Friday, July 6, 2007
Recruiting pressure forces Delle Donne to take hiatus
By Glenn Nelson
The No. 1 high-school player in the country spent Thursday at Meadowood School, an elementary school for disabled kids in Wilmington, Del. No one at Meadowood had any idea that she played basketball. Shoot, no one even commented on the 6-foot-4 Ursuline Academy star's height.
"In fact, one little girl probably asked my name about 15 different times," Elena Delle Donne said. "It was great."
All that stuff -- the recognition, the expectations, the scrutiny -- had gotten to be such a burden that Delle Donne is taking the virtually unprecedented measure of putting everything basketball-related aside for two months. Yes, she is the No. 1 player in the 2008 class, according to HoopGurlz.com and everyone else. Yes, the sport is on the cusp of the critical July evaluation period for colleges. Yes, she was a virtual lock for the USA Basketball U19 team that will compete later this summer at the World Championships.
But, no, none of that will be part of Delle Donne's life again until Sept. 2.
"I felt like I needed a break, but I thought I'd get over it," Delle Donne said. "I thought I'd have just enough gas in the tank to make it through the summer. But I don't."
Delle Donne approached her parents, Ernie and Joan Delle Donne, about her burnout two weeks ago. They agreed to let some time pass, to make sure it was not a spur-of-the-moment sentiment. It wasn't. His daughter is not allowed to touch a basketball during the hiatus, said Ernie Delle Donne, a prominent real-estate developer in the Wilmington area. Elena Delle Donne did rebound for her Meadowood kids on Thursday, but said, "I think that's OK because it's kind of part of my job."
Player and father have informed USA Basketball and Delle Donne's four college finalists of the hiatus, during which schools are requested not to contact her.
Asked if any attempts to do so would hurt their recruiting prospects, Delle Donne said, without hesitation, "Yes, they will. If they call, I probably won't answer or call back. If they text, I might ignore them. I'm totally putting that away. The whole recruiting thing was a huge part in my getting to this point."
Delle Donne said she has dropped Maryland from her previous list of finalists. She also essentially has dropped Texas, which she was considering because of her previous relationship with coach Gail Goestenkors, who had been recruiting her to Duke.
"Texas is just too far away," Delle Donne said. "Before all the pressure, I thought maybe I'd make a visit there, but that's not going to happen."
Delle Donne's final list now includes Connecticut, Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee and Villanova. Middle Tennessee State may seem out of kilter in this list, but her brother, Gene, is a quarterback there and she said she likes the idea of attending school with him for two years.
Officially, Delle Donne's hiatus started on Monday, July 2. When she spoke to HoopGurlz on Thursday, she'd been away from basketball for three days, the longest she says she can remember being away from the game. She is a notably hard worker, who does skills sessions with her personal trainer, John Noonan, even during the high-school season, in addition to Ursuline practices. She'd even uncovered a daily men's pickup game near her family's summer home in Annapolis, Md. so she could continue to hone her basketball skills during vacations.
Delle Donne also has been a textbook case of the mounting pressure in girl's high-school basketball. Her career has been closely chronicled since she splashed onto the national club scene as a 12- or 13-year-old, and she has achieved celebrity status in her hometown, where little girls seek her autograph and boys ask for her phone number.
Delle Donne also is one of the most hotly recruited players by colleges, perhaps ever. Because girls have different social mores than boys, there has been a recent escalation in complaints by players and parents about the attention showered upon girls by colleges. Many girls say the attention translates into pressure and that some colleges prey on that pressure in an attempt to provoke verbal commitments.
Like boys, girls have started to make earlier and earlier verbal commitments to colleges -- but largely to escape the pressure they feel by the barrage of contacts. The weapon of choice for many college staffs are virtually unmonitorable text messages. Delle Donne says she often sits her mobile phone for a few minutes, only to return to find a dozen new text messages.
The media, as well as their message-board offspring, also have added their magnifying glasses to the process. When the Tennessee women's basketball team recently cancelled its regular-season series with Connecticut, the recruiting tug-of-war over Delle Donne was cited as a possible reason.
"Somehow I was dragged into that, and I had nothing to do with it," Delle Donne said. "It was ridiculous stuff like that I needed to get away from. The huge part of trying to make a college decision is all the outside media and influences. It has taken a game and made it into a job. That's how I've been feeling about basketball, that it's been my job."
Starting on Thursday, Delle Donne's job, albeit on a volunteer basis, is helping at Meadowood, which her sister, Elizabeth, attended for four years. Elizabeth Delle Donne has autism and cerebral palsy, is blind and deaf and has had more than 30 surgeries due to related complications. Elizabeth's condition has influenced Elena to consider a career in physical therapy or special education; she says her summer at Meadowood will help her develop more clarity on a future career path.
One of the more difficult aspects of her decision, Delle Donne said, was relinquishing her spot as a finalist for the USA Basketball U19 team. She has had a longstanding goal to make the U.S. Olympic team and essentially ended her club-basketball career to focus on preparing for the final tryouts in Washington, D.C., followed, she'd hoped, by a stint at the FIBA World Championships in the Slovak Republic, July 26 through Aug. 5. Delle Donne, however, was playing up in age this year and presumably would have an opportunity to try out for the U18 team next summer.
Delle Donne said she hoped her decision to take a break would bring more focus to the issue of the mounting pressures experienced by girl's basketball players.
"If you feel like you need a break, take one," she said. "Everyone needs a break. Don't let it get to the point I did. Everyone needs a break. I see that now.
"I wish I'd done this a while ago, when things weren't as complicated and I was just playing. USA Basketball has been a huge thing for me. I thought it was really important. But I think it's better to give that up now, than take off the whole high-school season and maybe never play again. I think this is for the greater good."
For more in-depth coverage of women's college-basketball prospects and girl's high-school basketball, visit HoopGurlz.com