Elena Delle Donne combines passion for golf with giving back

More than 120 golfers joined Elena Delle Donne in her second annual charity golf event Monday at Fieldstone Golf Club. Rob Naylor

WILMINGTON, Del. -- Elena Delle Donne walked around the banquet room of Fieldstone Golf Club while organizing a large table of sports memorabilia. A signed soccer ball from Carli Lloyd, a signed Super Bowl football from Zach Ertz and signed shoes from Kobe Bryant were prominently displayed. And yes, there was, of course, a signed jersey and pair of basketball sneakers by Delle Donne.

The Mystics forward and five-time WNBA All-Star wasn't just collecting signed gear from some of the biggest stars in sports for fun; she was putting it up for auction for her second annual charity golf tournament, which benefits her Elena Delle Donne Foundation.

"Does this look good?" Delle Donne asked.

"Yes," her wife, Amanda Delle Donne, responded before darting off to make sure other matters were in order.

Only a couple of hours remained before 120 players would tee off on Monday, but Delle Donne didn't seem overwhelmed. With the help of Amanda, as well as her sister-in-law, mother, and childhood best friend, Kelley Doogan, Delle Donne could relax and prepare for what she loves to do away from the basketball court: play golf.

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Elena's father, Ernest Delle Donne, began taking her and her brother, Gene, out on the golf course during their childhood in Wilmington, Delaware.

"It started off as just us riding around in the golf cart, and slowly I got into it," she said. "When I finally picked up a club, my dad started teaching me how to play."

Ernest Delle Donne played college golf at Columbia University, so exposing his children to the game was an easy way to spend time with them.

"Even now to this day it's a way for me to spend time with my dad," Elena Delle Donne said.

She also uses it as a way to connect with Amanda, who also grew up playing.

"It's the one place where we can just be with each other. We were both surprised about how much we enjoyed playing together and how relaxing it was," Amanda said. "She's going nonstop, and it's nice to get away from people."

Elena Delle Donne even carves out time while on the road traveling with the Mystics to sneak in a few swings: "If there's a Topgolf nearby, I'll find a way to get over there."

When Delle Donne isn't thinking about how to find a way to get in more swings, she's often thinking about how she can give back to two issues she is passionate about: finding a cure for Lyme disease and giving back to the special needs community.

Both of these issues are personal for her. For the past 10 years, Delle Donne has battled Lyme disease, which can be debilitating. She has had relapses, forcing her to miss practice or games, so she understands how the disease can impact a person's quality of life.

Elena's sister, Lizzie, has cerebral palsy and autism, and is also blind and deaf. She and Lizzie communicate with hand-over-hand sign language, and the impact Lizzie has had in Delle Donne's life cannot be overestimated. Outside of raising money and awareness for the special needs community, Delle Donne's basketball camp also accommodates Special Olympic athletes.

So when Delle Donne started her foundation, she wanted to find a way to raise money but also bring a community of people together.

"I think golf is a great way to bring people together and have a really good time," Delle Donne said. "You're not just interacting on the golf course, but also congregating afterwards for the banquet and able to socialize with others who just had the experience of playing golf. And it's obviously a way that you can raise money and do good at the same time."

Delle Donne wasn't the only WNBA star present. She asked Mystics teammate and fellow 2018 All-Star Kristi Toliver to play in her group. Toliver is no stranger to the game.

"Elena and I realized last year at a team function at Topgolf that we were both decent golfers," said Toliver, who has played golf since she was a kid. "I love the game. But it's also really cool to connect with my teammate in a different way outside of basketball.

"When I learned that Elena had a charity golf tournament, I was really eager and excited to play in it and support her."

Putting on a charity golf tournament is no small endeavor. It takes a lot of effort to find sponsors for each hole, arranging prizes for the participants, booking the catering and, of course, finding people to play in the event.

To help make the tournament come to life, Delle Donne relied on Amanda, who made sure every small detail was handled. From signing people in and getting them to their assigned carts, to organizing all the donated memorabilia for the auction, Amanda took care of it. Then, throughout the event, she went from group to group, making sure they had water and snacks, and was on call in case any issue arose.

"If it weren't for Amanda, I wouldn't be able to just go out here today and have fun," Delle Donne said at the awards ceremony toward the end of the event. "Thank you for helping make this possible."

And despite not winning her own tournament, the one-day event was a success, raising nearly $100,000. In fact, Delle Donne's brother's team won.

"If my WNBA season wasn't during the summer," Elena quipped, "maybe I could have more time to go out and practice!"

Until then, she will continue to sneak in golf when she can.