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On the night she fled the nation’s premier women’s basketball program without warning, Elena Delle Donne was certain of only one thing.
She believed Geno Auriemma would never forgive her.
For years, the renowned University of Connecticut coach had pursued Delle Donne as his top target in the 2008 recruiting class. Auriemma envisioned the skilled 6-foot-4 wing as the Huskies’ next can’t-miss star because she possessed incredible mobility, court vision and outside shooting for a player her size.
Delle Donne chose Connecticut over fellow national powers Tennessee, Notre Dame and Villanova even though she was already privately questioning her commitment to basketball and her willingness to leave her family for four years. Only two days after she started summer classes in June 2008, Delle Donne returned home to Delaware in the middle of the night, too homesick, unhappy and burnt out to even wait until morning.
“When a coach uses a scholarship on you and then you leave that quickly, it’s usually not going to go over well,” Delle Donne said. “I expected [Auriemma] to be really rude and upset about it, but he always had great conversations with me. I think he saw, more than anything, a confused teenager and wanted to help me.”
The relationship between Auriemma and Delle Donne became pertinent again after he took over as coach of the U.S. women’s basketball team and she rediscovered her passion for basketball at the University of Delaware. As Delle Donne evolved from burnout talent to one of women’s basketball’s brightest stars, she also emerged as a candidate to play for the coach she once jilted.
Delle Donne is one of Auriemma’s key players this August in Rio as the U.S. attempts to capture its sixth consecutive Olympic gold medal. It’s a reunion that could have easily been awkward or tense given their history, yet everyone who has spent time around Auriemma and Delle Donne insists they have the easy rapport of longtime friends.
“I’m the Olympic coach and she wants to be involved, so it’s important that I have a good relationship with her,” Auriemma told Yahoo Sports. “What happened happened. She was 18 years old, and by the time we got together for USA Basketball she wasn’t 18 anymore. If I was going to coach her, I had to have the same relationship with her that I have with all the other players on my team.”
It’s a relief to Auriemma that Delle Donne didn’t give up basketball for good because he’d have hated for her to waste her considerable natural ability.
Delle Donne inherited her size and athleticism from her father, Ernie, a 6-foot-6 former basketball player at Columbia and her mother, Joan, a 6-foot-2 ex-high school swimmer. Individual training sessions with her father and her personal coach sharpened Delle Donne’s ball skills, footwork and outside shot, while pickup games with her older brother Gene and his friends fostered toughness and competitiveness. The boys couldn’t risk going easy on Delle Donne out of fear of being embarrassed by a girl three years younger than them.
In a state not known for producing elite basketball phenoms, Delle Donne became big news at a young age. By seventh grade, she received her first college scholarship offer from North Carolina. By eighth grade, she led her high school to a state championship. The next four years, awestruck college coaches flocked to her games and everyone from little kids, to parents, to grandparents lined up after the final buzzer to snap a picture or get an autograph.
“You could tell by the time she was in ninth or 10th grade that there was something special about her,” Auriemma said. “You just don’t find kids with that kind of natural ability and instincts for the game too often.”
Basketball was fun for a while for Delle Donne, but the spotlight became less enjoyable with each passing year. Not only did the deluge of calls and texts from college coaches become overwhelming, she also made the mistake of allowing basketball to consume her life.
“I self-drove myself too much,” Delle Donne said. “There were things I didn’t need to do like wake up at 5 a.m. and go running or wake up, lift before school, lift during free period, practice and then do individual skills. I was constantly being a little crazy and overdoing it. I needed to tone it down.
“With age, I’ve realized how important it is to be a more balanced person. When I was younger, I defined myself only as Elena the basketball player. That’s where you run into problems.”
Delle Donne’s family and friends surely would have urged her to ease her foot off the throttle if they had known how much she was struggling, but she instead kept her unhappiness to herself. Nobody knew Delle Donne’s passion for basketball had waned, nor did anyone realize she dreaded going away for college and putting distance between herself and her family. Delle Donne was especially attached to older sister Lizzie, who has been blind and deaf since birth and suffers from autism and cerebral palsy.
When Auriemma signed Delle Donne during her senior year of high school, he envisioned her partnering with stars Maya Moore and Tina Charles to end UConn’s uncharacteristic four-year championship drought. The Huskies reached four Final Fours and won two national titles from 2009-12 even though Delle Donne lasted only 48 hours on campus.
“Someone like that decides that they need to go, it’s disappointing,” Auriemma said. “But her leaving impacting our program never even entered my mind. It had an impact on other programs because we would have won 150 games in a row with her. That would have had a bad impact on everyone else.”
Unsure of her future and unwilling to stray far from home, Delle Donne enrolled at the University of Delaware. The thought of playing basketball still repulsed her, so Delle Donne joined the Delaware women’s volleyball team to give herself a competitive outlet while she waited to see if her burnout would gradually lift.
Delaware women’s basketball coach Tina Martin was still under the impression that Delle Donne was UConn-bound when she flew to Italy in August 2008 for a rare vacation. A few days into the trip, Martin received a late-night call from then-athletic director Edgar Johnson, who breathlessly informed her that the No. 1 recruit in the nation had unexpectedly experienced a change of heart.
