SLAM 101: Elena Delle Donne, The Golden Child

by August 28, 2008

Considering our up and down relationship with women’s hoops, I was pleasantly surprised by the relatively high level of interest and solid commenting recently when I posted stories one and two about Elena DelleDonne’s decision not to attend UConn and then to enroll at Delaware. And by the way, here’s a third update on her situation, which implies that she really may be done with the game. But, surprised as I was/am at this turn of events, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at the response and attention it’s gotten. Elena is not just some “women’s basketball player.” She has been talked about since the age of 13 or 14 as someone with the potential to be the best women’s player ever. And now she’s playing volleyball for the University of Delaware? No disrespect to Blue Hens everywhere, but that is pretty wild. How big of a deal has Delle Donne been in the hoops world? SLAM did a five-page feature in issue 101, when she was entering her junior year in high school. The story was written by Russ Bengtson, always one of SLAM’s finest writers and himself a Blue Hen. The story is really good, but it’s also a bit sad in retrospect to know that apparently all the hard work was too much. In any event, the timing obviously seemed right to re-run it.—Ben Osborne

Is Elena Delle Donne Ready to Take Women’s Basketball to the Next Level?

The Better Question Might be Whether the Women’s Game is Ready For Her.

by Russ Bengtson

On March 10, 2006, Elene Delle Donne led her Ursuline Academy team to its third straight Delaware state title. A 6-5 guard from Wilmington, Delle Donne scored 50 points in the 68-51 victory over archrival St. Elizabeth and their star, Khadijah Rushdan. Delle Donne shot 20 of 32 from the floor, including 5 of 10 from three-point range. Her 50 points shattered the previous state championship record of 35.

Which was set the previous year. By her. This was Delle Donne’s third straight year averaging 20-plus points, her third straight season ending in a state title. And next year? Next year she’ll be a junior.

That’s right. Elena Delle Donne won’t turn 17 until September. This means that college coaches aren’t officially even allowed to contact her yet. Still, they’ve come in a virtual parade to Wilmington to see her play—Auriemma, Summitt, Hatchell, Stringer. All the big timers. And for good reason. Because, despite being branded “the female LeBron James,” Delle Donne will most definitely be going to college—and that has nothing to do with the current WNBA rule prohibiting girls from turning pro before their college class graduates. “It has been a thought in my mind, why not just skip four years of school and go straight to the pros?” she says with a giggle. “But for girls’ basketball, it seems like college is almost more important than the WNBA. I mean, college seems like a great experience, and I don’t think I want to miss out on that.”

This should come as a relief to the big-timers listed above, who would probably engage in a Royal Rumble-like battle for her services. Because Delle Donne is a one-girl recruiting class, a 6-5 perimeter shooter who can post up, vacuum rebounds and lead the break. She’s been compared, not unfairly, to Dirk Nowitzki. But her father, Ernie—who played basketball at Columbia University—chooses a somewhat different point of reference. “She’s a better dribbler than Dirk,” he says. “She’s like a 7-foot Kobe Bryant.” Gulp.

The comparison, even allowing for parental pride, seems apt. Like Bryant at the same age, Delle Donne has poise far beyond her years, and a guard’s game in a forward’s body. But it goes even deeper than that.

Chestnut Hill College is technically in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but the surrounding area has a decidedly small-town feel—a lot like Kobe Bryant’s Lower Merion. The college itself is like something out of Animal House, or something of that era—seemingly unchanged since the ’50s. This is where Fencor, Delle Donne’s AAU team, practices. Two times a week, she and her family make the three-hour roundtrip commute so Elena can attend practice with her age-group team, the Fencor ’89s. She’s played for Fencor since she was 10.

Prior to that, Delle Donne played AAU in her home state, for the Delaware Wildcats. “I can’t remember not playing AAU,” she says. As a third grader she played with the sixth- and seventh-grade team—in fifth, she moved up to play with the eighth graders. But the next year, she wanted to play with her own age group, and there weren’t enough in her area. So she came to Pennsylvania. Stuart London, currently an assistant with the ’89s, remembers the day. “Her dad called to see if she could play with us, and I told him to bring her up,” he says. “She came to practice and did one of those under-the-basket, Dr. J layups, and I said to myself, ‘I’ll coach the 10-year-olds this year.’ I just figured when we play other teams around the country, we’ll find other players like her.” He laughs at the thought. “No, we won’t.”

With Elena in the fold, Fencor took over. Eight straight Mid-Atlantic AAU titles, three national titles. In this summer’s Mid-Atlantic championships, Fencor lost their first game, which dropped them into the loser’s bracket. They then went on to win nine straight and another title. That was odd, London says. “Usually we just kill everybody.”

The whole team is talented—point guard Caroline Doty is another big-time recruit for ’08—but it obviously revolves around Elena. Asked about her most memorable game, teammate Michele Brokans pauses. “There’s not just one. I think it’s like, every game?” She laughs. “She always comes up huge for us. I mean, even if she has a down game—if she thinks she had a down game—to me she played incredible. Her bad games are what I dream of my good games to be.”

