A long jour­ney

Mys­tics’ Delle Donne had to give up bas­ket­ball to love it again

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ADAM KILGORE

This past Au­gust, on the day Elena Delle Donne reached the pin­na­cle of her re­la­tion­ship with bas­ket­ball, her phone buzzed with a re­minder of the nadir. Her old high school coach, John Noonan, had texted her a pho­to­graph. Delle Donne iden­ti­fied the im­age im­me­di­ately. It was a bas­ket­ball, stored in Noonan’s closet for nine years, in­scribed with a word: “Hate.”

About two weeks be­fore her 27th birth­day, Delle Donne had be­come one of the best play­ers in the world, a com­bi­na­tion of size and skill un­prece­dented in the women’s game. In a few hours, she would cap­ture an Olympic gold medal, the prize she had wanted more than any other since she started play­ing. Now, glanc­ing at her phone in Rio de Janeiro, she thought about how close she once came to leav­ing the sport. Delle Donne rec­og­nized the pic­ture be­cause the ball be­longed to her.

At 18, Delle Donne left the Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut af­ter two days and gave up bas­ket­ball for a year. Years of re­sent­ment to­ward bas­ket­ball boiled over. She felt burned out and homesick. The pres­sure to meet ex­pec­ta­tions be­came too much. Bas­ket­ball be­came a sym­bol for hav­ing to sep­a­rate from her older sis­ter, Lizzie, her in­spi­ra­tion, the per­son who means the most to her.

When she re­turned home to Delaware, Noonan chal­lenged her: If she re­ally hated

the thing to which she had ded­i­cated so much of her life, she would write “hate” on a ball. Delle Donne grabbed it from his hands, scrawled the word in fat, black marker and asked him whether she should sign and date it, too. She was cer­tain she would never play again.

“It still gives me chills think­ing about it,” Delle Donne said. “It’s crazy how far I came from that mo­ment.”

This win­ter, com­pelled by one of the im­pulses that al­most drove her from the sport, Delle Donne in­sti­gated a trade to the Wash­ing­ton Mys­tics. She ar­rives in Wash­ing­ton for the 2017 sea­son, which be­gins Sun­day, at the peak of her ca­reer, a sta­tus de­rived as much from her 2015 WNBA MVP Award as her life away from the sport. She is one of the best bas­ket­ball play­ers in the world, sure, a 6foot-5 scorer with un­com­mon pass­ing vi­sion and ball­han­dling abil­ity. She is just as proud to be a fi­ancee and a wood­worker, a phi­lan­thropist and a sis­ter.

She is in a per­fect place, a short drive from her fam­ily and Sun­day din­ners. The path here started at 18. If she never sum­moned the nerve to leave U-Conn., she may never have dis­cov­ered her­self or found joy in the game. Delle Donne had to hate bas­ket­ball be­fore she could love it again.

“As hard as it was to go through, I’m glad I went through it,” Delle Donne said. “Be­cause it’s made me into the per­son I am and taught me so much about fol­low­ing my heart, what’s im­por­tant to me. It just helped me to grow.”

Pas­sion, then obli­ga­tion

Ernie Delle Donne, a 6-6 for­mer Columbia bas­ket­ball player who mar­ried a 6-2 woman named Joan, first brought his youngest daugh­ter to Noonan’s gym when she was a se­cond-grader. Delle Donne was tall for her age and possessed rare co­or­di­na­tion for her size. She had picked up the game fol­low­ing around her older brother, Gene, and Ernie won­dered whether she wouldn’t ben­e­fit from ad­di­tional coach­ing.

Noonan ran her through some drills. Af­ter a cou­ple min­utes, he glanced at Ernie and mouthed, “What the hell?”

“She was play­ing like a fresh­man in high school,” Noonan said.

Noonan drilled foot­work and ball­han­dling, in­tent on mak­ing sure coaches couldn’t stick Delle Donne in the paint just be­cause of her size. She fell in love with train­ing. She would run be­fore school, lift weights be­fore prac­tice, then work with Noonan af­ter. She would de­cide she needed a break and tell Noonan she wanted two weeks off, then call two days later to ask when they could meet in the gym. She feared some­body was work­ing harder, even at a young age, and be­came de­ter­mined not to let it hap­pen.

