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 basketball, 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 6-foot-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.”
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 U-Conn. 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 dabbled 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.
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 dodge 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.
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 rebounding 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 short-term 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 low-functioning 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.