The Audacity Of Height

When you're 6-5, it's just assumed you'll play hoops. But it wasn't until Elena Delle Donne questioned her path that she really stood out.

Elena Delle Donne makes her body into a C-shape -- no bigger, an end parenthesis -- as she hunches over a workbench whose tabletop hits her midthigh at best. She's in her garage on her parents' rolling-hills estate in Delaware, and she's been tasked with holding a clamp steady while her fiancée, Amanda Clifton, uses wood glue and a nail gun to affix a small plank of wood to a greater wooden canvas. They're making a piece of wall art, one of the 30 orders they've received from fans or woodworking connoisseurs since they Instagrammed their first project, a coffee table. Amanda does most of the design and cutting work. Elena's duties are more in line with this clamp work. "It's because she's so strong," Amanda says. Elena moves her legs into a sturdy stance and screws the clamp in steady.

This is how she uses her monolith, her Statue of Liberty of a body, in the offseason. There are no months for the remarkably versatile forward-guard, just a season and an offseason. During her time off, which this year began after her Chicago Sky lost in the semifinals of the WNBA playoffs (she sat out because of a thumb injury and subsequent surgery), Delle Donne and Amanda hightail it out of Chicago and back to the estate. They live there in a rustic-decorated apartment beneath what is known as the barn, a vast and high-ceilinged structure that hosts family get-togethers. In their apartment is the first dining room table they ever made, about a year ago. When Elena posted it to Instagram, the comments section went nuts with compliments and people asking if they could order one. That's when Elena and Amanda knew. Elena has always wanted to have a plan for a business post-basketball that wasn't about basketball, that wasn't about being 6-foot-5. This seemed like it could be it.

It's not that she doesn't like being tall. Her height is part of her success, which includes an MVP title in 2015. Because of the extreme nature of her height, she had to sort through her feelings about it a long time ago. But the weird thing about personal growth is that nobody cares how examined and at peace you are. A while back, Delle Donne was at a grocery store in Chicago and a guy said, "You're tall." She never understands that -- the people who just tell her what is obvious, as if she doesn't know, as if that's not what everyone says. He asked if she played basketball. "A little," she answered. And he started telling her about Elena Delle Donne, the greatest of all the women basketball players, the WNBA MVP, that she should try to meet her because maybe together they could do some great things. Delle Donne wondered whether he was messing with her, then decided he wasn't, and so she just nodded and let him speak.

She is accustomed to this. She's been 6-5 for a long time -- by eighth grade she was already 6 feet -- and one of the things she learned from standing out so egregiously is that people are watching and the best bet is just to behave. People sometimes think she's bland -- I was warned she was a boring interview -- but it's not true. What's true is that she has learned to stay quiet. She's learned that people aren't really interested in the truth of your experience if it doesn't confirm their theories about you. They don't understand what it's like when you present with something special, like height or ability -- or both, in her case -- how your future is decided for you long before you've had a moment to consider it. They don't understand how you could spend the rest of your life wondering if the choices that were made on your behalf were ones you would have come around to on your own.

Delle Donne and her fiancée, Amanda Clifton, sell custom pieces of woodwork on Delle Donne's website. Polina Yamshchikov for ESPN

In her first memory, Elena is 3, and she is sucking on her pacifier on a trip to the market with her mother, and people are saying to her mother that an 8-year-old shouldn't be sucking on a pacifier. When she was in fourth or fifth grade, a doctor told her mother that Elena was getting too tall, that he wanted to start her on injections to stunt her growth. Her mother wasn't having it, but it was too late: Elena left that appointment feeling there was something wrong with her. Her mother had a hard time finding clothes for her. She had to special-order her size 12 shoes.

It was hard to find people in the culture who were as tall as she was to give her a sense of the impressions she made. There's the tall that models are. That's acceptable. "But then there's the other tall," Delle Donne explains while sitting in a large, tapestried company chair in her living room. "Like you're a monster." Her worst day at school happened in third grade when students had to measure themselves on a length of paper for a science project. Her paper, when hung up, went down the wall and across the floor. She was humiliated.

Her self-consciousness doubled as she came of age and realized she didn't just have a body -- she had a body that could do a great many things that the body of her older sister, Lizzie, couldn't. Lizzie was born blind and deaf, with cerebral palsy and autism and no ability to speak, and from an early age Elena understood that not everything was OK with her sister. She remembers lying with her body pressed up against Lizzie's, communicating with her in a way that was wordless and soothing. She remembers going to physical therapy with her sister and jumping around on the equipment. She remembers looking over at her mother and the therapist stretching out Lizzie's legs. Then she remembers a friend who was visiting on a playdate and who had to leave because she was so frightened of Lizzie. Elena wasn't ashamed, though. She was mad. She also felt guilty. She wasn't just able-bodied and strong. No, she was on her way, even at that age, to becoming Elena Delle Donne, top recruit, WNBA MVP, superstar. Why was it fair that Lizzie had no control over her body, and she couldn't speak or hear or see, and Elena was Elena?