The work made her a prodigy. She signed her first au­to­graph in fifth grade. By eighth grade, she started on the var­sity at Ur­su­line Academy in Wilm­ing­ton and had be­come the top re­cruit in the coun­try. She scored 50 points in the Delaware state ti­tle game as a sopho­more. Be­fore her se­nior sea­son, Sports Il­lus­trated com­pared her to Dirk Now­itzki and Diana Taurasi.

“To me, that may have been the first time you saw any­body that tall be able to play like that,” Con­necti­cut Coach Geno Auriemma said. “To­day, you might say there’s a cou­ple play­ers like that out there. Back then at the time, there just wasn’t any­body like that at all.”

Along the way, her pas­sion mor­phed into an obli­ga­tion to bear. Be­com­ing a great player be­gan to feel not like a pur­suit but rather a bur­den, a mill­stone grow­ing heav­ier. She be­came a mi­nor celebrity in Delaware. Her height pro­hib­ited hid­ing or blend­ing in. She never took a break, bounc­ing from school sea­sons to AAU. She de­fined her­self only through suc­cess of fail­ure, and she used an im­pos­si­ble stan­dard. If she scored 20 points, she would still felt she let the world down.

“Just feel­ing like I was headed on a path ev­ery­body wanted me to go on,” Delle Donne said. “I wasn’t re­ally steer­ing the ship. I had lost the per­son that I was out­side of bas­ket­ball.”

Her first re­cruit­ing let­ters ar­rived in the sev­enth grade and kept pour­ing in. They never felt like val­i­da­tion. They rep­re­sented lo­ca­tions far away from her older sis­ter. Lizzie was born blind and deaf, with autism and cere­bral palsy. Lizzie can com­mu­ni­cate only through touch and scent. (Joan wears the same per­fume ev­ery day for that rea­son.) At col­lege, Delle Donne could call her brother and par­ents on the phone. She would have no way to reach Lizzie, to make her smile, to let her know she loved her.

“Say­ing good­bye to Lizzie wasn’t okay,” Delle Donne said. “I wasn’t able to han­dle it.”

And yet she kept play­ing, kept train­ing and com­mit­ted to UConn. Auriemma sensed un­easi­ness — “There’s no ques­tion the signs were there,” he said later. But that was the path ex­pected of the great­est prospect any­body could re­mem­ber, so she took it.

Af­ter two days, Delle Donne left Con­necti­cut in the mid­dle of the night.

Ru­mors swirled. Delle Donne heard ev­ery­thing: She had been scared off by the com­pe­ti­tion; team­mates were mean to her in a scrim­mage; she was afraid. It hurt her, but none of it was true. She knew she was burned out, stressed to a break­ing point. At the time, she didn’t re­al­ize what she un­der­stands now: She hated the sport be­cause it took Lizzie away from her.

It was a coura­geous choice. It would have been eas­ier for Delle Donne, at 18, to suf­fer and con­form. To find peace, she had to ex­pose her­self to ridicule and ru­mor, to shat­ter ex­pec­ta­tions in full pub­lic view. At the time, Delle Donne just felt like a fail­ure.

Delle Donne trans­ferred to Delaware, a 15-minute drive from her house and Lizzie. She joined the vol­ley­ball team, hav­ing dab­bas­ket­ball, bled in the sport in high school. She com­peted with­out pres­sure. Bas­ket­ball seemed like a slog; vol­ley­ball seemed like a game.

“It made me re­al­ize, why am I hav­ing so much fun with this sport and I wasn’t hav­ing fun with bas­ket­ball?” Delle Donne said.

‘She needed some space’

Tina Martin, the Blue Hens’ bas­ket­ball coach, would see Delle Donne walk­ing around cam­pus, her stress vis­i­ble from far away. She kept her dis­tance on pur­pose and didn’t know that Delle Donne had got­ten her phone num­ber from Noonan.

