What’s love got to do with it?

     heartIf you haven’t seen it, Mark Schwarz of ESPN interviewed former hoops standout Elena Delle Donne for an “Outside the Lines” piece for Dec. 28 and wrote an accompanying story for ESPN.com about her decision this past summer to leave basketball and UConn. I also wrote a column for ESPN.com that mentioned two former top recruits, Nicole Kaczmarski and Nina Smith, whose hoops careers didn’t turn out as expected. 

  It’s likely the comments in Schwarz’s story will not make UConn coach Geno Auriemma look very good to some readers. I like Auriemma a lot and think he’s as great a coach as there is in basketball – at any level and for either gender – but some of his comments got on my nerves, too.

I do understand where he’s coming from: He and his staff spent a lot of time and resources recruiting Delle Donne, and thought they had a major coup: Having the best rookie in the country for a second year in a row (following Maya Moore). 

But I think he’s also being deliberately obtuse, especially for a person as intelligent as he is. Auriemma told Schwarz, ”I don’t know how you can play that much basketball and be that good at it and say, ‘I hate it since the time I was 13.’ To me, those two things don’t go together … that you would be that good at something and not enjoy any of it. It’s hard for me to come to grips with. I’m still not able to see how that makes any sense. I didn’t understand it and haven’t understood it right from the beginning.”

He also told Schwarz that he wasn’t sure if he’d ever know the “real” reason for Delle Donne’s decision, saying, “There’s something not quite out there yet. There’s a lot of things that don’t fit together.”

However, when I talked to Auriemma about the Delle Donne situation in September, he seemed more inclined to believe the equivalent of, “It is what it is.”

   “Very rarely _ well, how about NEVER _ do you have something like this happen,” he said then. “So you’re not quite sure what to say about it. People back home – fans or newspaper people – everybody asks me to give them the inside dope, the scoop on what happened. And I tell them the same thing: ‘You’ve read it all, you’ve heard it all. It’s all been said.’ ”

 Ultimately, I think Auriemma is frustrated because he won the recruiting battle for this player, and then he lost her. There are some hard feelings there that are kind of human nature, especially for someone who lives to win the way Auriemma does. But also, he’s someone who’s always had a great passion for basketball and a fierce competitive instinct … and it’s very irritating to him that someone who has so much talent would walk away from the opportunity to use it – and help his program in the process.

But it’s not as if Delle Donne isn’t going to school and playing a Division I sport. She is: competing in volleyball at Delaware. She hasn’t tossed her “future” away. She’s just plotting a different course.

People do excel at things they have no passion for, and sometimes they never let on. They go to law school and join their father’s firm and make a lot of money …. and every day wish they were doing something else. They marry the supposed “right” person, stay faithful and raise their children well … but never feel like they were ever really in love.

You can do something very well without loving it … but you’ll never get the rush from it that someone who loves it does. And in Delle Donne’s case, it appears to be a lot more than her not being excited to play. It went further than that. Playing hoops became a burden for her.

And, to my mind, a vitally important element to Delle Donne’s story is that she has lived all her life with a profoundly disabled sibling. I would guess she has, from early childhood, felt a staggering amount of obligation to be and do everything her sister couldn’t. And she might not even realize how much of an emotional/mental/physical toll that’s taken on her. 

It’s not at all difficult for me to understand that a person who was very physically gifted, plus intelligent, plus attractive, plus from a financially well-to-do family would compare her many gifts to her sister’s tragedy and think constantly that she was unbelievably fortunate and never had any “right” to be unhappy about anything.

That might help explain why Delle Donne went all the way to summer school with UConn before admitting the truth to herself and everyone else. She may have needed many years of forcing herself to do something she didn’t really want to do before she allowed herself to even consider that it was OK to not do it anymore _ and instead try to find out what she really wanted from her life.   

 

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About mvoepel

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com.
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8 Responses to What’s love got to do with it?

  1. Cigany says:

    Gator, it’s a lot more likely that the ‘gut reaction’ had little to do with a player rejecting what Auriemma had to offer, but a whole lot to do with entering a mutual commitment with a girl and then seeing her go back on her word. Maybe he’s irritated or disappointed with himself because he failed to properly judge the kid’s character.

