By Bill Campbell
I guess I’ve had more surprising days in sports than last Friday but, offhand, I can’t remember one.
With all three Philadelphia area college basketball teams – Temple, St. Joe’s and LaSalle – losing in their respective post-season competition, it was really shocking. At least Temple managed to make the NCAA event and will meet the winner of the Califorinia-South Florida game in Nashville, Tennessee, on Friday night. The time will be a little late – 9:55 p.m. – now that daylight savings time has entered our lives. Temple’s ticket is a fifth seed and a spot in the Midwest Regional, a listing that even Temple coach, Fran Dunphy, probably thought was surprising. It took almost 40 minutes into last Sunday’s NCAA selection show until Temple’s name was even mentioned. After winning the outright Atlantic Ten regular season, Temple was looking forward to getting its fourth straight conference title in five seasons. But 22 turnovers in that quarter-final just killed the Owls.
My heart goes out to Drexel. Amid all the questions that annually surround most of the usual post-season selections, it was apparently a miss by Drexel on the strength or weakness of its schedule. That the Dragons won the CAA regular season title didn’t seem to impress the NCAA selection committee.
Temple fans really have no complaints. The Number Five seed isn’t really all that bad. If the Owls make it to the second round they may see Michigan, which could be tough. This tournament has a chance to produce the twentieth anniversary of possibly the greatest college basketball game ever played. Kentucky is the Number One seed in the South Regional and Duke is Number Two. They’re slated to collide in Atlanta, which will refresh a lot of memories. As for Drexel, even the irrepressible Bruiser Flynt said, “I think I’m a little more disappointed this time than last time.” But he is not one to wallow in self-pity and neither will the Dragons. They will be ready to play in the NIT.
Like most guys, I like to talk about the girls and there is one gal who has retained my interest throughout this basketball season. Her name is Elena Delle Donne, who left the top-rated basketball program coached by Gino Auriemma at the University of Connecticut to go to Delaware. The reason? Her love for her little sister, Lizzie, who was born deaf, blind and with cerebral palsy. She did go to the Storrs, Connecticut campus for two months. It was a big-time program, a chance to put her story on a national page. She came from Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Delaware, and was heavily recruited. She’s undoubtedly the most versatile female basketball player in the country. In fact, there aren’t too many guys with her ability. UConn coach Auriemma says, “She missed out on a bunch of national championships but maybe that wasn’t as important to her as the other things.” Heading the list of the “other things” was a chance to see and be with Lizzie, to have dinner with her family once or twice a week and to play for Lizzie, who can get to two or three games in a season. To exchange hugs on those occasions. As Elena puts it, “When she comes to a game, there’s just a different feel for me. It’s like I play with another heart or something.” Elena plays with a tattoo on her side that reads, “Lizzie” inside angels’ wings. “She’s my inspiration,” says Elena, “The battles that she has faced in life are incredible. She’s been through about thirty surgeries. I always try to keep that in perspective. Any challenge that I’m going through will never compare to what Lizzie does every day.”
Delaware is still sometimes overlooked. There have been people who sometimes have asked Elena what state Delaware is in. Della Donne replies, “It is the first state, surely you know that,” really a reminder that Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution. Recently a voice delivered a message to Delaware coach Tina Martin’s cell phone. The voice said, “Tina, this is Joe Biden in Air Force Two. I wish I could come to today’s game but I have a conflict on my schedule.” That’s the kind of notice Delle Donne has created. Delaware finished the season 28-1, but in two previous appearances in the NCAA and in six NIT tournaments was winless without Delle Donne. Now the sky is the limit with the 6’5” forward-guard. She’s averaged 28 points a game and has been over 30 twelve times. There was some resentment in Connecticut when she left but not that much because she put family first when she returned to Delaware. Now she’s a National Player of the Year candidate. She left for Lizzie. As she put it, “Lizzie can’t speak. She can’t send email or skype. Being near Lizzie is the only way I can be with her.”
In a recent email the Vice President of the United States wrote this: “On and off the court Elena Delle Donna is a shining star. The decision to put her family first before her own career is something I hope every young athlete will take note of and find inspiring. It not only makes her a better person. It makes her a better athlete because her team-mates know when she plays it’s not all about her. It’s about the team.”
It has been noted that most teams in the Philadelphia area bit the dust in their respective tournaments. It should have noted all except one: the Delaware Ladies’ team. Delaware defeated Drexel 59-43, punching its ticket to the NCAA tournament for another year by winning their local Colonial Championship. Elena Delle Donne broke free from Drexel’s stifling defense to lead the Blue Hens to their first conference title when, after being held to 8 points in the first half, she finished with 27 to win the Most Outstanding Player Award and an automatic team berth in the NCAA tournament. Delaware finished its season 30-1. The Drexel coach, Denise Dillon, described the game perfectly, “We spent so much time trying to guard Delle Donne, we didn’t have enough energy left to score points for ourselves.”
That says it all.