The Chicago Sky play 20 miles outside of the city, along the landing path for the O’Hare International Airport. For longtime fans Mario Stinson and his nephew Jason, it’s quite the trek. But, it’s worth it.
“Coming out here’s like taking a vacation,” Mario said. “It’s a long ride but we came anyway because I had to see Elena. God, this girl is something.”
This girl is Elena Delle Donne, and she is something. Through the first seven games of the season, Delle Donne has averaged 19.4 points a game, better than all but two other WNBA players. But according to Mario, scoring points is just the beginning of what Delle Donne can do.
“To be so tall, she’s six-five. She can rebound, she can shoot a three, she can dribble, she can block shots,” Stinson said. “I ain’t seen a girl like this in women’s basketball since I been watching it. She’s the next superstar of this this league.”
Miriam Koenig sits just a few seats down from Stinson, on the far side of the stadium, away from the kids with painted faces and balloon hats and the adults screaming wildly for the t-shirt cannons.
“We say Elena Delle Donne is the whole package,” Koenig said.
Fans like Miriam know what they’re talking about, and they want to make sure you give their views their due.
“Listen. Remember Miriam Koenig. Elena Delle Donne is gonna win the Rookie of the Year,” she said. “Remember me. She’s going to win the Rookie of the Year because she’s the whole package. The other two are limited in the game.”
The other two are the Phoenix Mercury’s Brittany Griner and the Tulsa Shock’s Skylar Diggins. Together, they’re the top three picks in the 2013 draft, and the WNBA is marketing them as the 3 to See. Delle Donne was the second pick behind six-foot-eight dunking sensation Brittney Griner. But, Chicago fans like Mario Stinson don’t wish their team had gotten the top pick instead.
“Brittney okay, ” Stinson said, shaking his head. “She can dunk. That makes the game exciting. She can’t do half what this young lady can do. I am so glad they got her and didn’t get that first pick and take Brittney Griner. Wow.”
A few days later at the same practice court where the Jordan-era Bulls ran drills, Delle Donne laughs off the fans’ notion that she’s better than Brittney Griner.
“Obviously they’re hardcore fans and I’m a Sky player so they’re gonna be behind me and root for me, so I’m thrilled that they’re happy to have me here and that’s all I can ask for,” Delle Donne said.This isn’t the first time Delle Donne has been in the spotlight. In 2008, she was the top recruit in women’s college basketball. She signed with the University of Connecticut, but left the school and the sport after just a few days in Storrs, Conn. citing homesickness and burnout. After taking a year away from basketball, Delle Donne played out her college career close to home, at the University of Delaware, leading the unheralded Blue Hens to the 2013 NCAA Sweet Sixteen.
Delle Donne is famously close with her family, and this is the first time she’s spent significant time away. But, she says Chicago fans don’t have anything to worry about.
“I’m fine. I love it here. It really hasn’t been a hard transition at all,” she said. “You know I was at college for five years, obviously close to my family but still living on campus away from them, so it hasn’t been hard at all. People have been shocked that I haven’t gone through homesickness yet but I love Chicago.”
Sky head coach Pokey Chatman isn’t worried either.
“I kinda watched her step away, I watched her get back into it. I watched her take a team from relative obscurity and bring it to the national spotlight,” Chatman said. “I kinda thought to myself, man it takes someone pretty strong in their convictions to walk away from Connecticut. Because you know you’re going to get scrutinized. You know you’re supposed to go there from the birth canal, it’s just the natural thing to do.”
Not only did she get a player who’s strong in her convictions, but Chatman says Delle Donne can play two or three different positions, making her 11-person roster feel like it holds 13 or 14. And, the pressure that comes from being one of the WNBA’s 3 to See? Chatman says that doesn’t touch her rookie star.
“She has this focus, she reminds me of that heavyweight fighter, you know, training for that fight and so even if it bothered others, it doesn’t bother her. I mean the first couple weeks it was a whirlwind of things but she just handled it seamlessly, while we’re having two a days and she’s playing three different positions at the highest level,” she said.
But, for at least one Sky fan, our list of Elena Delle Donne’s greatest talents is not yet complete. ESPN named Kathy McCabe Chicago’s #1 female sports fan in 2011. And McCabe has noticed one more thing that Delle Donne does better than anyone else.
“She has awesome eye makeup,” McCabe said. “She wears obvious eye makeup and it never runs or smears during the game.”
For the record, Elena Delle Donne wears Maybelline Eye Studio in black. When I ask her about it, she laughs and says she gets that question a lot. And now that she’s one of the WNBA’s 3 to See and in the position to lead her team to its first playoff berth, she quietly wonders if maybe an endorsement deal is in her future.