In Jan­uary, Martin re­ceived a text mes­sage from some­one ask­ing whether they could talk. “Sure,” Martin replied. “Who is this?” It was Delle Donne. Martin in­vited Delle Donne to come by her of­fice at 7 a.m. on a Sun­day so she wouldn’t be spot­ted. They talked for 45 min­utes, about fam­ily and cam­pus and any­thing but bas­ket­ball.

“I’m not sure if I’m com­ing back to bas­ket­ball,” Delle Donne fi­nally told Martin. “If I do, I’ll con­tact you.”

Weeks passed. Vol­ley­ball sea­son ended, and Delle Donne no­ticed the women’s Fi­nal Four ap­proach­ing. Martin re­ceived another text: Delle Donne wanted to shoot in the school arena. Martin obliged, open­ing it up at 9 p.m. to pry­ing eyes.

“I wanted her to fall in love with the game again,” Martin said. “I wanted her to en­joy the game of bas­ket­ball. She needed some space. She needed some time.”

Delle Donne, ar­riv­ing with Noonan, touched a bas­ket­ball for the first time since she had writ­ten “Hate” on one. They shot un­til 10:15 p.m., turn­ing the lights out them­selves af­ter Martin left. Her form re­mained im­pec­ca­ble — af­ter one flat jumper, Noonan re­called, she swished her next three shots.

“It was kind of like rid­ing a bike,” Delle Donne said. “It felt great.”

Delle Donne had to be sure. She con­tin­ued shoot­ing in se­cret and chat­ting with Martin, promis­ing her that if she played again, it would be for Delaware. Fi­nally, in mid-May, Delle Donne called to tell her she was play­ing bas­ket­ball again.

“Are you happy?” Martin asked her. “Yes,” Delle Donne replied. Delle Donne vowed bas­ket­ball would not de­fine her. She poured en­ergy into the Spe­cial Olympics and vol­un­teered at the Mary Camp­bell Cen­ter, where Lizzie spent much of her days. Her true self re­turned, and her true self can be goofy. She egged on team­mates to pull pranks, such as when she goaded team­mate Kayla Miller into steal­ing Martin’s wardrobe and bust­ing into a film ses­sion in full im­per­son­ation. She starred in a flash mob video with her fam­ily and team­mates, their danc­ing — to “Wob­ble” by V.I.C. — saved on YouTube for pos­ter­ity.

“I felt like a kid again, which is some­thing I never wanted to lose,” Delle Donne said. “I couldn’t let the out­side pres­sure get to me, to make me feel like I had to be No. 1 in ev­ery as­pect of the game. I just re­al­ized, ‘If I’m com­pet­ing with my team and we’re be­ing suc­cess­ful, hav­ing a good time, it’s all about that jour­ney.’ I just didn’t care any­more about the in­di­vid­ual ac­co­lades, any of that. Who re­mem­bers that stuff, any­ways? You just re­mem­ber the jour­ney you went on.”

Delle Donne be­came a star, on her terms, in the tiny Colo­nial Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion. She took the Blue Hens to un­prece­dented places, lead­ing the na­tion in scor­ing as a ju­nior and push­ing Delaware to its first Sweet 16 as a se­nior. Her fam­ily at­tended ev­ery game.

Pur­suits be­yond bas­ket­ball

The Chicago Sky took her with the se­cond pick in the 2013 WNBA draft. Af­ter she won rookie of the year, Coach Pokey Chat­man chal­lenged her to im­prove her re­bound­ing. Two years later, she led the WNBA in scor­ing and re­dodge bound­ing and was named MVP. Last year, Nike pro­duced a sig­na­ture shoe. Her dog, Wrigley, be­came In­sta­gram-fa­mous. As Delle Donne be­came a star, she re­fused to let bas­ket­ball de­fine her.

“Elena kind of beats to her own drum a lit­tle bit,” said Miller, her Delaware team­mate. “Just be­cause A-B-C went this way, it doesn’t mean she’ll go that way. In the end, she’s go­ing to get to that ul­ti­mate goal or dream. She doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily con­form to what­ever ev­ery­body else does.”

