OTL / espnW: Finding Her Way Back Home

NEWARK, Del. -- Before the governor tweeted support, before packed houses cheered her and before Blue Hens dreamed of a Final Four, Elena Delle Donne walked into an empty gym to find out whether basketball still spoke to her.

Save for a friend who rebounded her shots, nobody else was around on that midwinter night in 2009, the University of Delaware campus sparsely populated during a lull in the academic calendar and the Bob Carpenter Center deserted. There was nobody to marvel at how nimbly the young woman moved around the court, how comfortably she carried her 6-foot-5 frame. There was nobody to ask any questions or expect anything of her. There was just the ball in her hands, muscle memory guiding her fingers to seams as her eyes remained fixed on the rim. With no more conscious awareness of the calculations than of breathing, her brain managed matters of distance and trajectory.

Over and over again, the ball traced a path she alone determined. And she had her answer.

After briefly giving up basketball, Elena Delle Donne is back as the nation's top women's scorer. "Outside the Lines" recently profiled the Delaware star.

Homegrown Heart Video

It had been a long time since she had heard the net.

It had been months since she had touched a basketball, months since one of the most gifted women ever to run up and down a court had walked away from a place most only dreamed of reaching. Months since she had simply left the University of Connecticut one summer evening after barely 48 hours on campus and sat in silence for hour upon hour on the ride home, staring out the window, scared to think about what her parents would say when they opened the door to find her standing on their doorstep.

But it had been even longer than that since Delle Donne had heard the net snap the way it did this night months later, the solitude of her surroundings amplifying the onomatopoeic swish as only an empty gym can. You don't hear that sound during a game; not clearly, anyway. The squeaks of sneakers, the grunts of players fighting for position in case your aim is off, the roar of approval escaping a thousand throats as it proves true -- all of it drowns out the sound of the ball passing through the net. At some point, it's all too easy to hear only the other noises.

Delle Donne had grown to hate a sport she once loved. She blamed it because it was the easy thing to blame. Other people looked at her and saw the places basketball could lead her. She saw only a game that threatened to take her from a home she didn't want to leave, a home she wasn't ready to leave. She saw a sport eager to take her away from her family, away from a sister whose disabilities meant that communication depended not on sight and sound made so easy by modern technology but on more tactile senses such as touch and smell.

She felt as if basketball forced her to choose, and she chose family -- inelegantly, perhaps, but sincerely.

And so the person born with the potential to fill gyms found herself alone in one, shooting a ball for the first time in months. When she walked away from basketball, she told herself she would never return. But choosing what mattered most to her, choosing family, proved not her first step away from the sport but her first step toward a future that included it.

It's why all she heard that night was a simple sensation too long drowned out.

"Man, I miss this feeling," Delle Donne recalled thinking as shot after shot passed through the net. "My head was clear. I was just shooting, not really focusing that much on my shot, just really feeling it again and feeling the ball. I just really had missed it. I realized I wanted to play again.

"And I wanted to play here."

Three years later, the Carpenter Center is rarely empty when a ball leaves Delle Donne's hands. In fact, the women's team has never seen the "Bob" so crowded. The Blue Hens averaged 3,906 fans per game this season, Delle Donne's third with her home-state school, an increase of more than 250 percent over the season before her debut. They topped the 4,000 attendance mark in five of their final six games, fans climbing on the bandwagon as a team never ranked before this season made its way into the top 10. Delle Donne is a basketball phenomenon. She is Larry Bird at Indiana State or Jackie Stiles at Southwest Missouri State. The only difference is that, instead of an average physical specimen doing incredible things, as in the cases of earthbound Bird and diminutive Stiles, she has that same basketball mind capable of seeing three moves ahead and skills the women's game has never seen in such a frame.

