If she had played at UConn, Elena Delle Donne would have been a rock star, not only in Delaware, but everywhere. If she had stayed at UConn for more than two days, she not only would have had won two national championships, she could have run the table.
"I think they would have won two more championships and God only knows how many more games," Delle Donne's dad, Ernie, said Sunday before Delaware dusted West Virginia 66-53 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. "It probably would have been unfair for Elena, Tina [Charles] and Maya [Moore] to be on the same team."
Still, she has no regrets.
"None," Delle Donne said after she had scored 33 points, soaked in the love of a sellout crowd of more than 5,000 at Bob Carpenter Center and extended her college career by at least one more game. "I love this place. This is my home. I wouldn't change this experience for anything."
Over and over, to the point of exhaustion, we examined why Delle Donne left UConn after only a couple of days late in the spring of 2008, apportioning percentages to each possibility. Was she homesick? Was the thought of being away from her sister Lizzie too much too bear? Had veteran UConn players given her a hard time? Or did this prodigy burn out on basketball at age 18?
Five years later, the only answer that matters is this one:
"I am sure of my love for the game," Elena Delle Donne said.
I love that answer. For in the end, UConn still has its seven national championships. In the end, the Delle Donne family still thinks the world of UConn basketball. In the end, we have a Mozart who did not quit on her brilliance for more than one year, who would kindle a real fire for women's basketball in her home state, who can't wait to face North Carolina on Tuesday night, who says she can't wait to play in the WNBA this summer.
Yeah, Elena Delle Done is sure of her love for basketball.
"For any athlete who works as hard as you have to work to get to the level Elena has reached, it's so important that you know you're doing it for yourself and for the right reasons," Ernie Delle Donne said. "I think that year off [in 2008-2009] is when Elena saw that she missed the game. Obviously, she missed home. She missed her sister.
"But you know what? Elena is where she would have been in the draft had she gone to UConn or anywhere else. What really matters is, 'I'm not doing it because Sports Illustrated says I'm supposed to or Geno Auriemma says I'm this good. I'm doing this for me. I know I love playing the sport.' I don't think she knew that [when she was 18]."
On a day where even Delle Donne said the atmosphere was even more electric than even she had imagined, the Blue Hens fell behind by seven at halftime. Coach Tina Martin went to a 2-3 zone, went to a taller lineup and West Virginia didn't handle it. When West Virginia tried to pressure, Delle Donne went outside to play guard and the Mountaineers didn't do a good job rotating in response. Smaller guards in big trouble sent the 6-5 Delle Donne to the free throw line. Know this. Delle Donne never misses her free throws. OK, almost never. On Sunday, she was 12-for-13, all in the second half.
"She can go inside, she can go outside," West Virginia coach Mike Carey said. "She presents a lot of problems."
Her game is similar to another tall blond: Dirk Nowitzki. Delle Donne can slow the game to her pace. Brittney Griner has been the obvious No. 1 pick for some time. Delle Donne has said she would love to play in Chicago, which has the No. 2 pick. Unless the Sky decide on guard play and Skylar Diggins, Chicago is seen as her landing spot.
"I ended up where I belonged at Delaware," Elena said, "and I probably ended up in the same [draft] position."
If the Blue Hens, who have won 26 in a row, can beat No. 3 seed North Carolina, which squeaked past Albany, they will play in the Bridgeport Regional, probably against Kentucky in the Sweet 16 and UConn in the Elite Eight. Possibilities officially are juicy.
"That would be ironic to come full circle," Ernie said. "That would be unbelievable.
"Geno Auriemma is a phenomenal family man, loves his fans, loves his players, treats them like they're his daughters. To me, Geno Auriemma and Nick Saban are the same people. I love Alabama football. I love UConn women's basketball."
I've heard Geno compared to James Naismith, John Wooden and Satan before, but never Saban. At any rate, Elena dodged the land mine about a Connecticut curtain call with a smile.
"I'm just focused on the next game," she said. "After that, we'll see what happens."
With Carolina up next, one story that has surfaced points to Delle Donne the wunderkind.
"In the summer of her seventh grade, she went down to the high school camp with her varsity team [Ursuline Academy in Wilmington]," Ernie said. "Elena was so young she couldn't go unchaperoned. I had to go with her."
While he was there, Ernie got a tap on his shoulder. Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell wanted to see him in her office.
"I'm like 'Oh, my God, did we do something wrong?'" Ernie said.
Hardly. Hatchell was the first to offer Elena a college scholarship.
"My first reaction was to ask if she had the right kid, she's a seventh grader," Ernie said.
Oh, she had the right kid.
"I still have a great relationship with their coaches," Elena said. "I was just talking to them while they were going on the court."
Dating to the eighth grade at Ursuline, she has filled this arena plenty of times. She has played here for a decade and dad admits to an amount of "separation anxiety."
"The love affair she and Delaware have had, we'll never be able to repay them," Ernie said.
"Best decision of my life," Elena said the other day about returning to Delaware. "It's about far more than [national] championships for me."
There may be a tendency in Connecticut to think of Delle Donne in terms of an 18-year-old. Yes, her bond with Lizzie, who is blind, deaf and has cerebral palsy, is unshakable, remarkable. Yes, it's great to be 15 miles from home. Yes, the year playing volleyball away from basketball at Delaware was fun and allowed her to rekindle her old love.
"I've also grown up a lot," Delle Donne said. "I'm 23. I'm not 18 anymore. I live on campus. I've grown as an individual, but not only that, as a basketball player, too."
A question jotted on a notepad about how she'll handle leaving Delaware for the WNBA seem suddenly seemed dated.
"Leaving her sister, when you live in the same house, 24-7 was one thing," Ernie said. "Leaving Elizabeth when you see her once a week, maybe every two weeks, because you're attending classes, practicing, traveling is another. If she goes to an East Conference team, God willing to Chicago, she'll play in New York, Lizzie can go to Washington. It's a four-month season and as a pro she can some home when she wants. Elena is 23. She's a woman now. She can put this in perspective."
Delle Donne missed six games at the start of the season with a recurrence of symptoms of Lyme disease that first surfaced in 2008. Delaware lost two of its three games with her out of the lineup. There are several tick-borne illnesses you can get, and they've narrowed it down, Ernie said.
"She feels the best she has since high school."
Elena Delle Donne sure sounds happy.
"This has been an incredible journey," she said. "And every step of the way has been worth it."