From running away from the University of Connecticut in the middle of the night to winning two WNBA MVP awards, Elena Delle Donne has been through it all. The story of Delle Donne is like being on a ferris wheel at the carnival, it stops at specific places, but in the end, it finally finds its way to where it is meant to be. In 2019, she became the first player in WNBA history to join the 50-40-90 club. Delle Donne credited her achievement to her teammates, and her coaches, never once did she say her name. That is who Elena Delle Donne is. Just a woman from Wilmington, Delaware with an obsession with the game of basketball, and is full of humility. She strives to get better every day, and with constant help and support, her talents grew at a very young age. Delle Donne has had a trainer since she was in 2nd grade and continues learning from him as her professional career progresses. Elena Delle Donne’s story is truly one of a kind, but it demonstrates that no matter the path, everyone will always end up in the place they are supposed to be.
Very few athletes have the ability to use their platform to affect positive change in the world. Delle Donne is more than just a basketball player, and her story reflects that. In the beginning, Delle Donne wanted to play along with whatever her older brother Gene was interested in. He ended up playing college football at both Duke and Middle Tennessee State and graduated from MTSU in 2009 before moving on to work for their family company. Della Donne got into basketball when she was four years old. She idolized the great Sheryl Swoopes who was a three-time WNBA MVP, and the first player to sign with the league, agreeing to a deal with the Houston Comets. Delle Donne put in a lot of hard work on her own even when she was in elementary school. At 10 years old, Delle Donne started to play AAU basketball and compete against teams from all over the United States. Delle Donne was always growing and was taller than anybody in her age, now she is 6’5’’ and believes her height is one of her best strengths as both a basketball player and a human. Growing up, Della Donne only really focused on basketball but participated in volleyball in high school. Coaches started to identify and reach out to Delle Donne when she was just in seventh grade and was virtually locked in to reach the expectations that a lot of people had for her. As a sophomore in high school, she attended the Nike All-American camps which are usually for juniors and seniors. Beginning in her sophomore year, Della Donne received so many letters from colleges that they needed to put an extra box next to the actual mailbox. She never read any of the college letters that were sent to her and was not loving the process it took to get there.
Della Donne has an older sister named Lizzie who was born deaf, blind, with autism, cerebral palsy and has not been able to speak since her birth. She ultimately went on the path that many people thought she was going to, by going to the queen of women’s basketball, the University of Connecticut. Della Donne was only there for two days before she literally ran away from the university through one of her friends that drove her all the way back to Delaware. She was not just homesick because of her sister, Delle Donne had been dealing with a lot of burnout from basketball given all the work that she put in to get to where she did.
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma was so excited to coach Delle Donne, stating, “It’s very rare to find someone who is that tall and can handle the ball, pass the ball, shoot it like she does…Those are all things that when she was in high school you didn’t see much of…This feeling that someone like her comes along once in a great while. People had not seen this in the past.” Auriemma handled the situation with class, and dignity, letting Delle Donne choose another path for her career. Della Donne then turned around and volunteered at her older sister’s school, quitting basketball for the summer. Basically all her life, she had been known as a basketball player and wanted to figure out what she was beyond just the game.
After she left UConn, Delle Donne stated, “I always felt like I was kind of following the path everybody told me to go on and that I needed to do…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?”
Just a few weeks before the fall semester of 2008, one of her friends from high school had asked her if she wanted to play volleyball as a middle hitter for the Blue Hens of the University of Delaware. When she had the opportunity to play on a team even if it wasn’t basketball it was hard to turn down. Della Donne played an entire season on the volleyball team and even helped the team win the CAA Conference Tournament. After one season playing volleyball, Delle Donne began to intensely think about returning to her first real passion, basketball, during March Madness. From then on, the rest is history. Delle Donne joined the basketball team at the University of Delaware and was off to becoming the player the world knows her to be today.
During her sophomore year at Delaware, she was third in the country in scoring, averaging 26.7 points per game for the Blue Hens. The only two players that were ahead of her in scoring that season were Oklahoma State guard and future top-10 pick Andrea Riley, and Middle Tennessee star Alysha Clark who led the nation in scoring, averaging 28.3 points per game. In her next two seasons at Delaware, Della Donne was a consensus All-American, and National Player of the Year candidate. Delle Donne was the first Delaware player to be nominated as an All-American in basketball. Also during her return to the game of basketball, Delle Donne found out that she had Lyme disease which later became known as chronic, which first showed when she asked to be subbed out of a game. She had so much fatigue and was trying to push through all the problems that she was having, but in her heart knew there was something wrong. In one game, Delle Donne went into the locker room and fainted on the ground, with nobody knowing what to do. Delle Donne was sent to a doctor in Pennsylvania that she said “saved her life”, and was diagnosed with chronic recurring Lyme.
After her successful career at Delaware, Delle Donne finally made it to the place she knew she was going to as a child. Della Donne was selected with the number two overall pick in the stacked 2013 Draft Class. The Phoenix Mercury selected Baylor center Britney Griner with the first overall pick. The 2013 class had so many successful players that came out of it. Griner and Delle Donne are two of the most dominant players in the game today and were picked first and second. Skyler Diggins was selected by the Tulsa Shock at number three, and with the 19th overall pick, the Washington Mystics took future WNBA Finals MVP, Emma Messessman. Delle Donne was chosen by the Chicago Sky and had made it as a professional even though there were questions of whether she was fully committed, but there was no hesitation in her mind that this was what she was meant to do.
After four seasons in Chicago, she was traded to Washington where she continued to flourish and still does to this day. Delle Donne was hurt during the 2021 WNBA season due to a back injury but predicts she will be back and better than ever for the 2022 season. Preparing for Elena Delle Donne as an opposing team has to be a nightmare. She continues to be one of the most lethal playmakers and scorers this league has ever seen. In 2020 she chose not to play in the bubble environment due to her fight with Lyme. The WNBA refused to pay her, but the Mystics as an organization swooped in to pay Delle Donne. Learning about Delle Donne’s journey to the top puts into perspective a lot of things in life.
No matter what challenge she was faced with or continues to face, Delle Donne does not back down. She and her wife Amanda launched the “Elena Delle Donne Charitable Foundation” to help special needs children and Lyme disease research across the United States. After she ran away from UConn, people criticized her, but Della Donne did not make what all the critics said about her define her, she went down her own path no matter how crazy it ended up being. She is an inspiring woman who just wants to live a life for her disabled older sister that struggles to even hold a conversation. Delle Donne is an example of what it means to be a pro athlete and a special individual. Your life may take sudden stops and bumps on the way, but in the end, Delle Donne teaches us that everything happens for a reason.