On this hot early summer evening, Delle Donne arrives early. As she sits outside the gym lacing up her black and gold LeBron IIIs, she talks excitedly to Coach Veronica Algeo about a new DVD of DePaul Coach Doug Bruno’s drills and techniques. She cites one rebounding drill in particular: “We could use that!” At the next practice, they do. “She’s just a student of the game,” Algeo says. “She’s a lot of fun to talk basketball with.”

Delle Donne does more than talk a good game. “She’s been full-time basketball since she was nine years old,” her father says. “Every summer.”

And, lest you think otherwise, this is not a case of a father shifting his own athletic dreams to his child. This has been a mutual decision from the start—she is Tiger Woods. She works with a trainer and a physical therapist, plays pick-up against grown men every week. She probably dreams about basketball, if she actually sleeps. The dedication runs in the family. Elena’s brother, Gene, was a highly recruited QB in high school who started at Duke and is now at Middle Tennessee State. An athletic 6-6, he’s one of the few people who can give his sister fits on the court—which he does, in their frequent summer one-on-one battles. “Skill-wise, I think I have him beat,” she says, “but he usually just takes me inside and posts me up.” Her dad concurs. “She says, ‘Dad, I have trouble getting a shot off against him. But then I go against girls, and it’s like…’”

It’s like, not pretty. “She can do anything,” Brokans says. “You really can’t stop her.” For example, you’d think, at 6-5, DelleDonne would be best served staying inside and cleaning up in the post. And you’d be entirely wrong. “Since she was in second grade, she has been trained by a gentleman named John Noonan,” Ernie Delle Donne says. “John Noonan’s a 5-7 point guard. So since she was in second grade, he’s only trained her to be a point guard. Now, she won’t be a point guard, but you can never dribble well enough, you can never shoot well enough—and if you can do that at 6-5…” You lead your team to a state championship as an eighth grader. And a ninth grader. And a 10th grader.

Which brings us back to Delaware now, the most important part of her story. It’s where she started playing organized basketball, as a 5-year-old. “Delle Donne, Delaware,” Algeo says. “She’s half the state’s name!” She’s recognized to the point where she’s approached for autographs and photos in malls and pizza joints, and her presence in the title game has resulted in consecutive sellouts of the University of Delaware’s 5,000-seat Bob Carpenter Center, this year all on advance sales—in a single day. (As a U of D alum, I had to ask about the possibility of her staying in-state for school. “For college? Oh no.” She laughs. “That’s not gonna happen.”)

Bottom line, she’s as close to a celebrity as this state has. “She’s the face of Delaware in the sports world,” Algeo says, “and she probably will be for two decades to come.” The state’s basketball history is short thus far; there’s Terence Stansbury, a high-flyer who had a couple cups of coffee in the NBA in the ’80s, and Val Whiting, who also attended Ursuline and went on to success at Stanford and in the pros. Elena is following—and in some cases, erasing—Whiting’s footsteps, with fans in turn closely following her. “I’ve gotten used to it over the past two years,” she says. “People are worried to come up to me during dinner or something like that because they don’t want to bug me, but I’ll definitely give an autograph or take a picture. I like doing it. Hopefully that won’t change.”

Agreed, because it’s only going to get worse—especially if she keeps to her current regimen, which gives her two weeks off in August, along with two more weeks exclusively for weight-lifting. “Thank God she loves it,” her dad says. “And she better love it, because she’s put so much time into it. You could never work this hard at something you don’t love.”

This work ethic comes from her fam—her parents, obviously, and her brother. And then there’s her older sister, Lizzie. Lizzie has never seen Elena play. Stricken with cerebral palsy, Lizzie is also blind and deaf. It’s Lizzie who inspires Elena the most. It’s Lizzie who helps the young star keep it all in perspective. “When you’re growing up and you’re seeing someone you love in your household go through the kind of daily struggles you couldn’t even imagine going through,” Algeo says, “I think that offers a young person a completely different perspective on life.”

So she works. An NBA fan as long as she can remember—“When I was little I grew up with Michael Jordan,” says Elena, who was 2 when the Bulls won their first title. “I didn’t miss one of his regular-season games”—she now pulls for DWade and the Heat, and closely watches the moves of Bryant and Tracy McGrady, looking for things she can use. She’s found plenty. “She’s really been slashing well to the basket,” Algeo says. “She’s added that to her game. And that’s only going to set up even more her deadly midrange jumper and her step-back three. Maybe you saw her before and think, ‘Well, she isn’t really going to drive all the way to the basket.’ Now you have to worry about all of it.”

What Algeo is saying is that DelleDonne has improved her game, even since she scored 50 (to her opponents’ 51, don’t forget) to lead Ursuline to an 17-point win over the top-seeded team in the tournament. “That game to me speaks volumes about what type of player and competitor she is,” Algeo says.

And she’s got two more years of this left. She’s already been named to every conceivable All-American team. Even scarier for would-be opponents, she’s still growing. According to Algeo, a February MRI revealed that Elena’s growth plates are still wide open. The sky, almost literally, is the limit. “And over the next two years she may fill out,” her dad says. “I mean, she’s 192 pounds. That’s heavy for a girl to go up against. Wait ’til she’s about 205.”

“When I was 10,” DelleDonne says, “I was like, I hope we do OK. I didn’t know how I’d stack up.”

Now she’s 16, and she knows. As do we all.