    The incident you refer to involved Kia Vaughn, I’m guessing, but Jacki Gemelos and Laura Harper pulled the same stunt in recent years. No doubt the coach knows his team is better off without players like that in the mix. But having to deal with that kind of stuff rightfully should tick anyone off.

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  3. Queenie says:

    I just wish people would stop trying to keep this as a story. There comes a point where someone, somewhere, will have to admit that the young lady is no longer a news story, but just a volleyball player at Delaware. And I’m not blaming you in particular, or any one reporter in particular, but the entire mass of media trying to keep this to the forefront, inasmuch as there’s a forefront in women’s basketball. I got the impression that this was precisely the kind of attention she was trying to get the hell away from when she changed sports and schools.

    As a St. John’s fan, I can’t complain much about Geno’s treatment of players who think they want to be Huskies and then realize it’s not what they really want- after all, that’s kinda how the Red Storm nabbed Kia Wright. Similar arcs, though Delle Donne’s is obviously much longer and overarching, but Wright was highly regarded, enrolled at UConn, got desperately lonely and homesick, and eventually transferred to a school closer to home, and Auriemma smoothed the way for her.

    I do suspect that somewhere along the line, we’ll discover that UConn was never on her list, but on her father’s.

  4. ScUTEr says:

    I’m glad I didn’t (and don’t) have to have the entire world watch me try to figure out what I love /not love to do.
    Maybe Elena felt like a fraud, trying to be as psyched as everyone else about playing at UConn. But maybe she didn’t feel like a fraud when practicing to be great at something. Maybe she loved being a teammate. Maybe she loves sports in general, or working hard, or….whatever. We don’t know what gets her juices flowing and maybe she isn’t sure yet either. Don’t we see great athletes, all of the time, who just don’t seem to be happy while playing? Don’t we all love to watch the ‘well, they don’t have as many natural skills but gosh, they play hard and with passion’ players the most? And then the few who do have the talent and the passion — are the elite.
    Good examples of doing things you ‘should do’, MV. Here’s another — Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, who doesn’t like spending money….even on charity. He has the Gates do it. Here is a quote by him about doing what he wants: “If you gave me the choice of being CEO of General Electric or IBM or General Motors, you name it, or delivering papers, I would deliver papers. I would. I enjoyed doing that. I can think about what I want to think. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.”

  5. Hi_schl_coach says:

    We may never know or understand all the details, emotions and circumstances that led to Elena’s decision, but without a doubt, she is a very courageous young woman. She knew the fall-out from her decision would follow her forever and she took a stand for herself! I would have liked to see her play, and that is my loss. As for Elena, I don’t think she has suffered a loss, but found the strength in her character that she didn’t know was within her. I hope and pray her parents and family are supportive of her choice. I am!

  6. shinman says:

    yea, my take on the coaches comments was that he was somewhat disappointed shall we say?he’ll get over it, no ones come close to beating uconn yet anyway.

  7. Gator says:

    To misquote Voepel: Geno is what he is. If I remember correctly, a couple of years ago a player who had verbaled or committed to UConn called to tell him she had changed her mind and he reportedly was less than courteous in that phone conversation. On a gut/emotional level, I believe he actually can not understand why an outstanding player he wants might not want what he has to offer. In more reflection moments I think he can figure it out but his gut reaction rebels violently at the logic. He does a lot of things very right but has a blind spot that makes many of us think less of him as a man than we do as a coach.

    For Donne, realizing at such a young age that following your bliss is more important than following expectations is a blessing.

  8. stat_girl says:

    Nice post. For a lot of kids, college represents the first time that they have the chance to explore who they are and what it is they want, as opposed to what it is their family wants for them. This is true even in an era of cell-phones and “helicopter parents” who never seem able to quite let their children navigate college mostly on their own. If colleges do their jobs well, they not only facilitate this kind of exploration but they strongly encourage it. The University of Connecticut did it’s job well in that regard. During her short time there, Della Donne got a taste of basketball and college life at UConn, understood it wasn’t a good fit and made a decision to change the path of her life. In that regard, Della Donne’s time at UConn can be regarded as a great success.