Elene Delle Donne plays for the Chicago Sky and is the reigning MVP of the WNBA. After a terrific high school career, she became one of the most sought after prospects in women’s college basketball history. However, Elena opted to stay in-state and play for Delaware (a school not known for basketball) due to the closeness of her family. Her commitment to family, sport, and country, have landed her on the cover of Eastbay. We sat down for an exclusive interview.
EASTBAY: When did you realize you were going to be an athlete?
ELENA: I would say just in the backyard playing — whether it would be football, soccer, or basketball with my brother and his friends. The first time I got one of his friends on a move or a shift, that’s when I was like, “Hey, this is pretty fun and I might be pretty good at this when I’m beating up on boys that are older than me.”
EASTBAY: How do you think those sports contributed to you becoming the athlete that you are today?
ELENA: I think those sports just made me a more versatile athlete. It just helped me grow in so many ways. My dad teaches me how to shoot and he’ll compare my shot to golf. So, really, any sport can carry over.
EASTBAY: You mentioned your dad taught you to play basketball. Was that how you were first introduced to the game?
ELENA: I was first introduced to basketball just because my brother was older than me. He was playing, and then my dad played college basketball, so he always had a love for the game. The second he saw I had interest in the sport he said, “Oh, let’s get outside. I’ll teach you how to shoot, I’ll teach you how to dribble.”
EASTBAY: Do you remember any specific things he was teaching you as you were growing up?
ELENA: My dad never let me shoot on a 10-foot rim until I was ready because he said, “I don’t want you shooting with bad form and you’re too small to get it to the rim at this point.” So, I was that kid always shooting on the 8-foot rim or even the 7-foot rim, and I was like, “Dad, can I please get on the 10-foot rim,” but I owe him the world for it because he taught me really good mechanics and form from day one.
EASTBAY: Were there specific steps he was teaching you?
ELENA: He was always was teaching me to get my arm to a 90-degree angle, and from there, all he wanted me to do was lift and flick my wrist. So, lift the arm, flick the wrist, and he was like, “It’s a science. You can perfect this.”
EASTBAY: Do you remember falling in love with the sport? Knowing that this was what you wanted to do?
ELENA: It’s like I fell in love with basketball right from day one and I immediately was begging my parents like, “Hey, can I just play basketball? I just want to only focus on this sport.” Basketball was by far my favorite and it was always my passion and it was the always the sport I decided to go outside and work on after school.
EASTBAY: Was there a specific moment that you can remember where you knew you could be really great at it?
ELENA: When I was 10 years old, I went to Nationals, and that was the first time I was able to see what other girls my age were like all across the country, and I stacked up pretty well. That was exciting for me to know.
EASTBAY: In terms of the special moments and special games, can you talk about some of those?
ELENA: The most special game in college was beating North Carolina on our home floor in Delaware to get to the Sweet 16 and finally proving the naysayers wrong, and proving that taking my own path and doing it my own way worked. It was such a special moment, and I think the whole state of Delaware erupted with that win.
EASTBAY: If you look at yourself prior to that game and after, what would you say was the biggest challenge?
ELENA: I think it’s just being able to kind of continue to prove other people, and even sometimes yourself wrong. When you feel like you’re completely against the ropes and you’re the underdog and you shouldn’t win and all the odds are against you, and you can somehow find a way to win. That game showed me it’s possible.
EASTBAY: Can you talk a little bit about what the hardest moment has been in your career and what did you do to overcome it?
ELENA: The hardest moment of my career so far was just having another relapse with Lyme disease. Unfortunately, the disease is pretty far behind on research and doctors aren’t really sure how to even treat it at this point. So it’s just a really scary point in time where the game was taken away from me and my health was taken away from me and I had no idea if I was going to get better and healthy again. Every time I touch the court it’s a blessing and really just take every single moment and play like it’s like my last moment.
EASTBAY: What do you want your legacy in sports to be?
ELENA: I would want my legacy to be that I was somebody who used the spotlight for something far more than myself and I made an impact on young girls, young boys, and inspired them to follow their dreams and their passion — whatever that may be. Also, I want people to remember me for excellence; remember that I was a phenomenal player, and never satisfied, and always trying to improve her game.
EASTBAY: If you had one piece of advice that you would have given yourself when you were a young athlete, what would it be?
ELENA: I would tell my young self to continue to follow your heart. My heart has always seemed to lead me in the right direction, and I think the heart and the gut are tied to each other — you just have to follow that and know what’s right at the time.