CHICAGO | While most of the top players in the WNBA are spending this winter overseas playing basketball in Russia, Turkey or China, Elena Delle Donne decided to stay in Chicago to help grow the Sky brand.
Whether working basketball clinics, meeting with business leaders or just showing her face around town, Delle Donne is making the most of her time in the Windy City.
"It definitely has been a huge chance to help get the word out about the team and the league," Delle Donne said. "They see me and being 6-foot-5, they are like who's this athletic tall girl at these business meetings. They want to follow us next year. It's important to have our faces out there so they can get excited about it."
Delle Donne made such an impact in her first season with the Sky on the court, that spending the winter in Chicago was a natural extension. The league's rookie of the year — the second overall pick out of Delaware — helped Chicago to its best season ever with the franchise's first trip to the WNBA playoffs. The Sky's attendance increased by 17 percent — the most of any team in the league.
"The Sky organization is thrilled that Elena chose to stay not only in the country but in Chicago this offseason. This is an important part of growth, especially in building our brand presence in Chicago," Sky owner Michael Alter said. "Her willingness to be out and about in the corporate and philanthropic communities as well as youth basketball will pay dividends."
Last weekend, Delle Donne hosted a basketball clinic in the morning followed by a brief stop at Nike for an event before a Juvenile Diabetes dinner. A day earlier, she earned $10,000 for Special Olympics — a cause near and dear to Delle Donne because of her older sister Lizzie, who has cerebral palsy and is blind and deaf —by hitting free throws during a visit to a Chicago-area business.
"Anytime I can do anything to help them is great," Delle Donne said of the Special Olympics. "I'm working to get them more involved in the clinics we're doing."
Delle Donne said she'd love to be an Ambassador for the Special Olympics down the road. It would be a natural fit as she really is at her best working with children. At the recent clinic in Chicago, kids came from as far as Michigan to participate. Whether it's signing autographs or showing a young girl or boy how to work on their ballhandling, the star was at ease with them.
Chicago Sky coach and general manager Pokey Chatman worked at the clinic, also taking in one that Delle Donne did in Delaware. She's been thoroughly impressed with her young star.
"It was an overnight clinic where kids could bring their sleeping bags and hang out with Elena all night," Chatman said. "She's so engaged. I try to tell people, but I want people to witness it themselves. I don't think she understands yet the attraction that she is for little girls and boys.
"She can be the face of the league for a long, long time."
Delle Donne, who was the first rookie to lead the WNBA All-star voting, has also made the rounds at Chicago sporting events. She had the opportunity to meet one of her idols when she bumped into former Bulls star Scottie Pippen — who rose to NBA fame after a college career at little-known Central Arkansas — at a game.
"It was so great to meet him," she said. "I never tend to get star struck, but I grew up a diehard Bulls fan and to get to talk to him was really incredible. We had somewhat similar backgrounds coming from small schools."
Not playing overseas also has its advantages for Delle Donne. She battled Lyme Disease throughout her college career and she's still working to get it completely under control and be totally healthy.
"I've been doing great, been able to come off almost all the medication," Delle Donne said. "Hopefully I've turned the corner with that, but it's something that I have to keep up."
Besides doing events, Delle Donne has also been working to improve her strength, spending three hours a day weight training.
"I was starting to wear down as the season went on last year," she said, "and I know this will help me down the road."
It hasn't been all work for Delle Donne, she's gotten a chance to head home to Delaware to see Lizzie and the rest of her family.
"I was home for Thanksgiving and will be spending a few weeks around Christmas there as well," she said. "It's so important to get to see them."
It will also give her a chance to get out of the Chicago winter.
"It's definitely something I have to get used to," she said smiling. "I don't think I'm prepared yet, I need to get a better coat, scarf and gloves. Back in Delaware, we get snow once in awhile, but it's definitely not like this."
While she's not worried about adapting to the cold, Delle Donne is concerned for her puppy Wrigley, who she adopted over the summer.
"Well Wrigley isn't so much of a cold-weather fan," Delle Donne said laughing. "He's been in Delaware since Thanksgiving and I get the feeling he's not going to be a huge fan of the snow."
He's going to have to get used to it because Delle Donne plans to spend a long time in Chicago.