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

Updated: October 7, 2019

3:27 PM ET


CloseMechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

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, Thibault coached Delle Donne when she played with a painful bone bruise in her knee, losing in the WNBA Finals, which was followed by a World Cup win with USA Basketball and coach Dawn Staley. That gold, paired with one from the 2016 Olympics, when Delle Donne and Auriemma got a second chance to work together, gave Delle Donne 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.”

Family is everything to Elena Delle Donne, right, shown here with (from left) wife Amanda Delle Donne, mom Joanie Delle Donne and sister Lizzie Delle Donne. Amanda Delle DonneA 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.

Playing in Washington D.C. instead of Chicago allows Elena Delle Donne an easier time to get home to see her sister, Lizzie, and father, Ernie. Amanda Delle Donne

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 6-foot-5 athlete 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 pingpong. 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.

All told, Delle Donne was at Delaware for five years. On the basketball court, she was an All-American who brought unprecedented success and attention to the program. She led the nation in scoring her junior season. But her time there also gave her the chance to process and talk about things she’d kept bottled inside. She and her brother, Gene, also an athlete, had so much going for them, yet Lizzie’s life was so drastically different.

“Especially when I was a kid, I would think, ‘Why am I so talented, and gifted, but my sister can’t see or hear?’ ” Delle Donne said. “That was something that was really hard for me to grasp growing up. And I’d get angry about it and upset.

“It’s another reason I think I don’t ever get cocky over basketball stuff. I can shoot a basketball. Who cares? My sister has been dealt all these incredibly difficult cards, but still perseveres. She’s always been my perspective.”

Right fit in D.C.

Deep down, of course, Delle Donne understands people do care about her basketball ability, the joy it can bring and what it can mean on a larger scale.

Delle Donne is a Special Olympics global ambassador, and her outreach to the special-needs community will continue the rest of her life. In recent years, she has also become a visible member of the LGBTQ community. She and Amanda, who met while Delle Donne was playing for the Sky, married in 2017.

“I know without it, I’m a great player. … It’s something I’m dying to have. It would just be really special to get that done.”

Elena Delle Donne on what a WNBA title would mean

Delle Donne said when she made the WNBA Finals the first time, with Chicago in 2014, trying to win a title consumed her. It remains important, but she’s balanced it.

“If I have a phenomenal game or a crappy game, I get to go home and Amanda still loves me,” Delle Donne said. “I have that life and that happiness, and it’s is never just all on basketball. I just have a way more grounded way of thinking about things.”

Key in this, too, was coming to Washington in 2017. Leaving Lizzie for the WNBA was difficult. After four seasons with Chicago, which drafted her No. 2 in 2013, Delle Donne wanted to be closer to home and pushed hard for a trade.

“When we interviewed her,” Thibault recalled, “She said, ‘Tell me what I need to do to make my game better.’ And here, she’s had a team where she’s grown into a leadership position with a group of players who genuinely like each other. And family has always been so big to her. That’s important in our organization, and it was a big buy-in for her.”

In November 2017, Elena Delle Donne married wife, Amanda. Elena’s sister, Lizzie, center, is “the one to help me realize to follow my path and do it your own way,” the Mystics star said. Amanda Clifton

Health issues have been part of Delle Donne’s journey, too. It goes back to mononucleosis her senior year of high school. She was first diagnosed with Lyme disease while at Delaware, and it flared up again while she was with the Sky. She also had back issues in Chicago during the 2014 WNBA Finals.

Last year, she had a scary knee injury in the semifinals that at first looked season-ending, but it was a bone bruise she managed to play with. This year, she dealt with some lingering knee pain and a broken nose in July; since then, she has worn a facemask. Still, Delle Donne thought she was relatively healthy for the Finals, until her back seized up last Tuesday early in Game 2, which the Mystics lost. An MRI revealed a herniated disk, which meant intensive rehab to try to return for Game 3.

“She’s not moping around,” Amanda said. “Anything where they say, ‘This might get you back on the court faster,’ she’ll do it. It’s her completely committing. She wants to be back for her teammates.”

Delle Donne was able to do that Sunday in a dramatic way. With a brace on her knee and thick wrap on her back, she played 26 minutes, getting 13 points and six rebounds, in the Mystics’ 94-81 victory. She said afterward the rest of the Mystics carried her; they said she inspired them.

Amanda said Delle Donne puts personal awards, like the second MVP trophy she earned this season, into a closet and out of sight pretty quickly.

“She’s like, ‘I did that, now it’s on to the next thing,’ ” Amanda said. “She appreciates the recognition, but she just wants to focus on trying to get this championship.”

Delle Donne is closer to that than she has ever been. Can she battle through another game (or two) with her back injury? Is it, at last, time for this coronation?

“I know without it, I’m a great player,” Delle Donne said of winning a WNBA title. “I think it’s more that great players want that so badly. It’s not an outside thing people are putting on me. It’s something I’m dying to have. It would just be really special to get that done.”

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