Delaware coach Tina Martin routinely bristles at the idea that the Blue Hens are a one-person team, some sort of "Elena and the Delle Donnes" novelty act. She's rightly protective and justifiably proud of an ensemble that lost just once in the regular season and ranks among national leaders in field goal defense. But one person is what makes Delaware a national story, rather than a mid-major program equally successful and ignored before Delle Donne.

AP Photo/Saquan Stimpson
Elena Delle Donne is the nation's leading scorer, averaging 27.5 points per game.

In a world of variations on a theme, she is one of a kind.

A double-digit rebounder who blocks more than two shots per game, Delle Donne is better in the post than any college player this side of Brittney Griner, yet coaches forced to pick their poison would rather see her with her back to the basket than on the perimeter, where she is free to shoot over smaller defenders, blow by bigger defenders pulled out of more familiar territory, and read cuts and passing lanes better than anyone else on the court.

It has been more than a decade since a team from beyond the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC made the Final Four, but Delaware has a chance. It's why just about everyone in the nation's second-smallest state is along for the ride, up to and including Gov. Jack Markell, who has repeatedly tweeted his support, even retweeting a similar message from U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, proving that Delle Donne has pull at the federal as well as the state level.

On a junior national team alongside peers such as Skylar Diggins, Nnemkadi Ogwumike and Odyssey Sims, Delle Donne led Team USA in scoring en route to a gold medal in the World University Games this past summer. In the second game of the college season, she scored 40 points in Delaware's victory against eventual Big Ten champion Penn State. She scored 32 points against a quality Princeton team and 32 more at Maryland in her team's lone loss of the regular season.

"I thought we played phenomenal defense on her, and she still goes off for 30," said Maryland coach Brenda Frese, whose ACC tournament champion Terps beat Delaware 85-76 on Dec. 29. "I think the one thing, watching her on film and watching her live, is one-on-one she has this mentality that is just amazing in terms of her ability to go score over you and be able to get it any way she can."

Delaware -- which went a perfect 18-0 in league play, swept through the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, has won a school-record 30 games this season and rides a 20-game winning streak into the NCAA tournament -- was one of the two teams to beat Atlantic 10 regular-season champion St. Bonaventure in the regular season. Delle Donne went for 26 points and 18 rebounds in that game, but she needed 26 shots to get there. Considering that she averaged 28 points per game on 53 percent shooting in the regular season, that makes Bonnies coach Jim Crowley as qualified as just about anyone to talk about the challenges of stopping the unstoppable.

"To me, what separates her are two things," Crowley said. "One, she plays really hard. She doesn't take plays off, which you don't usually find with any player, much less a superstar player. She is always going at you and going really hard, whether it's going to the offensive glass or rotating over for a blocked shot or whatever needs to be done.

"The other thing that is really impressive is that she absolutely loves to compete and win. You can tell. She's ready at the start of games to come at you. She just will make whatever play is needed to win."

It isn't a description of a player who lacks a passion for the sport, which is exactly the label everyone from college coaches eager to secure her services to Delle Donne herself would have applied to her not so long ago.

Seeing the player Delle Donne is now, how effortlessly she moves, makes the lore surrounding her early physical and competitive prowess sound all the more plausible. When she was 3, Elena insisted that her mother, Joan, take the training wheels off her bike. In second grade, her teacher called her parents to marvel at Elena pestering a juggler at a school event to show her how it was done, only to duplicate the feat minutes later.

"[She was] incredibly agile for as tall as she was at 5, 6, 7 years of age," said Ernie Delle Donne, Elena's father. "You know how the tallest kid in the class is typically kind of gawky? She had agility that rivaled the shortest person in the room, whether it was kindergarten, preschool, first grade."

It was in second grade that she tagged along with her older brother, Gene -- a talented athlete in his own right who went on to play football at Duke and Middle Tennessee -- to a basketball training session. Eventually wearying of her constant pleas to join in, Gene relented. To test her coordination, and perhaps to break her apparently limitless resolve to pester him, he threw a pass behind her. She caught it behind her back and finished a reverse layup -- at which point he signed on as her trainer. Three years older than Elena, Gene adores his younger sister, but brotherly affection wasn't why he always picked her first for pickup games, ahead of male friends his own age. He just liked to win.

