If 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.