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Before They Made It: Elena Delle Donne

Delle Donne Elena Delle Donne (photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

Elena Delle Donne, a member of the 2014-16 USA Basketball Women’s National Team, already has one gold medal to her credit (from the 2011 World University Games). Following a stellar college career at the University of Delaware, she was the WNBA’s 2013 Rookie of the Year.

The top recruit in the country when she came out of high school, Delle Donne was set to attend national power UConn, but she had a change of heart before her freshman year began. She wanted to be closer to her Delaware home and to her older sister, Lizzie, who has cerebral palsy and is deaf and blind.

At minimum, according to Elena’s father, Ernie Delle Donne, watching her older sister struggle with health issues was “a learning experience.” We caught up with Ernie to learn more about Elena’s youth experience, both on and off the court: 

USA Basketball: What was Elena like as a child?

When she was very, very young, there wasn’t a day that went by that she wasn’t playing with her older brother, Gene, who’s two years older than she. She played everything from soccer to whiffle ball to basketball to football, and just hung out with him and his buddies, and tried to compete with these older boys on a daily basis. She would never take second fiddle to anybody and she competed as hard as she could. You could see the effort in her eyes and in her actions from day one.

USA Basketball: How did she become active in the sport and develop her skills?

I think as time went on, probably around the ages of five or six, and she saw how tall she was getting – that obviously the height eliminated gymnastics (laughs). But she just had a real affinity for it. It was during the Chicago heydays when the Bulls went 72-10. She was an avid Michael Jordan fan. I remember walking around the house with North Carolina shorts on because that’s where he went to school. I think our family, on WGN Chicago, watched every Bulls game all season long, let alone the playoffs. So she got bitten by the basketball bug right around five or six years old. In addition, she was still playing softball, soccer in the fall, sports of that nature. But even after a soccer game, she would come back home and shoot baskets outside. The basketball was never too far from her hands.

USA Basketball: When did you realize Elena had what it takes to play basketball at a high level? 

I know the exact day! We were relatively new to AAU basketball. She was fortunate enough to join a team out of Philadelphia by the name of Fencor. Fencor went on to win three national titles and finish second twice. I remember she had been playing on a couple of travel teams as an 8- and 9-year-old. When she was 10, she started playing for Fencor. After winning the mid-Atlantic region, they were invited to play in Orlando at Disney. And the people locally told me, “Wait until you see the talent that exists at national AAU. It’s the best of the best.” So quite frankly, I was expecting Elena to be a mid-to-average, decent player, when she went down to Disney World. I expected somewhere in this great big country there are people probably 100 times better than she. To be honest, Elena was really the first 7-, 8-, 9-year-old girl basketball player I had ever witnessed. So I had nothing to judge it upon.

When we went down to Orlando and played in that 10-year-old AAU, even Elena has said that’s when she knew she was pretty good at this game. So when she went down to the national AAU level at Disney – which ironically is where the WNBA is playing that preseason exhibition game Mother’s Day weekend – at that same court where Elena played 10-year-old AAU. So I saw Elena competing against every little 10-year-old in America – the best of the best, so to speak – and she did far more than hold her own. She was very, very capable in that tournament. That’s when I thought, Boy, she’s pretty darn good.

USA Basketball: What challenges did she have to overcome as a child?

I think the challenges she faced, like every other child, they need to find who they are, what they want to excel at, what they want to pursue, what their passions are.

Certainly she and her brother, watching their elder sister deal with numerous surgeries, and just the struggle day to day. I wouldn’t say it’s something she had to overcome, but certainly a learning experience – something they both learned to deal with. For example, they knew at a very early age when Lizzie needed mom and dad’s attention, to go down to Johns Hopkins or whatever, they got left with an aunt or an uncle or a babysitter. I remember one Thanksgiving when Elizabeth seizured at 10 or 11 in the morning. And there it was Thanksgiving, and we just took off to DuPont Institute with Elizabeth, and some aunt and uncles came over and filled in for Thanksgiving. To a 4- or 5-year-old child, I’m not saying that’s traumatic because there are tougher things in life than that, but it is certainly something in life that’s unusual. And I later found out that both children, Gene and Elena, would commiserate. When a child visits the doctor, they think they might be sick. But in a little child’s mind, when their older sister goes to the hospital, they think they might be dying. So I found out later on that every time Lizzie was taken to Johns Hopkins or some hospital for any reason, Gene and Elena would commiserate that, God forbid, something was about to happen to their sister. And that is an emotional stress.

USA Basketball: What advice do you have for the parents of young basketball players?

My advice to parents would be the same whether it was sports, whether it was academics, whether it was social, or anything. We always let our two children, Gene and Elena – Gene was a Division I football player – let your kids define the dream, and then do everything you can to help your child achieve the dream. But in no way, shape or form should the parent define the dream or outline that path. Let the child seek out what most excites and fulfills them. And then as parents just do your best to help them fulfill that dream what they’ve defined.

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