Keeping up with her older brother shaped her athletic personality, but if Gene helped shape the person the outside world sees when it looks at Elena, her other sibling had a lot to do with how Elena looks back at the world.

Elizabeth Delle Donne, or more often "Lizzie" to her sister, has autism and cerebral palsy. She has been blind and deaf since birth and has endured more than 30 surgeries related to her conditions. Elena can't sit down and have a conversation with Lizzie, can't check in on her on Facebook or send her a text message. To be there for her sister, Elena has to literally be there.

"Feel and smells, and it's just more of those types of senses," Elena said. "It's a way different relationship than, obviously, I would have with anyone else. It is kind of hard to explain it in words, but it's just everything, like our love, our relationship is completely touch and feel. That's how we communicate with each other."

The Delle Donne Family
Elena Delle Donne's siblings -- brother Gene and sister Lizzie -- have had a profound influence on the person she has become.

Growing up, Elena didn't ask many questions about Lizzie's conditions. She would go to her sister's physical therapy appointments, sit quietly on her own and play with whatever odds and ends were around, all the while watching what Lizzie had to go through and watching her mother go through it with her. But Lizzie was first and foremost her sister, clearly different but no less a part of the family because of those differences. Elena learned to play football to keep up with Gene; she learned to communicate with Lizzie by means of hand-over-hand sign language, signs formed in the palm of the hand by which her older sister could ask for things such as "drink" or "food."

When Elena did, eventually, ask her mother questions, they were the queries of someone who spent a good portion of her childhood observing. Children often see the world through the lens of how it affects them, but Elena wanted to know the emotions that went with what she saw, wanted to know what it was like for her mother watching her first child struggle with such severe handicaps.

"She got to watch a very, very diligent, hardworking mother take care of two very different children, Gene and Elizabeth," Ernie said. "When you spend 80 percent of your time at home with your mother, as you do when you're young, that mom is one heck of an example. And you couldn't pick a better role model than Joanie. She's the toughest person I've ever met in dealing with anything."

That was the world Elena watched as the rest of the world began to watch a basketball player unlike any it had seen. In a state with few famous athletes among its native sons and daughters, she has been big news for a long time. She won her first AAU national championship when she was 12 years old. North Carolina offered her a scholarship when she was 13, bound for seventh grade. By the time she was a rising sophomore in high school attending a Nike All-American camp generally reserved for the top 80 or so rising juniors and seniors, she was a sensation.

"There were long stretches daily where she was the best player on the floor," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma recalled of the camp. "That's when it kind of was apparent to everybody that this isn't just some normal kid -- that she had otherworldly kind of talents offensively. For a kid that young, that size, to be able to do what she was doing with the basketball, it was just fun to watch."

Which made it all the more strange that, with each passing year, Elena seemed to have less and less fun doing those things.

Early on, such as when she received her first recruiting letter from Duke, the attention basketball brought her was exciting, even fun. The schools were brand names as much as distinct locations, their existence in some ways unconnected to any physical distance from her home. What girl who loved basketball wouldn't feel proud knowing that coaches such as North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell and then-Duke coach Gail Goestenkors, plus Auriemma and Tennessee's Pat Summitt, not only knew who she was but wanted her to play for them? No athlete is so ego-free as to escape the allure of that.

It wasn't until her sophomore year in high school that the walls started closing in. The recruiting attention picked up even more steam, and, with it, the corresponding and incessant questions about what she was thinking, which way she might be leaning. It was also the time Gene left for college, one more reminder of the physical separation that awaited her once she made her own decision. Between their respective games for area prep schools and Lizzie's needs, the family calendar had been a carefully choreographed dance for years. There was surely comfort in that routine. Now with one part of that removed, everyone wanted to know where Elena was going to go.

