INTERVIEW: Elena Delle Donne targeting Olympic glory

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Elena Delle Donne is targeting Olympic and WNBA success in 2016.

Reigning WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne was asked by a reader of The Players’ Tribune: “If someone says to me, ‘You play like a girl’ what should I tell them?” Delle Donne replies succinctly: “Thanks!”

Another reader asked her to suggest an under-the-radar player to watch in the upcoming WNBA season that kicks off on May 14.

“I’d think you would be so much cooler if you watched and could answer that on your own,” she fires back.

The Chicago Sky guard/forward is a sharp-shooter both on the court and off it, and has become one of the greatest ever ambassadors for her sport, not just because of her jaw-dropping 2015 season statistics, but also for everything she represents and stands for.

Last season, the 26-year-old was successful in 207 of her 218 free-throw attempts. That 95 per cent success rate saw her join Calvin Murphy, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Ray Allen as the only players in ABA, NBA and WNBA history to shoot 95 per cent or better in a season with more than 200 free-throw attempts. Her free-throw career rate stands at 93.9 per cent. Steve Nash’s NBA record mark is 90.4.

“I’m very proud of it (her free-throw record),” Delle Donne told Sport360 at the Nike Innovation Summit in New York last month.

“Who knows if I’ll ever be able to replicate that again? Obviously sometimes you need a little bit of luck. I think the biggest part is being able to stay mentally strong through it because foul shooting is so mental.

“But for me, my secret has just always been simplicity – trying to keep my shot as simple as possible so there aren’t too many moving parts that could go wrong.”

Wilt Chamberlain in 1962, the season in which he scored 100 points in one game and averaged 50.4 points per contest, had a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 31.82. Delle Donne finished her 2015 season with a 32.7.

More numbers from that historic campaign saw her average 23.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and two blocked shots per game.

At 6ft 5ins and with no apparent weakness in her game, Delle Donne has proven a tough nut to crack for all of her opponents and she’s hoping to do it all over again this season in the WNBA and at the Olympic Games for Team USA.

Delle Donne’s rapid rise in the world of professional basketball has been impossible to ignore as she went from being named Rookie of the Year in 2013, to taking MVP honours just two years later.

“It’s definitely been a tough journey. I feel like I always train extremely hard in the offseason and I’m always trying to improve my game each and every year. The biggest thing for me was just staying healthy and last year I was able to stay healthy for an entire season and that was crucial,” she says.

Donne fast facts

  • 2013 WNBA Rookie of the Year.
  • Three-time WNBA All-Star.
  • 2013 All-WNBA second team.
  • 2015 WNBA MVP.

Delle Donne is not just referring to injuries. She was diagnosed with Lyme disease during her sophomore year at University of Delaware and it is an incurable illness she continues to fight through every day. It forced her to miss a big chunk of her 2014 campaign but she managed to keep it at bay last year.

“There was a time I didn’t know if I would be able to graduate college, I was that tired where I couldn’t even get to class let alone play basketball. That was the lowest, when I was feeling my ultimate worst,” she explains.

“I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t have a doctor that even knew what was going on but now I have an incredible team of doctors that work with me and we’ve been able to put a systematic plan together.

“The biggest thing is just, as much as I turn down my body in workouts, I have to build it back up by taking care of it through massage, rolling out, different things like that.”

Delle Donne has become a spokesperson for the fight against Lyme disease and is inspiring scores of people worldwide through her battle with the bacterial illness. She is also a strong voice for the special needs community and was named global ambassador for the Special Olympics in 2014.

Her older sister, Lizzie, was born blind and deaf with cerebral palsy and autism, and is a main motivator behind Delle Donne’s efforts on and off the court.

Last year, Delle Donne invited 19-year-old Matthew Walzer, who has cerebral palsy, to the All-Star Game.

Walzer had sent a letter to Nike asking them to create shoes he can put on himself as he struggled to tie his own shoelaces due to his condition. That led Nike to release the slip-on ‘FlyEase’ three years later and Delle Donne wore them at the WNBA All-Star Game and insisted Walzer attend.

“This moment, meeting Matthew, looking at these shoes, knowing I’ll get to wear them tomorrow and someday see them on my sister is by far the best part of All-Star. This is something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life,” Delle Donne had told ESPNW ahead of the game. “This is life-changing for so many people and to be a part of it, a small part of it, is so special.”

Delle Donne has a calm demeanour when she’s speaking but her words always reflect strong views. She takes her role in promoting her sport very seriously and says the biggest outcome from her 2015 history-making heroics was the extra visibility given to women’s sport in general.

Her recent comments about calling to lower the rims in the WNBA have caused some outrage but she insists: “Lowering the rim isn’t just about ‘the dunk’. It’s about the future of the game.”

She has also talked regularly about sexism in sport and believes the best way to weed it out is to openly discuss it.

“The biggest examples (of sexism I encounter) I would say would be like, number one, when they talk about us basketball players they’ll always say ‘female basketball player’ like ‘Elena Delle Donne, female basketball player’, like ‘okay, you don’t need to say that, I’m a basketball player’. They don’t say ‘Kevin Durant, male basketball player’. So that’s something that kind of bugs me a little,” she says.

“The other thing is like when they ask me about endorsement deals, they ask ‘is it because you’re pretty? Or is it all because of your look? Do you have to worry about your look in order to get deals?’ I’m like ‘no, I have to worry about the product I put on the court, that’s all that matters’. It’s always about looks and not just what we’re producing on the court and what we’re doing and I feel they really downplay all the work we put into it. That’s the frustrating part.

“In my mind, (the solution is to) just talk about it. If other females feel this way, then speak about it and just be honest, I think that’s the biggest thing. Just opening people’s eyes to it. Maybe the media doesn’t even notice it, so you kind of just have to discuss it.”

The final roster for the US Olympic basketball team will be released soon and Delle Donne is expected to be one of the stars to watch this summer in Rio. She has her eyes focused on the new WNBA season, though, and isn’t worried about backing up last year’s efforts.

She adds: “My team got eliminated the first round of playoffs last year. So my focus is to win a championship so we have a lot of unfinished business.”

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