Commentary

Flashback: Elena Delle Donne

Delaware star learned lessons about balancing life and basketball in high school

Updated: March 5, 2012, 6:12 PM ET
By Lucas O'Neill | ESPNHS

This story originally appeared in the inaugural edition of ESPNHS Girl Magazine in the fall of 2007.

Thousands of practices. Hundreds of games. Scores of photo shoots. Tons of publicity. Countless recruiters.

The sum? Burnout.

Eventually, all the hours Elena Delle Donne devoted to basketball -- and everything that comes with it -- took their toll. So Delle Donne, one of the best high school girls' hoop players of all time, decided to hang up her kicks for the summer. And she couldn't be happier with the decision.

"I think it's a good thing for girls to realize that taking a break is not such a bad thing," says Delle Donne. "You don't want it to get to a point where you have to take a break for as long as I did. Take little breaks here and there."

Elena Delle Donne ESPNHS Girl
Steve Boyle/ESPNHSElena Delle Donne was featured on the cover of the first ESPNHS Girl Magazine in the fall of 2007.

For the Ursuline Academy (Wilmington, Del.) standout, it got to the point where she wasn't enjoying basketball -- a scary proposition for someone who had devoted the better part of her waking life to the hardwood.

The 6-foot-4 guard/forward with an unparalleled combination of size and skill led Ursuline to three consecutive state titles from eighth grade to her sophomore season, and she just barely missed making it four straight last season. Now a senior, she's the most highly touted girls' hoop recruit in the nation, having made UConn fans very happy by committing to the powerhouse Huskies over Tennessee, Villanova and Middle Tennessee in late August.

"Prior to going into coaching her, I'd always said she was the best girls' basketball player that I had seen," says Ursuline head coach Fran Burbidge, who took over the program prior to the 2006-07 season. "Being with her, she's even better than I thought."

Good enough, in fact, that Delle Donne was on the fast track to making the USA Under-19 National Team -- and fulfilling one of her dreams of suiting up for the red, white and blue -- before pulling herself out of the running this past summer. Quite simply, she was tired. Exhausted, really. She started to resent the endless practices, traveling and games. She started to dislike playing basketball, and that scared her.

"I've learned a big lesson: That your body needs a break and you can burn out," Delle Donne says. "It's important to take a break because you don't want to start hating things that you love."

Fortunately, Delle Donne listened to her body and decided to take the summer off from hoops. She also put the college selection process and media requests on the back burner. No more practices. No more recruiters. No more incessant publicity. In fact, Delle Donne only agreed to be interviewed and photographed for this story because she takes very seriously the impact she has on the girls and young women who aspire to be like her.

"This was a different (photo) shoot for me because it focused on women's sports and it focused on high school," she says. "I really want to be an ambassador for women's sports."

As important as she views her role, Delle Donne concedes that sometimes all of the attention that goes along with it can be hard to understand.

"It is strange still and I think it'll always be strange," says Delle Donne, who has been in the national spotlight since her freshman year. "(But) I think it's awesome that little girls and even little boys and people my age look up to me."

Heck, even adults marvel at the skills and aplomb Delle Donne possesses. After her high school games -- which are often delayed because of all the people trying to get into the gym to catch a glimpse of the basketball ingénue -- Delle Donne routinely sticks around for up to 45 minutes signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans of all ages.

"Her maturity is well beyond her years," says Peg Desendorf, assistant athletic director and an assistant coach at Ursuline. "She is really a very poised young woman."

Strangely enough, by taking a break and demonstrating that even elite athletes need to rest from time to time, Delle Donne has become a more effective role model than ever. And rather than lounge around during her hoop-less summer, Delle Donne decided to give back, working with special needs students in the Meadowood Program at Forest Oak Elementary School (Newark, Del.).

"I loved every minute so it," she says. "It's something I wouldn't have been able to experience if I was traveling and playing basketball all summer."

Delle Donne's older sister, Elizabeth, is a special needs student herself. "Liz," or "Lizzie," is both blind and deaf and suffers from autism and cerebral palsy. Her ability to persevere despite numerous challenges, including myriad health complications and surgeries, has given Delle Donne perspective.

"I think Elena kind of looks at Liz for the inspiration," says Burbidge.

While working with the Meadowood Program, Delle Donne served as an assistant for Connie Poultney, a special needs instructor who taught Liz for many years. Because it was summer school, more of an emphasis was placed on recreation, so Delle Donne would walk with the students and take them on trips to the park. She also assisted with important practical lessons like handwriting and clock skills.

"She really jumped right in on the first day and took the initiative," Poultney says. "She has a natural intuition. She really made sure to know every one of the children we work with. Some of the kids are more eager and talkative than others, but Elena really spent time with each one of them."

Delle Donne even broke her vow not to touch a basketball all summer in order to rebound for her hoops-crazed students.

"She really is a role model for these kids -- not just because she is such a talented athlete," says Poultney. "In fact, they have no idea how good of a basketball player she is. It is ironic because so many of these kids love playing basketball, and while Elena is rebounding for them they have no idea how gifted she is."

Poultney says Delle Donne was a natural, displaying a respect for kids with disabilities that "doesn't usually come naturally for most people."

Delle Donne attributes that to Liz.

"As I grew up, I became aware that there are people with special needs out there, and I have a real connection with them," says Delle Donne. "It's upsetting when people are afraid of these kids. Instead of being afraid, you should just go up to them and talk to them. Because you can learn so much from them."

One thing Delle Donne learned is that she wants to major in special education. And while she also learned there's more to life than basketball, Delle Donne is anxious to get back on the court this season after a summer away from the game. Her first priority is helping Ursuline win another state title, and the odds are stacked in her favor. The Raiders return all five starters from last year's team, and they won't have to contend with Khadijah Rushdan, a Top 10 recruit from the Class of 2007 who helped St. Elizabeth (Wilmington, Del.) halt Ursuline's run of three consecutive state titles last season. Rushdan, who's now at Rutgers, is the state's all-time leading scorer with 2,414 career points, a mark Delle Donne (2,382) should pass within the first week of the season.

Of course, opposing teams will throw everything they have at Delle Donne, who dropped 50 points on St. Elizabeth in the state championship her sophomore year and averaged 28.5 points, 11 rebounds and three assists per game last season. And opponents can't even think about fouling her -- she shot 87 percent from the line last year and set a national record by making 80 consecutive free throws in 2005-06.

The Raiders play a difficult schedule in 2007-08, with games against nearby and always-difficult Philadelphia Catholic League opponents as well as perennial national power Christ the King (Middle Village, N.Y.). As if the schedule weren't tough enough, Delle Donne will invariably be the center of each powerhouse team's attention.

"If it was only double-teams we had to worry about, we could kind of finagle through it," says Burbidge. "It's the triple-teams that kind of throw you for a loop."

With Delle Donne's immense talent, there's little doubt she'll find a way to excel. This is, after all, a player who's been called the LeBron James of girls' hoops -- a comparison that is apt in terms of both her talent and her impact on the game. The 6-foot-4 Delle Donne boasts the size of a center, post game of a power forward, athleticism of a small forward, shooting touch of an off guard and handle of a point guard. Now recharged and refocused, she's ready to get back to dominating on the basketball court.

"I miss competing and being around teammates," she says.

In some respects, Delle Donne was lucky. Recognizing that she was burnt out, she took the appropriate steps to remedy the situation before it was too late. Delle Donne hopes other athletes learn something from her experience.

"Spend time with your family and try to spend time doing things that you enjoy doing other than basketball," Delle Donne advises.

Take it from America's best high school girls' baller: There's a lot more to life than the practices, the games, the recruiters and the hype.