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Why Elena Delle Donne ran away from UConn

(G Fiume / Getty Images)

Elena Delle Donne was a teenage basketball phenom, receiving her first college scholarship offer in the seventh grade.

“I was still such a kid and didn’t really know how to handle that moment,” she tells Kelley O’Hara on the latest episode of the Just Women’s Sports podcast.

After that first offer, Delle Donne says the letters started flowing in, with her mom even buying an extra basket to keep up with the influx of mail. There were early signs, however, that the future WNBA star wasn’t enjoying the process.

“I didn’t open one letter,” Delle Donne says. “I didn’t read any of the newspaper articles.”

A significant influence on Delle Donne then and now is her older sister Lizzie, who was born deaf and blind and with cerebral palsy and autism. The two communicate through touch.

“The way that we communicate is through hand-over-hand sign language,” she says. “It’s not your typical sign language. It’s signs that she’s made up with my family.

“She has been everything to me, especially in my toughest times. I’ve always looked to her for perspective.”

The need to be close to Lizzie was a major factor in Delle Donne’s future career choices.

Delle Donne committed to UConn upon graduating high school, but as she drove to the campus to report for summer school, she knew something wasn’t right.

After 48 hours at the school, Delle Donne fled.

“Two days went by, and I packed up some of my stuff, called a friend and literally ran away from the University of Connecticut in the middle of the night,” she says.

When Delle Donne returned home for the summer, it became clear that her spontaneous move would stick. The Mystics forward says iconic UConn head coach Geno Auriemma handled the news graciously.

“I think we will always have a special bond because of the way that he handled that for me,” she says.

Delle Donne played volleyball for an entire season at the University of Delaware before joining the basketball team. A three-time All-American, she went on to set nearly every program record and win the 2013 Honda National Player of the Year.

You can listen to Elena Delle Donne’s full conversation with Kelley O’Hara here.