Reaching for the Sky: Elena Delle Donne

The Chicago Sky’s star player Elena Delle Donne is remarkably down to earth for someone who possesses such tremendous athletic ability and meteoric star power.

Maybe that’s because her family keeps her grounded. When she made the difficult decision as an incoming star recruit at UConn to leave the fabled women’s basketball program for the closer-to-home University of Delaware, it made national news. So instead of playing hoops, she stepped away from the sport and walked on to the UD volleyball team, helping them win a conference championship that year.

“Basketball is the sport I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old, and I’ve always loved it. A year away really helped me realize how much I missed playing,” Elena shares. “I knew that leaving Connecticut would mean leaving behind lots of national championships…but at that point in time, it really didn’t mean anything to me. Basketball, in the end, is just a game. Family will always mean more to me than anything else.”

Back home in Delaware, surrounded by her loving and supportive parents Joan and Ernie Delle Donne and older siblings Elizabeth (Lizzie) and Gene, Elena was able to return to the sport she loved and was clearly meant to play. The 6-foot-5-inch basketball phenom quickly became a sensation at UD, where she shattered school records and led the nation in scoring. She was selected second overall in the 2013 WNBA draft by the Chicago Sky, and following a successful rookie season, Elena was named the 2013 WNBA Rookie of the Year.

Perhaps even more impressive than her athletic credentials is Elena’s devotion to the cause of Special Olympics. As the youngest of the Delle Donne family, Elena grew up watching her adored sister Lizzie, who has both autism and cerebral palsy and is blind and deaf, suffer through more than 30 surgeries and countless hours of therapy. Elena has said that “growing up watching Lizzie struggle day to day has really put my life into perspective. I have a deep appreciation for my abilities and am committed to making the most of every opportunity and using my platform as an athlete to make an impact.”

Elena got involved in Special Olympics while still in high school, volunteering at events and sports clinics, and continued to volunteer throughout college. After being drafted by the Sky, she was invited to become a Special Olympics Global Ambassador, an honor she readily accepted. Duties include headlining Special Olympics sports clinics—she did one recently at New Trier—and advocating for opportunity and unified play for those with and without intellectual disabilities through social media and personal appearances.

A highlight for Elena was playing in a unified game with the Special Olympics kids at last year’s NBA All-Star Game along with NBA stars Dikembe Mutombo and Ron Harper. “Those kids were really amazing, and incredible athletes,” Elena says. “One kid didn’t have a working left arm but was nailing 3-pointers; it was incredible to watch. No way I would ever be that good in that situation.”

She appreciates the support that the Sky gives her to take part in “different endeavors that I’m interested in, and the things I want to work with in the community. [Sky Owner] Michael Alter is super philanthropic, just an amazing, great guy. Anything that he can do to help get us out into the community, he’s willing to do.” That includes her work with Lyme disease awareness, another cause that has personally touched her. She contracted the disease in 2008 and has been dealing with its debilitating effects ever since. “I’ve been working with researchers to see if my case can help anyone else,” she says. “It gives people hope that I’ve been able to stay in such good physical shape.”

Elena, who now lives on the North Shore, has stayed put in the off-season, unlike many of her teammates, who are playing overseas to supplement their income—WNBA salaries are far below those of the NBA.

When asked why she stayed behind, her answer was typically humble and forward looking. “I did have a lot of offers, but in the end, money isn’t what’s going to make me the happiest. If I can do something to change the game, to change the league…if the younger girls don’t have to go overseas because I was able to do something here and stayed here to make my mark, that would be an incredible legacy to leave behind.”