Elena Delle Donne is not just a basketball player. She also likes making tables. She is the proud owner of a dog named Wrigley, the reigning champion of Complex’s Beast Wars bracket. She’s built a bed frame with her bare hands! But when you hit free throws at a rate of 94 percent, your woodworking acumen tends to recede from the foreground, even if you continue to post photos of your latest creations on social media. And even if, because you are the kind of grinder who figures you might as well make a business of your hobby, you start selling your furniture on Etsy.
Because here’s the thing about that number: it’s higher than NBA free throw record-holder Steve Nash or Rick Barry or half-court hustler Steph Curry. It’s higher than those of the men she’s compared to by well-meaning people who wish to compliment her through analogy to male players: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki. Elene Delle Donne can mess around with framing squares all she wants, but the 90-degree angle that bests basketball pros worldwide is the one she makes with her own arms as she stands at the foul line. Quick dribble, knee bend, smooth unfurling of the right angle: that’s the technique that has made her the most accurate free throw shooter in all pro ball. No fat to trim, it would make Frank Bunker Gilbreth proud.
Of course, Delle Donne’s free-throw shooting is just one aspect of her game; the reigning WNBA MVP, she may be the most well-rounded player the league has seen in recent history. She’s a big who can play post and guard, taking small players inside and staying to the outer perimeter with tall opponents. It’s a tactic her father first suggested when she was a kid: combine altitude and attitude, genetics with technical facility, destiny and free will. And it’s served her well.
“It’s just complete confidence and knowing everything’s going your way,” she says. “So anything you do will be successful.”
Part of what makes her effective is exactly that zone, which many describe as poise – not arrogance, but the placid confidence of a player who doesn’t question the future, seeing it only as a place where intentions become correct outcomes. Somehow, what seems impossible to almost every person in the world feels natural when she’s on the court. There’s some chess to it, but there’s also the instinct developed by routinized tape study and years of making reads.
Pokey Chatman, her coach on the Chicago Sky, says Delle Donne plays with intellect. She means how fluent Delle Donne is in corporeal codes. It’s a language Delle Donne, who says verbal communication isn’t always the best way to speak, trusts.
This faith she attributes to her older sister Lizzie, who is deafblind, autistic and has cerebral palsy. All her life, Delle Donne has spoken to her sister through hand-over-hand signing, in which the listener gently holds the hands of the speaker in something like a manual dance, words felt on the skin. But sometimes, Delle Donne just observes Lizzie. She likes to watch a smile break on her sister’s face when a breeze ruffles by.
“You learn so much more than from other forms of communication,” she says. “She experiences the world in such a different way, and it’s incredible to watch.”
Still, the sisters cannot speak outside of each other’s physical presences. They need to share space. It’s one reason their brother Gene believes that Elena made a midnight getaway from UConn after only two days of classes. Delle Donne has said she needed to find herself outside of basketball. It’s difficult for her to explain how she found that woman; all she did was not play basketball. She joined the University of Delaware volleyball team instead, until she decided she had no idea what she was doing (she knows what she likes: family, basketball and dogs) and returned to the court.
Other players might’ve agonized over passing up the chance to train with UConn’s Geno Auriemma, but according to Delle Donne, more even than winning the MVP last year or leading the WNBA in All-Star Game voting during her first season – the first time a rookie has ever done so – her pride is situated in having made a mid-major, University of Delaware, into a name.
Now, her eyes are on Rio. She remembers watching the Olympics as a kid: track and field, volleyball, swimming. It became the dream. After last season, she toured Europe with the USA Women’s National Team and she’s participated in Olympic training camps, but her place in Brazil wasn’t officially assured. Then, earlier this year, she was driving to her practice facility when she got the call from Carol Callan, the Women’s National Team Director. She was scared, or maybe relieved. She was also, she was to discover, a member of the Olympic team, alongside the likes of Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi, Angel McCoughtry and Brittney Griner. In the WNBA, these players are her rivals. Now, they’ll be her teammates.
“We all get to play together, which is so refreshing,” she says. “Finally! Be on one team together instead of always competing against one another.”
It’s a statement that could be interpreted as disingenuously Pollyannaish, but it reflects something of the humbleness of the WNBA. The league has fared well in comparison to other women’s pro leagues, but its 12 teams still don’t get prime coverage. Around half of American players, such as Griner and Taurasi, have played abroad, because WNBA salaries amount to pocket change for their NBA counterparts, while, for example, Griner made 12 times her 2013 WNBA salary playing in China. Delle Donne, with her scoring finesse and squeaky clean image, has supplemented the pay with endorsements, and recently she joined Chris Paul and Demaryius Thomas — not to mention Twitter— as a strategic partner and equity investor in Muzik, an audio tech company soon to release wireless headphones.
The night we spoke, Delle Donne had already done a photo shoot for the company, and after a day of posing, she sounded a little tired. Then again, that could also have something to do with a general weariness with the media. After all the articles that have been written about her, she wonders what’s left to write about (she thinks the most interesting aspect of her life is the woodworking thing). Everyone knows that she loves Chicago, even though she must spend six months of the year away from family. Everyone knows about the Lyme Disease she was diagnosed with in college. Everyone knows she wants to lower the rim in women’s basketball. At this point, she’d prefer to let her play on the court do the talking – even if she knows that’s wishful thinking.
“It’s like, I’ve done so many articles. People know a lot, a lot about me,” she says. “[But] I’m constantly thinking of new ways to engage fans, and help grow the visibility of the WNBA.”
“You didn’t study marketing, did you?” I ask.
“I did not,” she laughs, a little ruefully. “Maybe I should have.”