On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Kojo For Kids welcomes Elena Delle Donne to the show on Monday, March 29 at 12:30. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
Elena Delle Donne is one of the most exciting stars of professional basketball. The power forward led the Washington Mystics to its 2019 WNBA championship, was twice named the league’s MVP and became the first WNBA player to join the exclusive 50-40-90 club.
But some people think Delle Donne’s most important accomplishments have to do with her devotion to her family, and the way she stands up for herself and other people. Her foundation supports the Special Olympics, and also raises awareness of Lyme Disease, which Delle Donne struggles with herself.
We welcome Delle Donne to the show and the students from our “school of the week,” Swanson Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, and Takoma Park Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland. We know they’ll have questions for Delle Donne, and we want to hear your questions too — if you’re a kid.
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 23 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Elena Delle Donne Power Forward; Washington Mystics; @De11eDonne
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Yep, swish. That's the sound of a game-winning basket made by Elena Delle Donne, one of the most electrifying basketball players of her generation and a personal favorite of mine. A rookie of the year, two-time MVP and Olympic Gold Medalist, she led our home team, the Washington Mystics, to their first championship. She's here today to talk about basketball, but also about other things she cares about, like people with disabilities, inclusion and equality, and you might be surprised to learn, woodworking.
KOJO NNAMDIWe also welcome our schools of the week, Swanson Middle School in Arlington and Tacoma Park Middle School. We're eager to hear their questions for Elena Delle Donne, and they're calling already. But we want to hear your questions, too, if you're a kid. Adults, you're welcome to listen, but on Kojo for Kids it's kid callers only. Elena Delle Donne, welcome to the program.
ELENA DELLE DONNEHey, Kojo. Thank you so much for having me on.
NNAMDIWell, my producers and I have been trying to get you on this program for at least a year, so we are really happy that you can join us today. We'll get to...
DONNEI am very excited, too.
NNAMDIIt's cool. We'll get to basketball in a minute, but first let's talk about when you were a kid. Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
DONNEI grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. My entire family actually still lives there now, so luckily, it's a pretty short drive on 95. And I get to go home often, in the off season. So, even the D.C. area has always felt so much like home, because I've been here so much.
NNAMDIYou're especially close with your family. Tell us about them and, in particular, tell us about your older sister Lizzy and the very special relationship you have with her.
DONNEYeah, I certainly have a very close-knit family, and I believe the closeness that we have has been because of my sister with special needs. So, she's the oldest sibling in the family. She was born deaf and blind and with many other disabilities. So, I feel like, from day one, our family has always just been a team. And the goal of this team is to make sure she can function and live the best life she possibly can. And it's brought us so close together, and I feel like even though she's never spoken a single word to me, because she can't, I feel like I've learned so many life lessons from her. Number one, just persevering through all the challenges. So, she has been an incredible older sister to look up to.
NNAMDIHow do you communicate with Lizzy?
DONNEYeah, that's a great question. So, since she can't see and she can't hear, we have what we call hand-over-hand sign language. So, she will sign something into the palm of our hands, and then we'll sign something back into the palm of her hand. So, it's very much all based on touch, and the signs are not your typical sign language. It's all things that she has kind of made up through life and we've kind of just been able to figure out with her.
DONNESo, she knows about 20 signs, and all things very specific such as, like, sleep or drink or eat. But we've kind of like learned these signs with her and have created this certain language. But the best language is when you get a big hug and a kiss from her, or you hear her belly giggle. (laugh) That's when you know you've done something right.
NNAMDIWalking can be difficult for Lizzy, and you have been filmed carrying her, but you say Lizzy carries you. What do you mean by that?
DONNEYeah. So, through my life and through my basketball journey, there's been many ups and some downs, as well. And I've always found that, in those low moments, where I either felt like giving up or I took a break from basketball because I was dealing with some burnout, Lizzy was the person who kind of brought me back and kind of just helped me put my life back into perspective.