She doesn't remember why she started playing basketball. It was either because she came from an athletic family -- her father, a real estate developer who stands 6-6, played college golf, and her brother played college football -- or because of the tide of inertia and that she didn't yet know to question her trajectory. People would say to her, "You're not going to waste that height and talent, are you?" And she'd think to herself, "It's not a waste. I can do other things, you know." But she wouldn't say it aloud.

"It's such a gender thing," Delle Donne says. "Like being put right into a box and that's what you have to do." Men might be heralded into basketball when they're tall, but with a woman, there's a general sense that she has to play basketball because what the hell else is she going to do? "You have to be either a basketball player or a volleyball player," Delle Donne says. Fighting the tide will do you no good, because at that point you're not just tall, you're female, and there is something about the audacious act of being female that makes people who encounter you on the street, the same ones who say "How's the weather up there?" -- like you've never heard that one before -- think you are looking for their opinion.

At her high school, Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Delaware, she led her team to three straight state championships and was named an All-American. She was also the state Gatorade Player of the Year in 2005, 2006 and 2008. She was the top-rated recruit in 2008, her senior year. She chose UConn, of course. UConn is where you go when you're a star. But something felt rotten from the minute she signed. She thought maybe it was nerves, but it didn't dissipate.

She began school in June, and on the first night, the basketball team had a pickup game. Delle Donne played, but all she was thinking was, "God, I don't want to do this." We're inside her apartment now, and her Great Dane, Wrigley, who is nearly her height, is on his hind legs, pushing up against her. "Like, this is pickup. Pickup's fun. This is supposed to be when the team's just having a blast, getting along, playing basketball. And every time I stepped on the court it was nauseating."

The next day, she calmly went through her classes. Her English teacher talked about a paper they'd have to write and she realized there was no reason to take notes; she wouldn't be writing that paper. She wouldn't even be around for the next class.

Delle Donne left in the middle of the night, quietly. She waited until her roommate, who was also a basketball player, fell asleep. She had a friend from home pick her up. By the time she arrived at her parents' house in Delaware, it was 7 a.m. and pouring. Her mother opened the door and said, "What are you doing here?" And Elena was crying too hard to explain.

Delle Donne enjoys her family time, hanging out with sister Lizzie. Polina Yamshchikov for ESPN

"I always felt like I was kind of following the path everybody told me to go on and that I needed to do," Delle Donne says now, as it starts to rain outside her apartment. "And I think that's why I went through burnout and went through what I did, because finally I was like, well, what do I want to do? Let me step back. Do I really want to do this, or do I want to be something else?"

Her coach, Geno Auriemma, called immediately. He told her mother to bring Elena back to school. He'd seen this before -- homesickness, nerves. But Elena's mother knew something about this was different. "I can see it in her face," she told him.

They were in for one awkward summer. The Auriemmas and the Delle Donnes had vacation homes in Avalon, on the Jersey shore. One afternoon, Elena rode her bike the few blocks to the coach's house. They sat and talked for hours. He suggested she come back to school, no basketball. She stuck with her no. Auriemma seemed sad. "He thought my dreams were to be the greatest basketball player to ever walk the planet and to win championships," she says. "But that just wasn't my dream at that time." Auriemma's wife, Kathy, who had overheard the whole conversation, finally came in. She said, "Geno, she's not going to play for you. Let her go home."

Auriemma had been so eager to coach her. "It's very rare to find someone who is that tall and can handle the ball, pass the ball, shoot it like she does," he tells me. Can you blame him for being upset about losing a player with those abilities? The way she'd linger in the air while taking a 3-point shot, the way she'd cut and glide around the floor. "Those are all things that when she was in high school you didn't see much of," he says. "This feeling that someone like her comes along once in a great while. People had not seen this in the past."

Delle Donne spent the rest of her summer ignoring the rumors about what was wrong -- that she was pregnant, that she was sick, that she was on drugs. She spent her time with Lizzie, who doesn't know that Elena plays basketball and who had no questions about her motivations.

That summer of 2008, one more thing happened that would change the course of Elena's life. She began getting terrible migraines, and her muscles ached so much she couldn't get out of bed. One doctor suggested it was mono; others thought it was depression that was either the impetus for or the culmination of her dropping out of UConn. Her mother took her for some blood work. She had Lyme disease. A tick, a bug that tops out at 10 millimeters, felled 6-5 Delle Donne, which is as stark a lesson on size as we have here.

She went on antibiotics for 20 days, then said she felt fine, unaware that she was suffering from a chronic illness.

A few days after her talk with Auriemma, she enrolled at Delaware, less than 30 minutes from home and less than 30 minutes from Lizzie. Safely matriculated in a not-very-basketball school, she joined the volleyball team, which might have been her first clue that, yes, she did choose sports, that, yes, it was in her. She began to relax into this new life, to understand that she was a mind and a soul, not just a body that found its way onto a basketball court out of a sense of might-as-well.

