When 6-foot-5 Elena Delle Donne, the number one recruit in the country, chose the University of Connecticut, it seemed like a perfect fit of star player and powerhouse team, but just 48 hours after she arrived on campus, Delle Donne left. Nearly four years later, Delle Donne says it was the best choice she could have made.
Instead of joining the most dominant team in women’s college basketball back in 2008, she moved back to her home state and immediately enrolled at the University of Delaware, just 20 minutes away from her family in Wilmington, Del.
Many were stumped by the superstar’s choice to give up playing for a top team like UConn, but Delle Donne’s reasons had nothing to do with basketball.
Her older sister Lizzie, 27, is both blind and deaf and was born with cerebral palsy. So when Delle Donne moved to Connecticut, she could no longer communicate with her sister at all.
“Skype, cellphone, texting, email — doesn’t work with Liz,” she said. “We’ve never spoken a word to one another so the only thing we have is our physical contact. So that’s our whole relationship. It’s everything.
“She knows me by my smell and my feel, so, physically, physical contact is the only thing she knows,” she said. “So when I did leave, I lost Lizzie basically. Well, she lost me and I wasn’t OK with that when I left.”
And even though Lizzie can’t come to many games, she is always with her sister, even on the court.
“I have a tattoo right on my rib and it says ‘Lizzie’ and is inside angel wings,” she said. “And during the games, I even tap my side right before the game or when the game gets tough just to know Lizzie is out here with me to keep fighting.”
Lizzie does more than just give her luck on the court, Delle Donne said.
“She teaches me that you just fight no matter what,” she said. “And on the court when things aren’t going our way, you just never give up and that’s something I’ll never do and you’ll never see me put my head down and give up.”
“I would watch her struggle and I would watch her persevere through her struggles and that was something that always helps me put my life in perspective,” she said. “She overcomes battles that I will never face and thank God I will never face those, because I’m nowhere near as strong as Lizzie. And only someone like Lizzie can get through those battles.”
And even though Delle Donne didn’t end up where she thought she’d be, she says it was worth sacrificing a place on a top team for her family.
“They’re definitely my rocks and when I went away from my rocks, I realized that it wasn’t the right thing,” she said. “I wasn’t going to be happy if I was separated from my family.”
When she arrived at Delaware, she said, she was burnt out, so she took her freshman year off from the game she once loved and instead played volleyball for the school, where she studies early child education.
The following season, she started playing basketball again and has helped turn the Blue Hens into a team to be feared.
“I love everything that is involved in this sport,” she said. “It’s just a lot of fun. And when I stopped enjoying it, I stepped away from the game because I wasn’t going to do something that wasn’t for me. Now I play it for the passion and love of the game.”
The women’s team won a NCAA tournament game for the first time in the school’s history Sunday night, defeating the University of Arkansas Little Rock, 73-42, and giving the team a record of 31-1.
Delle Donne, a junior, scored 39 points against Arkansas, just three less than her opponents total score. She led the nation in scoring with an average of 27.5 points a game, three more than anyone else this season.
But she knows she stands out as much for choice as for her basketball skills.
“It’s the poem ‘The Road Not Taken.’ And that’s kind of my theme here,” she said. “And that poem really means a lot to me and my family. And this really has been the road not taken. And it’s been incredible.”