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Burning To Play Again

Don't spy from the tunnel or peek from the mezzanine. Sure, she could stay and watch a scene tantamount to Streep doing community theater, but Delaware coach Tina Martin resisted. Around nine o'clock on a night last January, long after the unranked Blue Hens had sweated out another basketball practice, Martin walked across a darkened gym and flicked the lights on for a freshman education major, Elena Delle Donne—once the most celebrated player in high school hoops, the 6'5" It Girl of Connecticut's 2008 recruiting class. "I left her alone," recalls Martin. "I went home. As much as I was thinking that I hope she is enjoying herself, I didn't think she needed me hiding in the background. She was sorting through so many emotions."

Like confusion and disillusion. Delle Donne was the nation's most famous basketball burnout, right? That's why she felt miserable—"physically sick to my stomach," she says—whenever she touched a basketball after deciding to pick UConn over Tennessee. That's why she lasted only 48 hours at UConn before darting home to Wilmington, Del., last fall. That's why she ditched the stage at Storrs, within a chest pass of the ESPN star makers in Bristol, to play volleyball on a campus in Newark, Del., across the street from an abandoned Chrysler plant.

But why did the leather of a basketball feel so good in her hands that January night? Why did the sound of a net gulping down jumpers have such a soothing rhythm to it? "Until then I thought it was burnout, I really did," Elena said, sitting in a dining room overlooking the court at the Bob Carpenter Center last Thursday evening. "It was something else, though." The answer to the mystery behind her retreat from the game can be found on the background image of her cellphone screen: a Halloween photo of 25-year-old Elizabeth Delle Donne—or Lizzie, as she's called—in a blue Cinderella costume with white pockets. Her smile is luminous. Her thick, dark hair is to die for. "She is blessed with amazing hair," Elena says of her sister.

There is a simple beauty about Lizzie that obscures so many complications. She was born blind and deaf and with cerebral palsy, a triangle of challenges that has left her in a lifelong helpless state. She communicates through hand-over-hand signs in her palm—yes, as Helen Keller was portrayed in The Miracle Worker—but she has a limited vocabulary. "She knows the signs that are really important to her: eat and drink, oh, and the sign for cheese," says Elena. "She loves cheese. Or swimming. She loves to swim. She'll sit in a hot tub. She loves the feel of bubbles."

Touch and smell guide Lizzie through each day. "We've never communicated verbally in our entire lives, but the love you can feel for someone without even speaking to her is incredible," says Elena. "When I hug her, she kind of giggles. She knows me. She knows my scent." This kind of connection doesn't travel through phone lines or cyberspace, over Twitter or Facebook. It took one day at UConn for Elena to experience the panic of being cut off from Lizzie. But what seems obvious now—missing Lizzie was a case of homesickness—was at first mistaken for hoops overload. It had to be burnout, Elena believed. Otherwise she'd be loony for leaving UConn, for skipping out on the national-title parties to come. "For anyone else, it wouldn't have been a big deal," says Martin, "but it happened to be the Number 1 player in the country and the Number 1 team in the nation. There was a lot of emotional stress. But this was about a young lady whose heart was saying, This isn't for me."

Sometimes it takes more courage to go small than to go big in our celebrity culture. Once Elena made the nervous goodbye call to Huskies coach Geno Auriemma—"He was really wonderful about it," she says—she stepped away from her identity as the LeBron James of women's basketball. She escaped into volleyball, which she had played in the fall of her senior year at Ursuline Academy. But the white orb felt weird in her hand, oddly light, as if made from Styrofoam instead of having the heft of a basketball. She missed that feel. She wanted to reconnect with hoops, but slowly, first by asking to shoot in the gym at night and then by texting Martin in February to see if it was O.K. for her to attend a game. "She stayed up on the concourse," says Martin. "She didn't want to be a distraction." Elena watched the team from behind a concrete pillar. In April she told Martin she wanted to play again—and for Martin's team, which had finished ninth in the 12-team Colonial Athletic Association. And then Martin screamed for joy atop the Delaware Memorial Bridge. (Well, inside she did.)

Ticket sales are up for the still-modest Blue Hens. All eyes are on Elena, same as before, but the hype is drawn to a smaller scale. "I don't think she'll feel pressure from the crowds," says Martin. "What I hope she feels is a big embrace from fans who are saying, Welcome back." And welcome back to basketball, a love rekindled. In a number 11 practice jersey, the number she wore in high school, Elena Delle Donne took her place in the Blue Hens' layup line last Thursday evening, off the big stage, but feeling so right at home.

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What seems obvious now—missing Lizzie was a case of homesickness—was at first mistaken for basketball overload. Otherwise Elena would be loony for leaving UConn.