DONNEAnd even after, you know, a tough loss or, you know, a tough practice, I'm always able to kind of just look towards her and put life in perspective again and just be like, you know what? It's just a game. I know it's my job and I know I'm trying to do my best for the city and my team doing games, but in the end, it keeps so much in perspective, with all the things that she has to deal with to even get out of bed in the morning.
NNAMDIYou're 6'5" now, and when you were young, you were always much taller than other kids. Was that ever hard for you, and when did you learn to appreciate your height?
DONNE(laugh) Yeah. I was always much, much taller than the rest of the kids in the class. I generally was the one in the back of the line or in the back of photos. And it was really hard when I was young, because for some reason, as a kid, I just wanted to fit in, and I didn't want to stand out at all. I just wanted to be quote-unquote "normal," which doesn't make much sense now. And then throughout just growing up and getting older, you realize, like, the more unique you are, the more special you are. And you can just bring so much to this world.
DONNESo, it took a little bit of time to learn that and to realize that, why would you want to fit in? Like, we're all born to stand out, in our own way. And I was able to learn that by watching my sister, by having many conversations with my mom, because she was also very tall when she was young, and just kind of realizing that, you know, what's unique about us is what's most amazing. And you should share that and be proud of it. So, it took a little bit of time.
NNAMDIHow'd you get started playing basketball, and did you play any other sports?
DONNEActually, I started playing basketball when I was really young, like, four years old, because I have an older brother and he was playing. And I would go to all of his games, and I'd see his friends in the backyard playing pickup. And I just wanted to be a part of it, and I wanted to be able to compete with them. So, basketball was my first sport and my first love. And then I did pick up a little bit of T-ball when I was young, and then I played volleyball for a little bit, but mainly, basketball was my focus.
NNAMDIWhen it was time for you to go to college, you accepted a scholarship at the University of Connecticut, which, as everyone knows, has one of the very best basketball teams in the nation. You got there, but within 48 hours, you made a momentous decision. Can you tell us what happened?
DONNEI did make quite a big decision that caused a bit of uproar. Well, I decided to leave and go back home. I was dealing with burnout from the sport and also just a lot of home sickness and just not realizing that leaving home, but especially leaving Lizzy, was too much for me to handle at that time. I don't think I ever really thought it through. And when I left and I realized, like, I have no communication with her, you can't just pick up the phone and call her or FaceTime her or even write her a letter. So, for me, it just hit me in that moment, and I just knew this isn't right. This isn't going to work.
DONNEAnd I went home, and I kind of took the summer to just settle down and realized, like, I'm going to go to the University of Delaware. It's 20 minutes from my home, and I'm going to experience college in that way. And because of the burnout that I was dealing with from basketball, I decided to play college volleyball for a year. But I was grateful to have incredible teammates and great people around me, and realized that I wanted to get back into the game of basketball.
NNAMDIYou did decide you wanted to play basketball for the University of Delaware. What was it that specifically changed your mind?
DONNEI think when I was able to kind of just come home, settle in, go to college, enjoy that experience, I was able to realize that a lot of -- I was blaming basketball for a lot of, like, my home sickness and for pulling me away from my family. And at that time, I finally made the decision that University of Delaware was going to be the place that I stayed my entire college career. And I realized that I really was starting to miss the game of basketball. And I had put so much time and effort into the game ,and I wanted to give it a go again and see how it felt. So, I decided to just go play at the University of Delaware. It was the best decision ever.
NNAMDIBefore I go to the phones, in your last year of college, you were the number two pick in the WNBA draft, and you were chosen by the Chicago Sky. What made you, at that point, ready to move away from home and live halfway across the country?
DONNE(laugh) Yeah, I had definitely grown up a lot throughout my college career, and was able to figure out that even if I'm distance away from Lizzy and my family, I'm still able to find ways to stay in touch and to get home when I possibly can. So, even in season, if we had a couple off days, I would immediately fly back home and go see the family and then get back to Chicago. But I also spent my entire off season back in Delaware, so it was -- you know, the season's about five months. And then the other seven months of the year, I was able to be in Delaware. So, the professional career worked very well in being able to get back and forth.