“I pick up the phone and I’m thinking, ‘Oh God I hope nothing tragic happened,’ ” Martin said. “He says, ‘Are you sitting down?’ “I said, ‘Edgar, it’s 2 a.m!’ He’s like, ‘I’m so sorry, but I just wanted you to hear it from me first. Elena Delle Donne is enrolling at the University of Delaware, but she’s not going to be playing basketball. She’s going to be playing volleyball.’ I was like, ‘What?’ I was as shocked as anybody.”
Most coaches would have implemented a full-court press the instant they learned the country’s most promising incoming freshman was on campus. However, Martin was shrewd enough to realize that approach would only further alienate Delle Donne from basketball. Martin instead forbade her staff from reaching out to the freshman phenom. She even warned Delaware’s volleyball coaches that nobody associated with the women’s basketball program would be attending any games that school year out of fear it would appear they were attempting to woo Delle Donne back to hoops.
At a time when Martin couldn’t go to the grocery store without a stranger stopping her to ask if Delle Donne would be playing basketball for the Blue Hens, the coach and player had virtually no contact. During Delle Donne’s first semester on campus, they crossed paths just once in the hallway of Delaware’s basketball arena, exchanging a quick hello but nothing more.
“This was an 18-year-old kid who was really struggling, and I didn’t want her to feel that pressure from me,” Martin said. “You could just see she was distraught. She looked like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders.”
The first indication that Delle Donne might someday end her basketball hiatus came in January 2009 when she texted Martin to set up a face-to-face meeting. Basketball seldom came up during a wide-ranging 45-minute chat, but the conversation strengthened their relationship and further reinforced to Delle Donne that Martin would not try to goad her into playing again.
Over the next few months, Delle Donne gradually began to rediscover her passion for basketball through a series of secret late-night workouts and shooting sessions. Sometimes she’d text Martin to ask her to open the gym at 9 or 10 p.m. so she could privately work with her former high school coach. Other times she and a friend on the Delaware women’s basketball team would sneak into the gym and play midnight games of H-O-R-S-E.
“I swore her to secrecy,” Delle Donne said. “I told her do not tell anybody we’re doing this. We’d go in the gym late at night. We wouldn’t turn on many lights because I didn’t want anyone to see what was going on. We’d shoot around a little bit and play some games. That’s when I realized, ‘You know what? I miss it.’ After a few of those late-night sessions, I knew it was time to go back to it.”
When Delle Donne told Martin in May 2009 that she wanted to play basketball for Delaware, she also made one other request. She wanted to return with as little fanfare as possible, no easy feat considering Delle Donne was giving up the chance to transfer to any national power she wanted in order to play in her home state for a program that had never before won an NCAA tournament game.
Dodging the spotlight became even more difficult for Delle Donne as she shook off the rust and emerged as women’s college basketball’s most lethal scorer. She earned her conference’s rookie of the year and player of the year awards as a freshman by averaging 26.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game despite frequent double and triple teams.
Halfway through that season, Delle Donne asked Martin, “Do you think Coach Auriemma is still mad at me?” It was then that Martin relayed a story that helped put Delle Donne’s mind at ease.
At a U.S. junior nationals tournament in Washington D.C. the previous summer, Auriemma approached Martin between games and asked how Delle Donne was doing. Then he urged Martin to “help her figure it out” because he didn’t believe Delle Donne truly hated basketball and he felt she had too much talent to walk away from the game.
“Just like me, he wanted what’s best for her,” Martin said. “I saw him in the state of Delaware recruiting Elena. I understand the time, energy and work that went into that. For the best player in the country to leave your program, there are a lot of coaches around the country who would not have handled that well at all. He handled it with class and dignity.”
Even though Auriemma’s wife Kathy and Delle Donne’s mom Joan remained very good friends and chatted frequently, the coach didn’t require any behind-the-scenes updates to know his former player was doing better. It became obvious Delle Donne had rekindled her love for basketball from both her performance and demeanor on the court.
Delle Donne’s sophomore season was nearly as productive as her freshman year even though she contracted a mysterious debilitating midseason illness eventually diagnosed as Lyme Disease. She then led the nation in scoring at 28.1 points per game as a junior and took Delaware to the NCAA tournament, where the Blue Hens won a first-round game for the first time in school history.
In Delle Donne’s final season at Delaware, she led the Blue Hens to a 32-4 record and NCAA tournament upsets over West Virginia and North Carolina. The postseason run ended one game shy of an Elite Eight matchup with UConn when Delaware fell to second-seeded Kentucky 69-62 despite 33 points from Delle Donne.
When Delle Donne competed in her first games as a member of the U.S. national team last year, teammate Sue Bird was among those curious at how Auriemma and his would-be former player would interact. Bird quickly discovered that it was a non-issue since neither Delle Donne nor Auriemma harbored a grudge.
“If you didn’t know the story, you wouldn’t know the story,” Bird said. “They’ve both moved past it and are able to work together now, which is a testament to who they are as people. They’ve made subtle jokes here and there like, ‘Oh, I finally get to work with you,’ or ‘Oh, I finally get to coach you.’ But otherwise their relationship is totally normal.”
The way Delle Donne sees it, she’s lucky to have a second chance to have Auriemma as her coach. She says she learns something new from him every practice, from footwork, to floor spacing, to how to better read a defense.
“Geno and I have huge respect for each other,” said Delle Donne, who has totaled 23 points in Team USA’s opening two victories in Rio. “I’m thrilled to be playing for the greatest coach in the world. To get that opportunity again and for life to come full circle, it’s pretty crazy.”
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