Nobody thought to wonder whether she wanted to go, and she never corrected them. In the end, it wasn't as much a list she chose as a list that chose her.

"I feel like I was kind of pinpointed to go somewhere; people had kind of drawn out that picture for me and I never thought to sway from it," Elena said. "I thought I needed to go to one of the top five schools in the nation and never even thought 'What's important to me?' Instead of figuring out what was important, which was obviously being near home, I kind of just went with what everyone thought I should do."

Tourney Coverage

From real-time scores and video to behind-the-scenes access to in-depth analysis, espnW has it covered for the 2012 NCAA tournament.

• 2012 Coverage »
• Delle Donne blog »

Despite family ties to the University of Delaware -- her mother and a grandfather had attended the school -- she never considered a program so far below the basketball radar. She kept nearby Villanova in the mix when she cut her options to a handful of schools, but it was the outlier, its presence in some ways the closest she came to voicing the anxiety eating away at her. The joy she felt winning something like that first AAU national championship at 12 years old had long since evaporated, even as the titles kept piling up. Her passion for basketball faded as her future in it appeared more and more tied to distant campuses. Powers such as Connecticut, Notre Dame and Tennessee rolled out the red carpet for her on recruiting visits, yet she dreaded each and every trip. Connecticut won, perhaps in no small part because it backed off in the final months out of concern that she wasn't fully committed to any choice.

"I didn't speak to anyone about it, and that was a big mistake," Elena said. "It definitely built up, and I had all that internal anxiety build up about going away to college and hadn't even spoken to a single person about it because I didn't want my parents to worry about it; I didn't want anyone to worry about it. I thought I could handle it myself, which obviously I wasn't able to."

Her decision to leave Connecticut unannounced after just two days on campus was undeniably rash, a big enough shock to generate national headlines. It was the impetuous act of an 18-year-old unable to process emotions stirred into a storm by her new surroundings. The way she left, getting a ride home from a friend in the middle of the night, wasn't fair to Auriemma or to her new teammates, something she acknowledges now in saying that she could have handled the situation in a better way, that there are things about how it unfolded that she would change if she could.

But as she sat in the car on the drive home that night and thought about the "big mistake" she had made, she wasn't thinking about her decision to leave Connecticut. She was thinking about her decision to go there. As the road carried her closer to home, fear mounted that her parents would tell her to get back in the car and turn around.

Instead, they just wanted to make sure she understood the magnitude of her decision.

"Whatever you decide, your mother and I are going to endorse you 100 percent," Ernie recalled telling Elena around that time, "as long as you understand what you are giving up and as long as you understand what the ramifications are."

If they understood anything when they saw their daughter in tears that night, it was that her perception was the only reality that mattered at that point. All the tough love in the world wasn't going to convince her otherwise. What they saw wasn't homesickness or a reaction to one bad day, as much as such straws might have weighed on the camel's back. What they saw was years of something she couldn't communicate finally bubbling over.

Two months later, she officially withdrew from Connecticut and enrolled at Delaware. That episode will always be part of her story; she will always be the girl who left Connecticut. But, as Auriemma put it, it just wasn't meant to be.

"I think wherever you go -- whether you're a basketball player or not a basketball player, it doesn't matter -- you make a decision to go to college," Auriemma said. "When you get there, you also have to make the decision that you're going to make the most of it, and you're going to enjoy it. And you're going to have ups and downs and you're going to fight your way through it, but it's a commitment that you made. If, in making that commitment, you're not sure of it, if, in making that commitment, you're going against your gut feeling, going against how you really at the core feel, then I think it's going to be a struggle. Could that have changed? Nobody will ever know."

