NEWARK – Kayla Miller still remembers the phone call.
It was December five years ago. The former Ursuline Academy basketball standout had just packed up her belongings at George Washington and was heading back home.
Miller was talking with Elene Delle Donne, telling her friend and former high school teammate that she was transferring from GW and thinking about going to Delaware.
Delle Donne was playing volleyball for the Blue Hens at the time.
“She (Delle Donne) goes, ‘Well, I think I might be playing (basketball) next year, I don’t know yet,’” Miller recalls. “I kind of didn’t want to say anything to anybody at the time. But I was pretty excited knowing that basketball was on her mind again.”
Delle Donne playing basketball again was one thing. But Delle Donne playing basketball at Delaware?
It wasn’t that the 6-foot-5 high school national player of the year thought she was too good for UD, which had a reputation as a solid mid-major program.
It was everybody else who said Delle Donne was way too good for the Hens.
This was a kid who got a scholarship offer from North Carolina as a seventh grader, after all. She could go anywhere she wanted.
Indeed, Delle Donne signed with women’s college basketball giant Connecticut. But she walked away from the Huskies and basketball after just two days in Storrs – a story that made national headlines in the sport.
Before all that, nobody in a million years would have believed the way the story would actually play out – that Delle Donne would play four memorable basketball seasons at Delaware and put the Hens on the national map.
That chapter of Delle Donne’s story could very well end today. Sixth-seeded Delaware (30-3) hosts 11th-seeded West Virginia (17-14) at 12:15 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
If the Hens survive that difficult matchup, they’d probably get an even tougher one on Tuesday night against third-seeded North Carolina.
Either way, it seems fitting that Delle Donne gets one last big moment in her home state, the place the senior All-American said she’s glad she never left.
“It’s been the experience of a lifetime,” Delle Donne said earlier this week. “Just having the home fans welcome me. … just being a Delawarean and playing for Delaware.”
Coach Tina Martin is the one who famously never pressured Delle Donne to return to basketball even when she was on campus.
“To be honest, you can’t dream up these stories,” said Martin. “Life always throws you curveballs. There’s been some bumps in the road – I never thought that she would have Lyme Disease. But to write a story like this and to be in this situation, you can’t make it up.
“If you put all the storylines together, somebody might think you’re crazy. It had to be a Disney movie. But it’s not. It’s reality in Delaware right now.”
Some of the records Delle Donne will leave behind may never be broken at Delaware. In four years she’s collected 2,940 points (11th on the all-time NCAA Division I scoring list), 203 three-pointers and 267 blocked shots.
She owns the five highest-scoring games in program history, topped by the 54-point night she had against James Madison in 2010. Delle Donne is also fourth all-time in rebounds (996) to go along with 221 assists.
Those records have also stretched to attendance, were Delaware had five sellouts at home and drew a program-record 5,098 fans for a late-season game against James Madison.
“She (Delle Donne) has really captivated this community,” said Martin.
But all those records would have been hollow if the Hens hadn’t won, too.
That’s what the Delle Donne era will probably most be remembered for in Newark.
In the last two seasons Delaware is 61-5, won its first two Colonial Athletic Association Tournament titles, was nationally ranked for the first time (No. 7 last year, No. 15 this year), beat its highest-ranked opponent (No. 11 Penn State last year) and won its first NCAA tourney game (over Arkansas-Little Rock last year).
Martin jokes that some of her players didn’t even know who Delle Donne was when she first joined the program. The reality is, though, that with so much attention heaped on just one player, this could have been a disaster team-wise without the right supporting cast.
Despite what the world outside Delaware thinks, it really has taken more than just one player to win 61 games in two seasons.
“Elena embraced the team and the team embraced Elena right back,” said Martin. “That’s not to say there weren’t bumps in the road. … But this group decided at the end of Elena’s sophomore year when we made that run (to the CAA finals) that we’re not going to lose any more.
“At first, it was a little awkward,” Martin said about Delle Donne joining the team. “It came in increments, it came as a process. As different personalities came into the picture, they quickly realized that team was first here. They all accepted that and that’s why they’re such a special group. … I say this all the time, the only points that matter are under ‘Delaware.’
“I couldn’t care less how many points Elena scores, how many points (Lauren) Carra scores, how many points (Danielle) Parker scores. All I care about is winning and the big scoreboard. I say that a lot and I know that they believe me when I say that.”
Most of Delaware’s top players are seniors. That includes Delle Donne, Parker, Miller, Carra, Trumae Lucas and Jaquetta Parker. Junior guard Akeema Richards is the only starting underclassman.
Parker, a 6-foot-2 forward, is one of only three plays in program history to have both 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in her career.
“We understand each other,” she said. “We respect each other. We know what Elena is capable of. We know Elena is going to get the ball in crucial moments. But nobody feels left out. We all know our roles.”
“I definitely admire Elena for everything she has to deal with every day,” said Lucas, who transferred from Florida two years ago. “She handles fans really well when they come to her or little kids want pictures and autographs. She definitely carries herself really well on and off the court.
“People on the outside looking in, it’s always the ‘Delle Donne Show’ and it’s a one-player team. But, we know, on the inside, we are just one team.”
“To be able to take advantage of what she can bring to the court and to be able to mix in what everybody else on the team can bring in. … it’s something that takes a little bit,” said Miller. “But once you get that, it’s something special you have out there on the floor.”
“Elena is a special talent, there’s no doubt about it,” said Martin. “But I think more importantly… no one has put their ego aside like Elena has put her ego aside. This team really does feel like a sisterhood. She understands that everybody’s role is important.
“She doesn’t make herself out to be any more important than anybody else. And that is the true greatness of Elena. When she’s your teammate, she’s your teammate. I’ve never coached a kid who’s been like that.”
At the same time, it’s not like her teammates don’t admire what Delle Donne can do on the basketball court. She’s one of four finalists for the Naismith national Player of the Year award.
“I find myself saying ‘that’s amazing’ when it comes to Elena all the time,” said Lucas. “Sometimes I just don’t understand how she does some of the things she does.”
Miller has known Delle Donne longer than any of the Blue Hens, of course. She said the thing about the All-American is that she doesn’t take her talent for granted.
Miller said Delle Donne works as diligently as anyone on her game.
“Even this past summer, she was working the hardest I’ve ever seen her work,” said Miller. “It’s like, ‘Elena, you’re already this amazing player, you don’t have to keep doing all this stuff.’”
What happens against West Virginia today and then, perhaps beyond, will be the finishing touch on Delle Donne’s college story. That tale certainly had an unusual start with her brief stay at UConn.
But it ended up being a chapter in Delaware women’s basketball that won’t be soon forgotten
“It started off definitely difficult,” said Delle Donne. “I was playing volleyball for a little bit so obviously I was confused. I was young and I didn’t know what I wanted at that point.
“If I could have seen what my future was going to hold, I would have said, ‘You’re lying.’ But this has been amazing. It’s been the best decision of my life. I’m thrilled that it unfolded this way.”
Sports editor Andy Walter can be reached at 741-8227 or firstname.lastname@example.org.