Many WNBA stars play over­seas in the off­sea­son, of­ten mak­ing more than they do in the United States. Delle Donne, who earns the WNBA max­i­mum salary in the neigh­bor­hood of $107,000 per year, stays home to spend time with fam­ily and her other pur­suits. She or­ga­nized a dodge­ball tour­na­ment to sup­port the Elena Delle Donne Char­i­ta­ble Foun­da­tion, which ben­e­fits the Spe­cial Olympics and Lyme dis­ease aware­ness.

Dur­ing her sopho­more sea­son at Delaware, Delle Donne felt fa­tigued and could not un­der­stand why. She was di­ag­nosed with Lyme dis­ease, and she has come to view the di­ag­no­sis as a para­dox­i­cal bless­ing. If she trains too hard, she knows it could lead to a se­ri­ous flare-up. This past off­sea­son, she signed a short­term deal to play over­seas for the first time, in the Women’s Chi­nese Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion play­offs, but a re­cur­rence of symp­toms cut short her stay. The dis­ease causes her fa­tigue and forces her to swal­low a daily reg­i­men of pills, but it also pro­vides a nat­u­ral shield against burnout.

Even dur­ing the sea­son, she pur­sues hob­bies. She started a wood­work­ing busi­ness with her fi­ancee, Amanda Clifton, born out of their shared DIY im­pulse and Clifton’s en­tre­pre­neur­ial bent. Delle Donne cher­ishes her time in the shop. It serves as a form of ther­apy dur­ing the sea­son, a way to lose her­self in some­thing other than bas­ket­ball and spend time with Clifton, to whom she was en­gaged last sum­mer. They some­times re­mind each other to eat, so con­sumed by projects.

They make wall art, ta­bles, steps for chil­dren, dec­o­ra­tive bas­ket­ball hoops. One cus­tomer asked whether they could make an urn for the ashes of a dog. “That’s too much re­spon­si­bil­ity,” Delle Donne said, laugh­ing. “If that things leaks out, I can’t han­dle that. That was the one thing we turned down.”

This past off­sea­son, Delle Donne de­cided she wanted a pro­fes­sional change, and again she wanted to come home. She or­ches­trated the trade, im­ply­ing she might sit out 2017 if the Sky didn’t deal her to Wash­ing­ton. Now she says she loves bas­ket­ball too much to sit out.

Ei­ther way, it was a de­ci­sion she’s glad she never had to make, and she is thrilled with the out­come. She lives in Vir­ginia, and her par­ents bought a home in An­napo­lis. Last week, Delle Donne met her mother for din­ner. Lizzie loves it, loves to feel the wind whip­ping off the bay. Delle Donne hopes Lizzie will at­tend two games this sea­son.

“It’s way more im­por­tant for me,” Delle Donne said. “She doesn’t know that she’s even at a bas­ket­ball game. That’s how low­func­tion­ing she is. Just know­ing she’s there is al­ways re­ally in­spir­ing to me.”

Noonan, too, plans on at­tend­ing a few Mys­tics home games. He has told Delle Donne he will give her the ball in his closet, but he has not de­cided on the right time. Maybe, he said, he will wait un­til she makes the Hall of Fame. Delle Donne is not wor­ried about that kind of honor, so far in the fu­ture. Right now, she has too many things she loves.

TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Elena Delle Donne forced a trade from Chicago to Wash­ing­ton to be closer to her fam­ily, in par­tic­u­lar her older sis­ter, Lizzie, who was born blind and deaf, with autism and cere­bral palsy.

TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Fam­ily is the strong­est pull for Elena Delle Donne, who played four sea­sons in Chicago, be­low, be­fore re­quest­ing a trade to Wash­ing­ton so she could be closer to her Wilm­ing­ton, Del., home. She has av­er­aged 20.5 points and 6.6 re­bounds over her ca­reer and was the 2015 MVP.

KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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