donne leading Delaware to the NCAA tournament.
As a high school student at Ursuline Academy, she took the Delaware basketball scene by storm, leading the Raiders to three straight state championships. In 2006, Delle Donne dominated nationally-ranked St. Elizabeth’s in the state championship game and turned what was supposed to be a grudge match between the rival schools into a one-woman show, scoring 50 points. “I don’t think about points and stuff like that,” she told reporters after the championship win. “I did what I needed to do to win the game.”
Ursuline would split the state championships with St. E’s in Delle Donne’s junior and senior years, but all signs pointed to bigger and better things for her future. The heavily recruited Delle Donne made plans to attend the University of Connecticut, well known for its dominance over the NCAA women’s basketball scene.
Delle Donne had drawn national attention for her talent for the better part of a decade. A 2006 article by the New York Times compared her talent to LeBron James, and she was named the girls national player of the year. But an internal struggle was brewing.
After taking part in some summer workouts at UConn, Delle Donne shocked basketball fans and abruptly left the school to return to Delaware. She finally opened up about her reason for leaving Connecticut in August of 2008, saying she was burned out on basketball. “It’s extremely hard for me to do and everyone else was all upset about it, but I always look at it like, I’ve been given this God-given talent and I can’t put forth the effort, so it was really tough for me. I had to do it.” She said it wasn’t anything in particular that caused her to burn out. “There’s been times through high school where I felt like I can’t do this any more cause I’ve just been burned out. There was nothing in particular, it was just the game. I’m tired of it.”
She enrolled at the University of Delaware, and as a way of sports catharsis, she joined the volleyball team. The impact was almost immediate. About a week after joining the squad, Delle Donne said, “It’s been incredible. I’ve been all smiles since I’ve been here and I hope it continues that way. We’ve just been having a great time together and working hard so its been great.”
UD volleyball coach Bonnie Kenny made it clear they didn’t let Delle Donne on the team as a charity case, “This isn’t a glorified intramural program. We train very hard… she’s made us that much better, just like the other five new freshman that came in.” Kenny also made it clear she sympathized with the burnout Delle Donne was experiencing. “These kids in every sport are getting fried at too young of an age, and something that they should love and be passionate about, all the sudden becomes a chore. That’s too bad, that’s sad.” Kenny prophetically claimed that if Delle Donne ever got the itch to get back to basketball, “I would support her one hundred percent.”
Delle Donne herself left the door open to return to the hardwood, even as she was explaining her burnout on the game. “It would be ridiculous for me to say never. I am 18 years old, so never would be an eternity. Basketball is not part of my life right now.”
It didn’t take long for that itch to return. One year after leaving Connecticut and giving up basketball, Delle Donne announced her plans to return to the court, not at UConn, but at UD. “I really enjoyed playing volleyball this past fall, but found myself missing basketball,” she said in a statement in June 2009. “Basketball has been an important part of my life, and I realized that it is my first love and my passion.”
Because she never joined the UConn program, Delle Donne retained her four years of eligibility to use as a Blue Hen. “I am extremely excited to be competing in my home state and for Coach [Tina] Martin.” Her return to Newark meant a return to the Bob Carpenter Center court where she had so much success in high school championship games with Ursuline.
Coach Martin says she and Delle Donne first spoke face to face in January of ’09, but it was in a text message Delle Donne sent in March that got the ball rolling. “She had texted me a message and said that she was starting to miss it more and more, and then I thought, maybe there’s a chance that she would want to play,” said Martin. Delle Donne finally made her decision in mid-April, more than a year after playing her last game.
But would returning to the court and the grind of the college basketball season bring a return of her feelings of burnout. Delle Donne told WHYY through a UD spokesman that she realized burnout wasn’t the real problem, but rather the way basketball was pulling her away from her family. Family is very important to Delle Donne, especially her sister Lizzie, who was born deaf, blind and with cerebral palsy.
The need to be close to family explains her departure from UConn better than burnout for Coach Martin. “She did not dislike basketball. I think that Elena loves the game of basketball. So I’m not necessarily focusing on the burnout factor. That’s really not something I’m going to focus on at all. It’s more of let’s have fun with this, let’s get after it, let’s get competitive.”
And the Hens have been very competitive since Delle Donne’s return. In her first season at UD (’09-’10), the Hens finished with a 21-12 record and made an appearance in the NIT. The next season (’10-’11) saw similar results with the Hens finishing with a 20-14 record and again returning to the NIT. The team lost their first round NIT games both years and has never won a NCAA tournament game in two previous appearances (2001, 2007). Delle Donne struggled with illness in the ’10-’11 season. She missed 12 games after being diagnosed with Lyme disease.
But this season, the Hens have soared. They finished the regular season with a 30-1 record and went undefeated in conference play. They were ranked No. 7 in the nation, and dominated the Colonial Athletic Association tournament beating Drexel 59-43 on Sunday to capture their first CAA championship.
Now, the Hens have a date with the University of Arkansas-Little Rock in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Hens enter the bracket as a No. 3 seed. They play Sunday at 5 p.m. in Little Rock, Arkansas. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Could it be that the long and winding road Delle Donne traveled to lead this team to the big dance ends up with a deep run? Only time will tell, but anticipation is high at the Newark campus and throughout the state.