WNBA's Elena Della Donne Thrives In Chicago

Women's pro basketball takes center stage Thursday night with the start of playoffs. The Eastern Conference champions Chicago Sky are in the post season for the first time since joining the league eight years ago. A big reason for that success is 6'5" rookie Elena Della Donne.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All right. In this country, women's pro basketball playoffs begin tonight. The contenders seeking a win of intergalactic proportions, as you said a moment ago, Renee, include the Chicago Sky. They've never made the WNBA playoffs before.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Well, a big reason for their success is six foot five inch rookie Elena Della Donne. She's been famous for a while. She was once known as the player who walked away from the best team in women's college basketball.

INSKEEP: And now she's poised to help lift her pro team to the top. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: May 24 was the perhaps the most hyped start to a WNBA season ever, with the league heavily promoting the arrival of college superstars Brittany Griner, Skylar Diggins and Elena Della Donne.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The three to see, ready for the next level.

GOLDMAN: Last week, at the end of the regular season, the three to see clearly had become one on a run.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: With three, Della Donne with two, Della Donne on a spin and (unintelligible) it's Della Donne at the buzzer.

GOLDMAN: That buzzer-beater against the Phoenix Mercury and number one draft pick Brittany Griner, Della Donne was number two, that shot was the cherry on top of a chocolate sundae of the season. Della Donne finished fourth in WNBA scoring, fifth in blocked shots, first in free throw shooting. Success grew out of the comfort of team chemistry, which Della Donne felt as soon as she showed up, the nervous newcomer, at her first Sky practice.

ELENA DELLA DONNE: Being a rookie, you hear some horror stories about, you know, rookie duties, veterans being mean to you, and I never experienced any of that. And I've really had just the dream season.

GOLDMAN: Maybe it's psychic payback after the nightmare of 2008. The nation's top recruit out of high school, Della Donne got a scholarship at mighty Connecticut but left two days after starting summer school there. Former UConn star player Kara Wolters was quoted as saying, it's the most bizarre thing I've ever heard, throwing away the opportunity to play at the best women's college program in the world.

Della Donne, 18 at the time, went home to Delaware and the comfort of her tight-knit family. She had a particularly close relationship with her disabled sister, who's blind and deaf and has cerebral palsy. Della Donne enrolled at the University of Delaware and took a break from basketball. She eventually came back to hoops, became one of the greatest scorers in women's college basketball history, and even did a kooky star turn when comedian Martin Short, doing his Jiminy Glick character, the celebrity interviewer, visited the university and called Della Donne to the stage.

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MARTIN SHORT: (As Jiminy Glick) Where were you born?

DONNE: In Delaware.

SHORT: Where did you go to school?

DONNE: I went to Ursuline Academy and then now I'm here.

SHORT: Is that in Delaware?

DONNE: Yes.

SHORT: You're a regular Magellan, aren't you?

GOLDMAN: Della Donne has answered questions about whether she can ever be away from family by thriving in Chicago. And away from family is a relative concept. Her brother is her agent. Her dad only missed a few games during the season, and Della Donne, now 24, visits sister Lizzy as much as her busy schedule allows.

DONNE: I think I've learned over the years that, you know, love exists whether you're in the same room or you're miles away, and even though we can only really communicate when we're in the same room with each other, you know, she still is right there with me every single day.

GOLDMAN: Della Donne will stick around in Chicago during the off season while many WNBA-ers head overseas to make more money. Her decision is partly to help promote a league that still fights for relevance on the sports landscape, despite increased TV ratings and attendance this year driven largely by Chicago's league best 17 percent spike from the season before.

Della Donne plans to do her best to keep the fans coming and the Sky winning, starting tomorrow with Game 1 against Indiana. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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