Game Change Nation

Elena Delle Donne: Plays with a Purpose

The 2019 WNBA championship came down to the very last quarter of the season. The Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun were tied two games each going into the final game of the best-of-five championship series. The Sun led by two points entering the fourth quarter.  

It was time for Elena Delle Donne to shine.  

Earlier in the playoffs, Delle Donne had been named the league MVP for the second time in her 7-year WNBA career. However, in Game 2 of the series, Delle Donne suffered painful back spasms, which caused her to miss most of the game. She returned in Game 3 and gritted her way through a 13-point performance, followed by 11 points in Game 4 — far below her career average of 20.3 points per game, but understandable when it was later revealed that she was playing with three herniated discs.  

Delle Donne entered the decisive fifth game of the series with not only the pain of a back injury but the memory of having been in a final series twice before, only to lose both times. Would Delle Donne be able to deliver a performance that would finally allow her and her teammates to hoist the trophy at the end of a season? 

The answer was a resounding yes. Delle Donne had a massive Game 5 with nine rebounds and 21 points, including four key points during an 8-0 Mystics run with three minutes left in the game, which secured the victory and the championship. 

Delle Donne was a much-heralded high school basketball star while attending Ursuline Academy in Delaware with scholarship offers from numerous major basketball programs such as Duke, Tennessee, and Notre Dame. She ultimately chose NCAA powerhouse, Connecticut, coached by Geno Auriemma, who has won 11 NCAA Division 1 college basketball championships, more than any coach in history.  

In the summer of 2008, only two days after first arriving on the Connecticut campus, Delle Donne quit basketball. 

Delle Donne drove through the night, arriving home around midnight, to tell her parents that she was leaving Connecticut. She had come to deeply resent basketball because it was taking her away from her family and, as she explained in various subsequent interviews on the subject, Delle Donne loved her family more than she loved basketball.

Delle Donne grew up very close to her family, especially to her older sister, Lizzie. Born with autism and cerebral palsy, as well as being deaf and blind, Lizzie’s only way of communicating with people is through touch. The bond that Delle Donne has with her sister is incredibly strong and, because she couldn’t call or Skype to communicate with Lizzie, it made the move to Connecticut to play basketball that much harder. 

Adding to Delle Donne’s burden was that basketball had become an expectation and not a joy. She was such a massive star in high school that everyone assumed she would continue playing college basketball without anyone ever stopping to think if that was something she really wanted to do.   

Delle Donne decided to stay closer to home by attending Delaware University — and take a break from basketball. However, she did walk on to the volleyball team, where she played as a freshman before the pull to play basketball began to reemerge. Delle Donne started going into the gym to take shots and she came to realize how much she enjoyed playing. It felt good to shoot a basketball.

Although Delle Donne began to understand that she loved playing, a gnawing guilt still stayed with her. She felt it was completely unfair that she could go out and play while her sister Lizzie, who she loved so much, was confined by her disabilities. In an interview with the Indiana newspaper, The Elkhart Truth, Delle Donne explained. “I went through a time where it was very tough for me to be an athlete and to be able to do so many things, things that Lizzie couldn’t.”

In the same interview, Delle recalled a conversation she had that completely changed her perspective. She said, “it really wasn’t until I met a lady with cerebral palsy at Lizzie’s school who told me, ‘Do everything you can with your abilities, just like we do.’” 

This simple revelation took away Delle Donne’s guilt — and it gave her a purpose. She was no longer just playing for herself, she was now playing for Lizzie, and everyone like her, who were not able to go out on the court themselves. Just like they were doing the very best with what they had, Delle Donne would do all that she could do to be her best self.   

Delle Donne unleashed her power when she rediscovered her joy for playing basketball and began using her gifts to play for her sister, Lizzie, and everyone else stricken with autism and cerebral palsy. Those things that have the greatest meaning for us do not originate from the material world that says, “What’s in it for me?” Real empowerment and meaning come from looking outside of self like Delle Donne learned when she met the lady with cerebral palsy at her sister’s school.  

The ultimate question we must all answer in our lifetime is: Why are we here? Is it to gather a cabinet full of trophies and a house full of material things? Or is it to be a person that is a great daughter, brother, mother, husband, or person that commits to making their community a better place? 

Here is the secret that very few people will tell you — when a big part of your motivation is to help others, the light that is within you will shine much more brightly, and the person you will most help is yourself. There is nothing more powerful than knowing you are playing with purpose. Miracles can happen. You can reach your dreams. And when you make your life a team game, instead of an individual, the greatest champion will be you. 

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