By Mel Greenberg
The presence of former Delaware United States senator Joe Biden as the nation’s vice president wasn’t enough to prevent the Wilmington area from losing an auto plant on Monday in the wake of General Motors’ filing for bankruptcy.
But when it comes to being a stimulus for the state’s major university women’s basketball program, the role is now in the hands of a home-grown heroine.
The University of Delaware announced Tuesday that Elena Delle Donne was joining the Blue Hens and veteran coach Tina Martin, a move that could dramatically revive the fortunes of a program that had struggled the past two seasons after almost a decade of success.
The decision was first reported in the Wilmington News Journal in Tuesday’s editions, although Martin was on Hilton Head Island, S.C., at the time attending the Colonial Athletic Association’s annual spring meetings.
It was a year ago this week that Delle Donne, the pride of Ursuline Academy who was the 2008 national high school player of the year, skipped graduation ceremonies to arrive in time for summer sessions in the land of Oz, otherwise known as the University of Connecticut.
Delle Donne’s stay was quite short, however, less than 48 hours before a seemingly lifetime fear became a reality.
As a result, the 6-foot-4 versatile basketball sensation clicked her heels three times in one of the Huskies’ dorms, chanted “there’s no place like home,” and soon reappeared back on her Delaware doorstep at 7 o’clock the following morning.
For the next two months, the citizens of Oz speculated whether the Huskies’ prized recruit was lost forever. Delle Donne’s status had become the new conversation piece after the menace of the South out of the state of Tennessee had become less a threat to the populace’s general welfare.
Finally, in a series of rapid announcements at the end of August, Oz’s wizard – one coach Geno Auriemma – began a flurry of Delle Donne news sending word from his summer retreat on the Jersey shore that she had returned her scholarship.
Soon thereafter, Delle Donne announced in a statement she was enrolling at Delaware to be close to home.
A few days later, the athletic department held a press conference to introduce Delle Donne as a walk-on performer on the Blue Hens volleyball team, taking up a sport she did not begin to play until her senior year at high school.
She was suffering from “burnout,” she said at the time, alluding to years of pressure as a super talent that began at the age of 12 when she led Fencor AAU in the Philadelphia suburbs to a national title.
Delle Donne seemed to have found new happiness in helping the Blue Hens repeat as Colonial Athletic Association champions last fall as she made the conference’s all-rookie team.
She did not have a scholarship because of NCAA eligibility rules but she will have one in basketball, effective Sept. 1.
“After playing volleyball for a season, I realized again how much I enjoyed being a college athlete,” she said Tuesday.
But once volleyball ended, she began to sense she had not identified the true source of her unhappiness over her former sport.
In a series of phone calls to several news organizations from her Delaware home on Tuesday Delle Donne revealed that it wasn’t burnout after all that drove her from a chance to be part of Connecticut’s unbeaten NCAA champions.
“I know I said it was burnout and I blamed it all on basketball and that I hated basketball. But in reality, I was really homesick,” said Delle Donne, who is part of a close-knit family.
She said the fear of being away developed at an early age when she knew her skill levels could eventually result in her moving far from the Diamond State.
“Ever since (North Carolina coach) Sylvia Hatchell first offered me a scholarship when I was in the seventh grade, I knew that one day I would have to leave home,” Delle Donne said.
Going away also would mean leaving her older sister Elizabeth, who has suffered a series of afflictions since birth.
“Being away, I couldn’t communicate with Lizzie that much,” Delle Donne said. “I wouldn’t be able to talk to her on the phone and I couldn’t e-mail her.”
She said she didn’t make a final decision to return to basketball until two weeks ago.
Delle Donne has been working out with her longtime personal trainer John Noonan, who was promoted to Ursuline’s head coach after she graduated.
“As I watched the college basketball season play out last year, I also knew I was missing the sport,” she said.
“I picked up a basketball to see what it felt like again, and the feeling was a good one,” she continued. “I said to myself, ‘This is what I was meant to do.’”
In September 2007, Delle Donne announced her choice of Connecticut, choosing the Huskies from among a group of finalists that included Tennessee, Villanova, and Middle Tennessee, where her brother Gene plays football.
“Looking back on the recruiting process, I never did have being away high on the list of considerations,” Delle Donne said of her deliberations at the time.
“If I had been able to address the home sickness issue, I might have made a different decision to stay local.
“I think if UConn was located 10 minutes from my house, I might have done OK there,” she said. “They have a tremendous coach and really great players.
“But Coach Martin is terrific, and I’ve already met most of my new teammates and I really like them.”
When Delle Donne left Connecticut, there had been reports that she had been scolded by a prominent teammate in a pickup game.
But Temple coach Tonya Cardoza, who was still a Huskies assistant at the time, later hinted homesickness could be the problem.
“We talked to everyone and nothing happened to suddenly make you want to leave UConn if you didn’t want to leave UConn when you got there,” she said.
After Delle Donne returned home for the rest of the summer, there was speculation she might want to transfer to Villanova, but that wouldn’t be permissible under Big East rules.
A conference rule bans transfers between conference schools once a letter of intent is signed at the original school.
Delaware fans will have to wait for Delle Donne’s first home appearance, which won’t be until Dec. 11 against Navy at the Bob Carpenter Center.
The Blue Hens will open the 2009-10 season with seven road games, beginning at St. Francis (Pa.) on Nov. 17.
“The games will be close enough that fans will be able to travel easily on the road to see her play,” Martin said.
Delle Donne said she won’t play in the Dept. of Recreations’s NCAA women’s summer league in Northeast Philadelphia, which in the past has had Delaware players on the various rosters.
Delaware will play Drexel here at a date to be determined as part of the CAA schedule.
La Salle has a nonconference visit to Newark.