Coming home brought Delle Donne back to her family, but it hardly created instant peace of mind. Between efforts to find out more about the burnout she initially cited as the reason for her sudden departure from Connecticut and local speculation about a possible return to basketball closer to home, the spotlight remained squarely on her that summer. Far from having a great weight lifted off her shoulders, she was devastated, part of her foundation gone. Few people describe Delle Donne as anything akin to gregarious, her personality aligned more closely toward introspective or reserved, but friends and family almost uniformly also talk about a sense of humor -- a "silliness," as one teammate put it -- that manifests itself in an array of pranks played on friends or verbal jousting designed to get a rise out of her dad. All of that vanished in those first months home, and, in her mind, basketball was still to blame.

"I've got to be honest, that week or two when she came back from UConn, I really didn't think she'd play basketball," Gene Delle Donne said. "I really didn't. I would talk to her, and you could sense that she was so sick and tired of everything to do with the sport that, no, I thought she could just be a regular student for the rest of her life."

Only gradually did the fog lift. The first time her brother could recall Elena smiling was soon after he returned to Tennessee, when she came to visit for a white-water rafting trip. They didn't talk much about basketball -- the family made it a point to let that subject lie fallow that summer -- but there were some signs of her old self. The next step, after deciding to enroll at Delaware, was playing volleyball for the Blue Hens. She was good, just as she had been good at every athletic endeavor in her life. Delaware made the NCAA tournament that season, leading her dad to bring up the idea of transferring to a place such as Penn State, a national power in the sport. But volleyball was a substitute, something to take her mind off basketball while still allowing her to scratch a competitive itch.

In announcing her plans to play volleyball in a news conference, she said she felt she had been a "different person" when she played that sport in high school. It was the sentiment of someone still angry with basketball.

One result of leaving Connecticut was a more open dialogue between Delle Donne and those close to her, both family and friends. Although she had been afraid before of burdening them with her anxieties or falling short of their expectations, she felt a freedom to be honest after experiencing the worst she brought on herself by holding things in. The relationship that needed repair was the one she had with basketball. She could find contentment in Delaware without basketball, certainly more than she could find with basketball and without her family somewhere else, but she found she had been right about being a different person. She needed her family to know it, but she needed basketball to be herself.

Delaware coach Tina Martin and Elena Delle Donne talk about Delaware's tournament opener against Arkansas-Little Rock.

Martin, Delaware's coach since 1996, didn't reach out to Delle Donne that first fall. She acknowledged her when their paths crossed in the Carpenter Center, but she never initiated a conversation about basketball or anything else until the player eventually reached out to her through a high school coach to come in and talk. Even then, the conversation had as much to do with family as basketball, with Delle Donne saying she didn't know whether she wanted to play again. Martin even instructed her players to avoid talking about basketball in any interactions they had with Delle Donne, lest she feel any more pressure than that which already existed in a community aware it had a once-in-a-lifetime talent in its midst.

"There wasn't anything I was going to give her," Martin said. "You look at those programs [that recruited her], and you look at the money that they have and you look at the facilities that they have and you look at all those things, there's nothing that other schools are going to be able to compare to. Every place she went to, she was shown the best of the basketball facilities, the locker rooms, the dorms, the whatever. Bottom line is that she came home because of her family, so she needed to become comfortable with her family; she needed to be able to sort things out.

"My thing was 'She came home for a reason, so let her explore that reason.'"

At first, that edict seemed a tricky balancing act for Meghan McLean, then a freshman on the basketball team who was also friends with several volleyball players and quickly became close to Delle Donne. But, after watching her friend find some measure of contentment on the volleyball court, it caught McLean completely by surprise one evening during the winter session when Delle Donne asked whether she wanted to go shoot baskets. It was McLean who was in the gym that night to rebound and shoot around, a night Delle Donne describes as a new beginning with the sport.

And it was McLean to whom Delle Donne almost casually mentioned her intention to play again, several weeks before she made it official. There were times in her first season back when Delle Donne worried that her passion for the sport might desert her again, that the ebbs and flows of her high school career might resurface and drag her back down. Instead, she found a part of her that had been silenced.