NNAMDIHere, now, is 14-year-old Abigail of Tacoma Park Middle School. Abigail, it's your turn. Go ahead.
ABIGAILHi. It's so cool to talk to you. What are your thoughts on the difference of the weight rooms and equipment for the men and women in the NCAA tournament?
DONNEWow. It's amazing to talk to you, too, Abigail, and I love that you're keeping up with that. I was -- unfortunately, I wasn't shocked when I saw the mistreatment from the men's tournament to the female tournament, because I've been there, and I've seen the differences.
DONNEI was hoping that we were in a different time now and that wouldn't still be the same, but so proud of the young women who spoke up about it, who took pictures and videos and showed how ridiculous it was. And I hope that that was super eye-opening for the NCAA, and they wake up and realize that this is just not okay, and that they have got to change it. So, as happy as I am that they're able to fix the weight room and all, that's not enough. And this has got to continue for years to come, and there should never be a disparity.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Abigail. Now, here's 14-year-old Evan, who attends Alice Deal Middle School. Evan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EVANHello. I had a question about what are your views on the equal pay? I recently read an article about Draymond Green, the forward, I believe, for the Golden State Warriors. And he received backlash for his views on that. But what are your views on that whole situation?
NNAMDIYeah, I think what was most frustrating about his views were it's all things that we've been fighting for for years and years, on end. Like, we know this. We know that companies have got to put money into female athletes. We know that we need more visibility. So, to act like you just snap your fingers and we haven't been asking for that was what was very frustrating for all of us. And we need allies, and we need men who are in those rooms to be sticking up for us.
NNAMDIWe're trying our best, and we've been for many, many years, but we need everybody in this together. So, I think that's where a lot of the frustration came was just, like, okay, thanks for your input, but we've been doing this for years and now we need help. And we need those people who are in those meetings with these big companies to say, hey, if you're going to pay me for this commercial this amount of money, you need to go pay a Sue Bird or a Candace Parker that same amount of money that I'm receiving.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Now on to 14-year-old Alison at Tacoma Park Middle School. Alison, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALISONHi. It's really nice to speak with you. I know you kind of answered this question already, but I played soccer and basketball for many years, but I sprained my ankle multiple times. And it got harder to go back and keep my confidence up. How do you keep your confidence up and a positive outlook on playing basketball?
DONNEThat's a great question, and it's actually something I'm going through now, because I've been experiencing a lot of issues with my back. And it's hard, because you're not training the way that you wish you possibly could, and you can only give so much. So, for me, I try to just win the day. And whatever that means, if it's just maybe my therapy that day is going for a walk or maybe it's stretching, I try not to be too hard on myself.
DONNEAnd then, when you're starting to get back into the flow of things, you have to take it slowly. You can't just jump in, back into a 40-minute game. So, I think the biggest thing is don't beat yourself up. And I know when I get back out on the court, it's going to be ugly for a little bit, because I haven't been able to train and play the way I want to. But just know that you can only give your best, and you're going to get back to where you want to be. And sometimes, you can't set a timeline, because it's hard to know.
NNAMDIAlison, thank you very much for your call. I'll bring that up in a minute, again. In 2017, you were traded to the Washington Mystics. How did you feel about joining the team?
DONNE(laugh) I was elated when I got traded to the Washington Mystics. It was the team that I wanted to be drafted to, but it just didn't happen that way. So, when it was time that I finally could come and be a Mystic and be with this program, I was thrilled. It's a program that is second-to-none. They treat us phenomenally.
DONNEYou know, we get all the things that the NBA players do. We share a facility with them. So, it was a really incredible moment for me to not only just be able to come back and be closer to home, but to be a part of an organization that cares so much and puts so much into their players. And you can see that, because we were able to come away with the championship pretty quickly.
NNAMDII was about to say, you led your teammates to the WNBA championship just two years after getting here. Well, I want to say, what was that like, but I remember that in the championship the year before and in the last game of the championship this year, tell us what was going on with your back at the time.
