Like the Statue of Liberty brandishing her torch, Elena Delle Donne stood on the perimeter, holding a ball above her head. She attracted a swarm of defenders, as she inevitably does—two, then a third and a lurking fourth. Her head up the whole time, Delle Donne feinted left and looked right, causing one opponent to back off and play the passing lane. Indifferent to the six hands in her way, she dribbled, took a step back and uncoiled her 6'5" frame like a jack-in-the-box. With the ball off to the side of her head, she extended her arms, flicked her right wrist and released a shot that started its arc almost 10 feet off the ground, traced a perfect rainbow and, bypassing the rim entirely, came to rest in the bottom of the net.
It was one of 13 field goals Delle Donne would make this night, from various spots on the floor, leading her team to a road win at Princeton. But it was a tidy snapshot of her basketball gifts: an alchemy of coordination, instinct, agility, footwork, ballhandling and a shot so sweet it could rot teeth. It was indicative of how Delle Donne—nominally a forward but an impossibly versatile player, as likely to bring the ball downcourt as she is to post up—leads the nation in scoring, averaging 29.8 points a game. It helped explain how she could break Delaware's career scoring record in just 63 games, 50 fewer than it took the previous record holder. It was a glimpse of what she contributed as the star of the U.S.'s gold-medal-winning entry in the World University Games last summer. It attested to why she'll be an all-WNBA player one day soon—"a player with a game that translates so well to the next level," says former Washington Mystics general manager Angela Taylor.
But apart from the players on both benches exchanging did-you-see-that? looks, the sequence didn't draw much reaction. Delle Donne simply jogged back to the defensive end with an unchanged expression. No fist pump. No self-congratulatory gestures. Not even a smile of satisfaction. There were no ESPN courtside commentators to rain praise and hype, no cheerleaders, no raucous crowd reaction.
So it goes when the most exciting player in college hoops suits up for Delaware, a program that has never won an NCAA postseason game and until now never held a Top 25 national ranking. (The Blue Hens are currently No. 16.) Delle Donne playing for Delaware is like Adele singing in the church choir. It's Oprah on public access, Serena Williams in the ladies' scrambler at the country club. "Let's be honest, from a basketball standpoint there was nothing I could do to top a UConn or Stanford or Tennessee," says Delaware's bracingly candid coach, Tina Martin. "But for Elena, this was home."
TRANSLATED FROM ITALIAN, the family name means "of the women," and it could hardly be more fitting. The clan is extraordinarily close-knit, living together on a 35-acre compound outside Wilmington. Not only do the Delle Donne females outnumber the males three to two; the entire offense runs through the family's oldest daughter, Lizzie. "She's the boss," says Ernie Delle Donne (6'6"), the paterfamilias and a former basketball player at Columbia. "And the happiest of my kids." Adds Gene Delle Donne, 25, who at 6'7" played tight end for Middle Tennessee State, "Lizzie's the captain of the boat; we're just the crew."
Now 27, Lizzie was born deaf, blind and with cerebral palsy. "She's severely handicapped, functioning at the level of an infant—and she's incredible," says Elena, age 22. "The battles she fights to get through a day put everything in perspective." Lizzie knows her sister by her scent and her feel. As Helen Keller did, Lizzie can communicate using hand-over-hand sign language. "She can [distinguish] my hugs and kisses," says Elena. "I can't even describe how close we are."
That Lizzie has never been aware that her little sister played basketball made her unique. Starting in third grade, Elena's body and skills grew commensurately. By the start of eighth grade she was nearly 6 feet and had a scholarship offer to play at North Carolina. As a sophomore Delle Donne set a national record by hitting 80 consecutive free throws and then dropped 50 points in her team's final game to lead Ursuline Academy to a state title. As a junior The New York Times wrote that she could become the LeBron James of the women's game. As a senior, she was the Naismith Award winner.
If Delle Donne had nature on her side, she also had a heaping portion of nurture. Her father, a successful Delaware real estate developer, and mother, Joan, spared no expense with their youngest daughter's training. Starting in elementary school, she had a personal skills coach, John Noonan, who still works with her now. The philosophy was simple. She could always develop a low-post game later on. If she had guard skills—dribbling, passing and range on the velveteen shot—she could be unstoppable.
In a game Delle Donne could single-handedly break a full-court press; but she was nearly broken by the full-court press of college recruitment. Exhausted by the process, she finally committed to the dynastic UConn program, figuring to play alongside eventual four-time All-America Maya Moore. She made the five-hour drive from Delaware to Storrs, Conn., in the summer of 2008 and, famously, lasted two days on campus before leaving. Her departure was discussed endlessly on blogs and message boards; the diagnosis was, charitably, burnout, and less charitably, head-case-itis.
Delle Donne was amused by all the speculation because, truthfully, she couldn't pinpoint why she suddenly had such little passion for basketball and such little desire to play for what was likely a championship team. But it made more sense when she came home and hugged Lizzie. "Remember, if I don't have physical contact with her, I don't have any contact with her," she says. "It's not like I can Skype with her or e-mail or text her."