I have to admit that I was intrigued by the thought of talking with the prominent young woman who has grown up only a few miles from where I grew up BEFORE her performance at Nike put her on every coaching radar on the planet.
Well, to be truthful, the coaches had already either known about her or had heard about her before this camp. Elena Delle Donne had already made quite a splash on the AAU circuit the preceding summer and what she had accomplished in leading her team to the Delaware State Championship as an eighth grader was already the stuff of legend.
So perhaps it was sheer curiosity laced with some hometown pride for this girl I have never met from my own school district that led me to finally request an interview. After all, it is not very often that an athlete from the state of Delaware makes such an impact on the national scene.
And I wanted to know how she felt about that.
We Delawareans share that curiosity if not much else.
Anyway, it was a pleasure to finally meet this young wonder woman who I had read so much about in my home state newspapers all last winter when I was home visiting my parents during my father's protracted illness...
The first thing I noticed about Elena was that she was truly tall. Statuesque is more like it. Her stats are no exaggeration in this case. From across the dormitory lounge, it was clear this was no ordinary 14 year old. In fact, had I not already known what she looked like, I would have easily mistaken her for one of the campus coeds at St. Louis University. Not only in her physical maturity but more important, in how she carried herself. Reserved but confident.
Upon introducing myself and shaking hands, this young woman showed amazing grace and poise as she walked with me over to our seats. All the while I had to keep mentally pinching myself that this was a girl barely two years into her teenage life. Just a little over a year older than my youngest son, who had just turned thirteen and was at a decided vertical disadvantage!
But Elena seemed not the slightest bit affected by mine nor others' disbelief at the image of this girl appearing so far beyond her years. Quite frankly, she seemed quite content with it all. So after a nervous smile, I asked her what it felt like to put the state of Delaware on the national map of womens basketball.
"Pretty cool, I guess," she allowed, a warm smile across her face. "I really love Delaware so it's been pretty fun."
I asked her if she felt any pressure from friends or fans to represent the state in a manner befitting their expectations.
"No, not really. Everyone has really been very supportive."
And supportive they have been as gyms were packed all last season to see this child prodigy ply her developing trade in the midst of much older and more experienced girl players. After she confirmed that she and her parents did actually live in my old public school district, I asked Elena why she went the private school route.
"My parents are Catholic and wanted me to go to a Catholic school."
Pretty simple. Which prompted me to ask her if her parents were very involved in her development.
"Oh yeah. They are very involved. It's all they do it seems."
Another big smile.
"But they only push me as long as I want to do it," she clarified.
So how did she get started in basketball, anyway?
"Well my dad played basketball in college and I just picked it up and enjoyed it."
And the rest was history, so they say. I asked her if she played other sports as well or if she really focused on one sport. With a laugh, Elena told me she played some soccer early on and that there were a few people who had been recently after her to play some volleyball but she really didn't have any desire to pursue it. At least not at this point.
One of the interesting impressions I received from talking to this young woman was that she is very open minded. Yet at the same time, she knows what she likes and is very comfortable with that. She does not seem distracted by passing fads and the pressure of peers or others who would gladly tell her what to do. Basketball is what she does right now. She enjoys it, is good at it and realizes what it could do for her. But at the same time, I truly believe that if she felt it was right for her to do so, she might drop basketball for volleyball or violin. Or whatever she felt. Regardless of others' opinions.
Which is exactly the way it should be.
I don't know her parents and did not meet them at the camp though I know they were there. Elena and I chuckled about some of the typical parent-child relationship issues that help mold young people as they grow up. I am sure there are some disagreements in her family as she indicated all of them can have opinions. At the same time, you can sense there is something really special there between them. Elena clearly loves her parents, despite any of the typical parent-teenage issues that invariably arise.
But she is right in that her basketball career does take up a lot of her parents' time since her dad is her personal trainer as well.
I remarked that while it was clear Elena was unusually physically mature for her age, I felt that the extra height and weight might cause some real stamina problems for someone so young.
"No, not really. I work out really hard to keep myself in shape... I do a lot of weight lifting, mostly low weight and high reps."
In fact, just listening to her workout regimen wore me out. Any lingering doubts about her ability to compete with older, supposedly stronger girls were completely put to rest. And the workouts seem just fine to Elena. They're just part of what it takes for her to be at the level she wants.
Getting back to the competition angle, I asked if the competition in AAU and at Nike was much different than that in Delaware.
"Much better," she insisted, "There is no comparison."
But Elena seems to thrive on the improved competition. Not so much from a testosterine-charged, desire to prove oneself the best but rather merely to push herself to new levels of skill. And as much as I could understand if some of the older girls at camp resented letting this 8th grader in, I find it difficult to believe anyone could dislike this congenial young woman.
Considering how often she got her hands on the ball, I don't think it was a problem...
So just what is her natural position?
"Oh, anywhere from shooting guard to either of the forwards," she shrugged.
In fact, her game is well suited for any of those positions. Not only is she effective on the low block but she feels one of her strongest suits is ball handling. And indeed she displayed a great through-the-legs crossover move during one of her drives from the perimeter in a later game.
The weakest part of her game?
"My lateral quickness on defense. But that's what my dad is helping me to work on right now."
Let me get this straight. A 14 year old girl working on DEFENSE???
Makes sense to me but how often does that really occur?
Elena's game is very evolved for someone so young. In fact, it is simply very evolved for ANYONE. She moves well off the ball and with little or no wasted motion or energy. She knows how to do effective ball and perimeter cuts and is very decisive when she gets the ball in her hands. Her jump shot is clean and effortless with a high release out to beyond 20'. She is uncannily accurate hitting many in a row at a time.
And of course, that will get college coaches interested.
So how much interest has she received?
"Lots!" she laughed. Tons of letters and at least 3 offers on the table from Duke, UNC and Maryland.
So what interests does she have?
"Well, my dad is in real estate development so it seems pretty interesting. It's all I know right now."
She figures her interests may very well change as she gets older but she is not in any hurry at this point. So how about any early list of schools?
"Well, of course UConn!" she laughed, rolling her eyes.
"Also, my brother got a football scholarship to Duke so I got a chance to go see them. That was pretty cool. I used to be a big fan of North Carolina but I really like Duke now, too."
"Well, since I really love Delaware, I wouldn't mind going someplace nearby. Like Villanova."
So, let's see, UConn, Duke and Villanova?
"Yeah. For now. But that could change."
Then I asked her if she had heard from Rene Portland at Penn State.
"Yeah, I got a letter from them"
And how about Purdue?
"No, I haven't seen anything from them just yet."
But my guess is that may change. Any schools who might not have sent Elena information prior to the Nike Camp would best be advised to start licking some postage stamps. The fact that Ms. Delle Donne is open minded and is mature beyond her years is reason enough for anyone to at least risk an information packet.
For whoever lands Elena Delle Donne will be getting a phenomenal young woman. Not only a spectacular athlete and basketball player but a bright and mature young woman who will leave a legacy wherever she goes in life.
My thanks to Elena Delle Donne for her generous time. It was a distinct privilege to meet someone so special from my home town who represents our state so well in so many ways.
You make me very proud!