Delle Donne happy to be back
NEWARK, Del. -- Elena Delle Donne stood alone in the University of Delaware gym, making jumper after jumper. She looked completely at home.
Getting there just took a while.
More than a year ago, the former national high school player of the year abruptly left coach Geno Auriemma and a Connecticut team bound for a perfect season and sixth national championship. Now, after a stint starring in volleyball, she's set to play basketball again.
"I can't wait for the season to start, especially games," Delle Donne said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The last time I was this happy was in high school before the whole recruiting thing started. Basketball just wasn't basketball anymore."
Her return has already created a buzz for the Blue Hens -- season ticket sales have more than tripled.
"I'm sure it's exciting for Delaware fans to have a girl born and raised here playing college basketball," Delle Donne said. "Coming out of high school being the No. 1 ranked player is something I'm sure they are excited about. I just can't wait to play in front of the home crowd again."
At the time she left Connecticut, soon after arriving in the summer of 2008, she said she was burned out. Looking back, the 20-year-old realizes it was something else.
"It's definitely been a learning process. I blamed basketball for taking me away from home. I hated the sport," said Delle Donne, who was raised 20 minutes from the Delaware campus and hadn't spent more than a week away from there in her life. "Every time I was playing basketball, I felt sick to my stomach. I didn't realize that feeling was having to leave my family -- having to leave my sister, who can't even communicate with me when I'm gone."
Delle Donne is extremely close with older sister, Lizzie, who is blind, deaf and has cerebral palsy. It was difficult to be apart from her for any long period of time. Now she can go home whenever she feels like.
"Every Sunday we have big Italian dinners," she said, smiling. "It's nice because I can be as close or as far as I want. I could go a week without seeing them and then come home for dinner on Sunday and recap the week and see my sister."
It wasn't the easiest choice to leave UConn, but Auriemma was supportive and understanding. He knew all along that she wasn't burned out, just home sick.
"I'm happy to hear that she's playing," Auriemma said while coaching the U.S. national team at training camp in Washington D.C. "If you're a basketball player and you're playing basketball it doesn't really matter where you are playing."
It's easy to see how the 6-foot-5 guard could have lost her passion for the game. She started working out with a personal trainer when she was a young teen to improve her skills and was being called by some experts the female LeBron James.
College coaches knew who she was by seventh grade: She even received an offer at that time from North Carolina.
Her 2,818 career points at Ursuline were the most in Delaware high school basketball history. She set the national high school record hitting 80 straight free throws as a sophomore and had 50 points in the state title game that season on the Blue Hens' court.
She enrolled at Delaware last fall and wanted nothing to do with basketball. Instead, she decided to play volleyball, earning all-Colonial Athletic Association rookie honors. She helped the team win the conference and reach the NCAA tournament.
"I had a great time playing volleyball," she said. "Playing sports was fun again."
With the former No. 1 high school player on campus, most coaches would have been eager to try and persuade her to play basketball again. Delaware coach Tina Martin took the opposite approach, going so far as to instruct her assistant coaches not to go to volleyball games or to put any pressure on Delle Donne to play basketball.
"She had been recruited enough," Martin said. "Honestly, I just wanted her to be happy at Delaware whether she ever stepped foot on the basketball court or not."
Martin bumped into Delle Donne once in a while on campus and exchanged pleasantries. It was the freshman who first initiated contact asking if she could come by and chat.
"We talked for 45 minutes about life," Martin said recalling the first meeting in late January. "Basketball didn't enter the conversation at all."
With a growing hankering to play again, Delle Donne texted the coach a few weeks later asking if she could come by the gym and shoot. She didn't want to create a stir or interrupt practice, so she asked to do it when the gym was empty.
"It was like I was a little kid again," she said. "Going in the backyard and shooting. I got that feeling when I was younger and just loved the game for the game."
After attending a few of Delaware's games as a fan last winter and a few private shooting sessions, Delle Donne knew she wanted to play again.
"Volleyball was a lot of fun, but I knew it wasn't my sport," Delle Donne said.
It wasn't until late April that she told the coach of her interest in pursuing basketball at Delaware. She has no regrets about leaving UConn and missing the Huskies' undefeated season.
"I wouldn't have been able to give my full effort there," Delle Donne said. "I probably would have thought I was burnt out. I'm happy for them, they have an incredible program."
At Delaware, Delle Donne will join a team that went 15-15 last season and returns its entire starting lineup. The Blue Hens have had success before, making the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid in 2007.
Delle Donne wouldn't mind crossing paths with Auriemma again. She has always dreamed of playing for her country at the Olympics and he's in charge of the U.S. team for the 2012 games.
"That's way down the road," she said, "but you never know."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press