"When she was playing volleyball, she was happy, but from what she said to me and then seeing her in basketball, I could tell she wasn't getting as much out of it," McLean said. "It was a fun thing. And then she got back to basketball, which now is very, very fun for her, but she's also very serious about it. So she seemed more -- I don't want to say motivated because she was motivated before, but she did have a change in her demeanor [playing basketball again] where she was very purposeful with everything she did."

Delle Donne still doesn't show much emotion on the court. In a game this season against Old Dominion, she wore the same inscrutable look on her face through her 39 minutes on the court that had so puzzled coaches in the recruiting process. After a great move to get by a defender on the baseline and finish, she turned and loped back down the court. After getting body checked on another drive without any foul being called, she turned and loped back down the court. She had the same look when Delaware led by 23 points as when Old Dominion cut the deficit to eight points. Her face and body language were a blank canvas on which pictures could be painted to fit any narrative.

G Fiume/Getty Images
Elena Delle Donne helped lead Delaware to its first Colonial Athletic Association championship this year.

But, no more than 15 minutes after the game ended, Delle Donne wore a smile as big as any in the gym. Residents of the Mary Campbell Center, the Wilmington, Del., facility for the disabled where Lizzie spends considerable time, had assembled along the baseline. As other players mingled with friends and family, Elena first made her way to the visitors, bending her frame low over their wheelchairs and returning the smiles on beaming faces obviously familiar with her. When she got to Lizzie, the moment trumped that which the written or spoken word could manage. Lizzie, who has the considerable height of the rest of the Delle Donne family, was helped out of the wheelchair and into Elena's arms, the physical scale of the embrace between two such tall people framing the childlike sincerity of the emotions expressed.

Although just a short drive down the highway from Wilmington, Delle Donne is, in many ways, in her own world at school. She gets home as often as she can, maybe once or twice a week during basketball season, but she is still a part of Lizzie's life, still able to drive her sister around the family's property on a golf cart, the silence in those moments an inadequate indication of the bond between them. There is something worth honoring about the way one of them has dealt with a lifetime of challenges. There is something worth appreciating about the way the other plays basketball. That is a distinction never lost on Elena, a distinction that shaped her life.

"She's completely put perspective into my life in a different way," Elena said of her sister. "When I see her struggling to get up in the morning, struggling to walk on her own -- she can't see, she can't speak. What she's able to overcome throughout a day is incredible. Any challenge I ever face, Lizzie has done way more than that. She's my role model; she's my inspiration; and, when things are tough, I think of Lizzie and realize nothing in my life will ever be that tough."

Nothing in her life will ever be as important to Elena as her family, something she once thought basketball threatened. Only by choosing family over basketball did she come to understand that what placed that principle in peril was her own inability to listen to herself. She chose to go into the gym that night. She chose to keep coming back and to put on a jersey again. She chose to return to basketball because she listened. And she heard the game.

There will come a time soon when she has to decide again, when basketball again offers opportunities to take her out of Delaware and away from Lizzie and her family, for a few months a year in the WNBA, or longer, should she follow the international path many women's basketball stars tread once the domestic professional season is done. For now, with one year of college eligibility remaining if she wants it, she says she doesn't see herself leaving her family or her teammates prematurely. And at least for now, such concerns about the future don't appear to diminish her happiness in the moment.

"To see her just smile and to really enjoy life and enjoy herself, there's nothing better," Gene Delle Donne said. "I almost get emotional when I watch her out there scoring points and winning games and cheering with her team because it's just so exciting to see her back to where she was when she was a freshman in high school."

Elena is back where she was. She's home.

Graham Hays covers women's basketball and college sports for espnW and ESPN.com.

Follow on Twitter: Graham Hays, espnW, @ESPNmag and ESPN_Reader.

Join the conversation about "Finding Her Way Back Home."