Family comes first for Delle Donne, even one win shy of WNBA title

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The championship could come here, in Connecticut, and how full-circle would that be?

A decade ago, this was where Elena Delle Donne was supposed to win college titles at UConn. Sunday, Geno Auriemma, the coach who might have guided her to NCAA supremacy, was courtside watching as Delle Donne gritted her way through a back injury to help the Washington Mystics move within a victory of winning their first WNBA title.

Mike Thibault, the coach who once saw her at a high school all-star game and recognized, “She doesn’t want to be here; she doesn’t like basketball at all right now,” was on the Mystics sideline sweating through the day with her.

Last year, Auriemma and Thibault both coached Delle Donne when she played with a painful bone bruise in her knee, losing in the WNBA Finals with Thibault and helping USA Basketball win a World Cup with Auriemma. That gold, and one from the 2016 Olympics, represented a second chance for Delle Donne and Auriemma to work together, adding two key titles to her professional résumé.

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She’s still striving toward a WNBA championship. Fair or not, we judge the greatest athletes on whether they get a ring at the highest level. And Delle Donne, a two-time WNBA MVP, very much wants one.

Still, if she wins a championship Tuesday, when the Mystics face Connecticut here in Game 4 (ESPN2, 8 p.m.), or Thursday in a decisive Game 5 in Washington, or if the Sun rally and she doesn’t win it at all, Delle Donne’s fundamental happiness won’t be altered. That’s been too hard-earned to be shaken. It’s why she says, “I’m proud of that 18-year-old who was able to realize that things weren’t right in that time and be able to step away.”

A megastar recruit, Delle Donne was to join UConn for the 2008-09 season. But just two days into her time in Storrs in the summer of 2008, she abruptly returned to Delaware.

She wasn’t ready to leave home, most specifically, to leave her older sister, Lizzie, who has been disabled since birth. Lizzie is blind, deaf and has cerebral palsy and autism. But she is keenly aware of touch and smell, and so the sisters’ only form of communication is in person.

So Delle Donne has done this on her terms, a journey guided by love of something bigger than basketball, yet which has helped make her, ultimately, the best player she can be.

“Growing up with my sister, I’ve always been able to realize this is a game, and the game of life is so much more important,” Delle Donne said. “You’ve got to follow your heart and your passion, because if you don’t have that, it’s not worth doing what you’re doing. She’s been the one to help me realize to follow my path and do it your own way.”

A different road to the top

By 2008, Delle Donne already had been burdened for some time thinking her college decision had to take her far from home. The stress soured her on the game she loved.

“You could tell it was a chore for her, and it wasn’t fun,” Thibault said.

Delle Donne looks back now and understands the emotional turmoil she was in.

“It’s grueling and exhausting, and trying to just push through it doesn’t work,” she said. “At some point, your body and mind just shuts down, and you need to do something else.”

Delle Donne walked away from UConn just as the Huskies were to embark on a 90-game winning streak that included two NCAA titles. Instead, she went to Delaware, where she played volleyball for a season while basketball waited like a temporarily-jilted suitor who knew patience was paramount.

Delle Donne also had played volleyball in high school at Ursuline Academy. But that she so easily pivoted to it — and excelled at it, too — at the Division I level for team companionship is who she is: an exceptional athlete at 6-foot-5 who can pick up anything.

“Just when I think there’s something that I could beat her in, nope,” Elena’s wife, Amanda Delle Donne, a former Division I basketball player herself, says with a laugh. “She’s really good at tennis; tried to beat her a thousand times at that, and I can’t. Really good at ping-pong. Golf. She’s just good at everything.”

But she’s at a whole other level at basketball. Her compact shooting form, her comfort level facing up and with back to the basket, her court vision — these assets at her height have made her one of women’s basketball’s most exciting players to watch. The past few years, she has elevated her defense to elite level, too.

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