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.
(page 3 of 5)
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.”
Page 4: On the Line, continues...