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A week before the fall semester in '08, Elena enrolled at Delaware, 10 miles from home. On a whim she joined the volleyball team as a walk-on. After the coach explained the rules of the sport, Delle Donne started and made the all-conference rookie team. She also made friends in bunches. She enjoyed her classes. She went home for family dinner every Sunday and plenty of times in-between.
As for basketball, she treated it like a romantic breakup and cut ties. She didn't work with her skills coach or even touch a ball, and she didn't go to many games. "I stayed away because I wanted to give myself a chance to miss it," she says. Though Martin marveled that the country's top-rated high school senior from the previous year was on campus—and playing for the friggin' volleyball team—she backed off. "I told our staff don't approach her, don't go near her, she needs time," the coach recalls. "She's under emotional stress. If she's going to play again, it has to come from her."
In the spring of Delle Donne's freshman year—cue the music—she watched the women's NCAA tournament and shook her head. "What am I doing, not playing basketball?" she asked her family. When the answers were slow in coming, she quietly asked Martin if she could use the gym. Wary of drawing attention to herself, she came early in the morning or late at night, squeezing off jumpers and going through footwork drills. She was relieved that she still had the touch. Finally, she told Martin she was interested in joining the team. Suppressing the urge to scream, Martin said, "All I got for you is a jersey and a pair of shorts. But we lift weights next week. Be there."
The rest, of course, is history. In 2009--10, she averaged 26.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and hit 194 of 206 free throws. Despite missing 11 games because of a bout with Lyme disease—she still gobbles a fistful of pills every morning to combat the effects—and despite the inevitable double teams, box-and-ones and other gimmick defenses, Delle Donne averaged 25.3 points last season. At the University Games in China in August she feasted on the straight-up coverage and dominated, clearly the toast of a team that included such All-Americas as Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins and Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike. "Elena is as skilled as any player I have been around," says the coach of the team, Bill Fennelly of Iowa State. "I told my staff she's like Dirk Nowitzki with the skill sets she possesses."
Delle Donne says she's never considered transferring from Delaware to a big-time program, the kind that plays on TV and doesn't have to lure fans with the slogan DARE TO BE THERE. Of course, there's the proximity to Lizzie and the rest of her family. Besides, she loves her teammates and is happy to take the freshmen under her wing or cook them dinner at the off-campus apartment she shares with senior guard Meghan McLean. And if anything, elevating an underdog program, an underdog school and an underdog state has been part of the appeal. "People have asked me what state Delaware is in," she says. "It's small but it's a great place. If we can bring some extra exposure, great."
If Delaware is the unlikely alternative rock band suddenly playing the big arena, it hasn't been without complication. Much as UConn's Geno Auriemma did in the '90s with Rebecca Lobo, Martin hopes to build on Delle Donne's presence. But recruiting has been a challenge. "Some kids are excited to play with someone as good as Elena," says Martin. "But more than you'd think, kids—or their parents—have said no to coming here because they think Elena's going to get all the touches."
The presence of Delle Donne has also been an adjustment for the other Blue Hens. There's a pressure that comes from playing alongside an All-America. "When she's drawing triple teams, reading, reacting and passing, you really want to hit that open shot," says junior guard Kayla Miller, who has played with Delle Donne since high school. "On the other hand, it takes pressure off knowing you have a teammate who can score from anywhere."
Martin has done a deft dance, acknowledging that the team has a clear-cut star but stressing the importance of complementary play; challenging Delle Donne but making sure basketball "is fun for Elena and kept in perspective." While she, too, can be reduced to an awestruck onlooker at times during games, the coach isn't above giving her best player some grief.
During a recent game, Delle Donne shook free of the defense and had a rare open look on a three-pointer. She dished to a teammate, who wasn't expecting a pass. As the ball dribbled out-of-bounds, Martin bellowed, "Elena Delle Donne, you shoot the ball or your ass is sitting on the bench!"
A few possessions later, Delle Donne complied. She caught the ball on the elbow, and though she had a path to the basket, she dribbled twice, faked, stepped back and drained a three-pointer.