Before leading her small college team to the NCAA tournament in 2012, being picked second overall in the WNBA draft the next year, and winning the league’s MVP Award in 2015, Elena Delle Donne was probably best known for the time she chose not to play basketball, walking away from a full scholarship at the University of Connecticut, a hoops powerhouse.
“I had just lost my passion for the game,” she said. Delle Donne now tells her story in two new books, My Shot, a memoir, and Elle of the Ball, the first installment in a chapter book series, Hoops (both Simon & Schuster).
“I always wanted to get back into the school system, to share my story with young adults and help them through things they were going through, so I told my agent and she put some feelers out to see if there was any interest,” Delle Donne said. There was.
Delle Donne, who now plays for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, majored in special education at the University of Delaware and has a long record of working with kids through her basketball camp, the Delle Donne Academy, and as a global ambassador for the Special Olympics. Her older sister, Lizzie, who is blind, deaf, and has cerebral palsy, is her inspiration.
In her home state of Delaware, Delle Donne is a legend, having led her high school team to three straight state titles while setting the national high school record for consecutive free throws made. She hit 80 in a row from the charity stripe before a miss.
But she was also approaching burnout, tired of being expected to carry the team, and of being singled out for her height. In sixth grade, she had topped six feet. By the time she graduated she was 6’ 5” and ranked as the top recruit in the nation.
“Even though my mom is 6’ 1” and my dad is 6’ 6”, it’s a tough thing to be a tall girl when you are young,” she said. “I was almost ashamed of how tall I was.”
Overcoming that feeling was part of her journey toward accepting her body, a process she capped by appearing in 2016 in ESPN’s “Body Issue,” which features famous athletes without their uniforms.
“It was a hard decision because you have to be comfortable with posing naked,” Delle Donne said. “There were a lot of conversations with my wife [Delle Donne married her longtime girlfriend Amanda Clifton in 2017] but to me it was a way to finally signal full acceptance of my body, how powerful it is, and just loving what my body does.”
Delle Donne also had to overcome medical challenges, having contracted Lyme disease sometime during her senior year in high school. She had to adjust her diet and takes a hefty regiment of supplements every day to ward off the full body fatigue the disease can produce. “It taught me a new awareness of how to take care of my body,” she said. “As a professional athlete, we are taught to push ourselves. The whole goal of training is to push past the limit but because of the Lyme disease I have had to learn to train smarter.”
When she left Delaware for UConn, she was still struggling with managing the symptoms brought on by Lyme disease, and unprepared for the emotions of leaving home, especially leaving her sister. The years of living under a spotlight, shouldering unreasonable expectations, and the fatigue caught up with her almost the moment she arrived in Storrs, where she was expected to star for coaching legend Geno Auriemma, whose teams have won 11 national championships. Instead, she stunned the basketball world by renouncing her scholarship and returning to Delaware. Auriemma begged her to reconsider but Delle Donne enrolled at the University of Delaware and joined the volleyball team as a walk-on. She and Auriemma eventually worked things out.
“He understood that, at that moment, my passion for basketball was just gone,” Delle Donne said. “But he even allowed me to play volleyball at Delaware when he could have held on to my [NCAA] eligibility.”
In 2016, when Delle Donne won a gold medal playing for Team USA in the Rio Olympics, Auriemma was her coach. “We have great respect for one another.”
She hopes that with the new books she can reach other young athletes who are facing similar challenges, with a message about not letting other people’s expectations force you into a role you really don’t want to play.
“Staying true to yourself, no matter what that is, is the most important thing you can do,” she said. “So many people will try to push you in certain directions as if there is only one option. That’s never the truth. There is always another way.”
My Shot. Elena Delle Donne. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-5344-1228-6
Elle of the Ball. Elena Delle Donne. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-5344-1231-6