Sweetness And Light
10:00 pm
Tue February 7, 2012

For Love And The Game, A Star Shines In Delaware

Originally published on Wed February 8, 2012 1:11 pm

Imagine being not only the best high school player in the country — probably the world — and signing to play for the best college program in the country, but then walking away from the sport. Why would any kid do that?

But, of course, Elena Delle Donne did exactly that, and the reason she did is simply that she did not want to be away from her older sister.

For as much as Elena has been blessed with the greatest of gifts in this mortal world, Lizzie Delle Donne was, in horrible contrast, denied most of the physical joys of life. She was born both without sight and without hearing, and with cerebral palsy. She only knows her kid sister by the special way she touches her, by her hugs and kisses, and by her scent. Lizzie is 27 now, and she will never overcome what fate so cruelly gave her.

Four years ago, when Elena went off to the University of Connecticut as the prize women's basketball recruit in the country, she was there only two days when she realized that regardless of how good she was, and notwithstanding how many championships she would win at UConn — no, never mind what glory she found in the game she dominated — it would mean nothing if she could not be there to give her sister what love Lizzie could understand.

And so Elena went back home to Delaware. She enrolled at the state university, nearby in Newark, and she did not even play basketball for a year. Now, as a junior, she is the best college player in the country, the leading scorer, and Delaware, what's called a mid-major, has lost only one game all year, that on the road to eighth-ranked Maryland. The Blue Hens themselves are now ranked 12th.

Elena is 6 feet 5 inches, but she can play like a guard. In high school she made 80 free throws in a row. As the star this past summer on the U.S. team that won the gold medal in China at the World University Games, she led the American team not only in total scoring and rebounds but also in 3-point baskets.

Because of how good she is, her college recruitment was very intense — so much so that it all but ended her passion for the game, as likewise it crystallized, in her mind, how important something else was.

The only story that remotely resembles Elena's is Larry Bird's — he who went to Indiana University, left as a freshman, went home and, famously, worked on a garbage truck before returning to a smaller college to lead the mid-major Indiana State to the national final. But Bird was not that well-known as a prospect, and he left Bobby Knight's team because he was homesick and uncomfortable on a big campus.

But for Elena, it was not a matter of leaving anywhere. No, it was only a matter of wanting to be somewhere, with someone where she thought she was more valuable, where she mattered more in life and love.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's talk for a moment about mid-major teams. That's the name for college sports teams that are not in one of the six major athletic conferences. In recent years, two have made it to the Final Four - the men's basketball teams from George Mason and Butler. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: George Mason and Butler are not the only two mid-major teams that have made it to the Final Four. There have been others, including Virginia Commonwealth University, which reached the tournament playoff in 2011.]

This year, a women's basketball team could be a contender. Its success is due, in part, to the unusual story of one player. Here's commentator Frank Deford.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: Imagine being not only the best high school player in the country - probably, the world - and signing to play for the best college program in the country, but then walking away from the sport. Why would any kid do that?

But, of course, Elena Delle Donne did exactly that, and the reason she did is simply because she did not want to be away from her older sister. For as much as Elena has been blessed with the greatest of gifts in this mortal world, Lizzie Delle Donne was, in horrible contrast, denied most of the physical joys of life. She was born both without sight and without hearing, and with cerebral palsy.

She only knows her kid sister by the special way she touches her, by her hugs and kisses, and by her scent. Lizzie is 27 now, and she will never overcome what fate so cruelly gave her.

And yet four years ago, when Elena went off to the University of Connecticut - as the prize women's basketball recruit in the country - she was only there two days when she realized that regardless of how good she was, and notwithstanding how many championships she would win at U.Conn - no, never mind what glory she found in the game that she dominated - it would mean nothing if she could not be there to give her sister what love Lizzie could understand.

And so Elena went back home to Delaware. She enrolled at the state university nearby in Newark, and she did not even play basketball for a year. Now, as a junior, she is the best college player in the country, the leading scorer. And Delaware - what's called a mid-major - has lost only one game all year, that on the road to eighth-ranked Maryland. The Blue Hens themselves are now ranked 12th.

Elena is 6-feet-5, but she can play like a guard. In high school, she made 80 free throws in a row. As the star this past summer on the U.S. team that won the gold medal in China, at the World University Games, she not only led the American team in total scoring and rebounds, but also in three-point baskets.

Because of how good she is, her college recruitment was very intense - so much so, it all but ended her passion for the game as likewise, it crystallized, in her mind, how important something else was.

The only story that remotely resembles Elena's is Larry Bird's. He, who went to Indiana University, left as a freshman, went home, and famously worked on a garbage truck before returning to a smaller college to lead the mid-major Indiana State to the national final. But Bird was not that well-known as a prospect, and he left Bobby Knight's team because he was homesick and uncomfortable on a big campus.

But for Elena, it was not a matter of leaving anywhere. No, it was only a matter of wanting to be somewhere, with someone where she thought she was more valuable, where she mattered more in life and in love.

INSKEEP: Commentator Frank Deford joins us with his commentary each Wednesday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.