But she kept remembering one moment over the summer. She had gone to visit Lizzie at her school, and a woman named Dawn came to greet her. Dawn was a basketball fan with cerebral palsy who used a wheelchair. She said, "Elena, do everything you can with your abilities, just like we do."

Delle Donne soon found herself in the back corner of the arena at Delaware, asking her friend Meghan McLean if she had the keys to the gym. She wanted to test out a theory she was developing, that maybe she could return to basketball as her choice, that maybe she would have loved the game had she not been delivered to it as an inevitability. Volleyball was great, but basketball. She loved how fast it was, how you had to think in the moment and calculate risk against the possibilities that lay ahead of you. She loved the way the defense could interrupt plans. She liked what she calls the "constant reacting." As she took shot after shot in the gym that night, she realized that in the back of her mind, she was already rehearsing the talk she was going to have to have with her volleyball coach.

Elena met Amanda in 2013, during Elena's rookie season. Amanda, who's 5-7, played some college ball, but when they met, she was working for Lids. They'd been set up through a friend, and it didn't work out, but then after a couple of run-ins at the dog park -- Amanda has a smaller mutt named Rasta -- they began to send flirtatious emojis to each other. This summer they got engaged. First Amanda asked Elena on the beach, tying the ring around Wrigley's collar. Then Elena asked Amanda on the rooftop of their condo in Chicago over an elaborately prepared menu featuring foods from all the places they'd been, and having wedged Rasta into a doggie wedding gown. Their dogs mirror their owners' personalities in a bizarrely on-the-nose way: Wrigley is affectionate, quiet and warm; Rasta is having none of it. Elena says it's not that Amanda is standoffish; it's that she has "resting bitch face." Over lunch in town, Amanda looks down at her soup and shrugs in agreement.

Amanda runs Elena's camps, which are usually one day and inclusive -- special-needs kids, able-bodied kids who are generally not headed toward a sports career. That is maybe the ur-Elena Delle Donne lesson, even if it's not acknowledged, that a love of sports doesn't have to be a career choice. It could be, but it could also not be, and who is to say which is better?

Her Lyme disease has flared up a few times since her initial diagnosis. It struck her as a sophomore at Delaware in 2010, and she couldn't even hold her arms up. She rode the bench, embarrassed that she couldn't play and yet didn't know why. Then someone who knew an uncle of hers read about her in the paper and told her uncle it sounded like Lyme. Elena found a Lyme specialist and is now on a strict regimen, taking dozens of supplements a day and trying to bat off recurrences, like the one two years ago that caused her to miss 18 of the 34 games that season.

This summer she reunited with Auriemma when she played for the national team at the Olympics in Rio, winning a gold. There was no grudge. Auriemma saw how much she'd learned in the time since they'd last been in touch. "She was a very difficult matchup for any player on any other team," he says. "If you put in someone who is 6-5, they're probably not quick enough. If you put in someone quick or a guard, she's too big and shoots right over you. Once we got her to be a better defender and work just as hard there as on offense, she became invaluable to the Olympic team." For her, Rio was amazing. She was used to being the star, but now, surrounded by equals, basketball became about basketball again. She says it was the "most beautiful basketball I've ever played in my life."

During her offseason from the Chicago Sky, Delle Donne plays around at her family home in Delaware. Polina Yamshchikov for ESPN

When Delle Donne is discussed in the media, she is often compared with LeBron James and Kevin Durant, and she has mixed feelings about that. How could you quibble with being compared to those guys, and yet, she's a woman, she has more finesse than LeBron, and there are women to compare her with that would get the point across -- Candace Parker, Sheryl Swoopes. But in this world and in this body, there is no greater height than LeBron, so she'll take it, she guesses, but she also hopes she can be part of a tide in which the woman is the superlative example for the other woman, that one day the world will find it acceptable to host a body like hers that isn't a man's.

There's maybe some movement in that regard. Nike will soon release her first signature shoe. She was recently featured in Vogue, where she was put in a dress and made to stand on her basketball court, lest the reader not understand the context for including a woman like her in its pages. She's no longer ambivalent about her height. She loves it, though the conspicuousness now that she's famous has added a new layer. "There are times I'm like, if I could just turn it down to like 6-foot right now and go to this concert and just have fun and have no one know who I am, put a hat on, that would be really nice." She smiles with sad eyes as the TV plays on mute in the background. "But it doesn't happen that way. You can't change it."

The rain stops, and we return to the garage. Even the table in her own garage isn't built to accommodate her height. But she likes the woodwork -- it quiets her mind the way Lizzie does, the way basketball does. Once she and Amanda start a table, they go for it, working 'til 2 in the morning, blasting Florence and the Machine. It gives Delle Donne a focus and it gives her a product. More than that, it gives her a way to one day leave pro sports without being someone who is always just a former athlete. It's a job that anyone could do, no matter how short or how tall. So Elena Delle Donne stands over that workbench and she deploys the gifts she didn't choose in order to have the life she ultimately did.

Taffy Brodesser-AknerBrodesser-Akner is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine, The New York Times Magazine and GQ.

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