DONNE(laugh) Yeah, for some reason, in that championship series, I have been dealing with injuries. The first year was a knee injury that kind of was just a freak accident, where the floor was a little bit wet, and I tweaked my knee. And then the following year was a back injury where I had several herniations and was dealing with that. So, for me, it was more just like, how can I be on the floor and still impact my team and be a leader? Because I have so many talented teammates that were able to step up at different points in time. So, it was just like, how am I going to be able to impact this game in a different way? Because, obviously, my body was not at 100 percent.
NNAMDIWell, I have watched all kinds of NBA championships over the years, and I have never seen a team win a championship when it was being led by a guy who had a triple herniated disc in his back. (laugh) If you want to see how the women play, and play through pain, then you need to watch Elena Delle Donne. But what was it like to win that championship, at that point?
DONNEOh, my gosh. It was the best feeling. Not just because we had been through so much and been through so much adversity, and many people were battling through injuries. But I think what was so special is our team just had so much love and appreciation for one another. And I had never been on a team where you wanted to win that championship more for the person next to you than for yourself. And I think that's what made it such an incredible feeling when we finally did it and all looked at each other and just was so happy for one another.
NNAMDIAnd we were very happy for you and for ourselves, those of us who call ourselves fans of the Mystics.
DONNEAnd I mean -- exactly. When you looked in the crowd and saw fans just bawling it was like, oh, my goodness. Like, this means just as much to them s it does us. Like, the journey was so worth it.
NNAMDIIndeed. Here's 14-year-old Nakaya from Tacoma Park Middle School. Nakaya, it's your turn.
NAKAYAHi. So, actually, a while back, I actually got my ball signed by your team. But my question is: What difficulties do you face, as a forward?
DONNEWell, I'm glad you were able to get your ball signed. I hope it's in a cool place. As a forward, I would say probably what's most difficult is, like, still trying to be versatile in your game, especially when you're younger. Oftentimes, coaches will put the tall people as forwards and posts and the small people are guards. So, for you, I would say just try to be as versatile as possible. You want to still be doing all the same drills that the guards are doing, while still developing your post game. Because especially as you get to the next level, there's nothing more important than being able to do it all and being able to spread the floor and being able to play all different positions.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Elena, you are, according to the "Guardian" newspaper, the most successful free-throw shooter in basketball history, making 93.8 percent of your shots. What's your secret? How do you get so good at free throws?
DONNEI would say my secret is simplification. So, for me, I have tried to simplify my free throw into as little steps as possible, so not much can go wrong. I think when you see people shooting free throws or doing their routines, a lot of times, they're doing a lot of things that can go wrong. And free throw shooting is such a mental part of the game, where you want things to be just so simple and something you're able to do over and over and over again the same way, so that you really aren't even thinking about it. It's more like you're on autopilot. So, that's kind of been my secret.
NNAMDIThere's a lot of pressure when it comes to free throws. What's the advice you would give to young players about how not to get nervous on the free-throw line?
DONNEYeah, I think the biggest thing is just realizing that it's the same shot that you have been shooting ever since you started picking up the game of basketball and playing. So, even if it's a buzzer beater, I know, like, it's stressful. The crowd's yelling, but it's still the same exact shot. There's nothing different.
DONNEAnd if you can kind of just train your mind to just do that shot the same exact way every single time, that's the best you can do. And it kind of helps just get rid of the crowd noise or the pressure around it. And I also believe very much in taking a deep breath. Being able to take a nice, deep breath can settle your nerves immediately.
NNAMDILast spring, 11-year-old Adi Topolosky, who plays basketball for Hebrew Academy in Rockville, went to the mall with her mom to buy Elena Delle Donne sneakers. The salesman told her that he had never heard of Elena Delle Donne, and would rather watch paint dry than watch women sports. Adi asked for an apology, and then you, her hero, got involved. What are your thoughts on this incident, and why did you reach out to Adi?
DONNEYeah. So, for me, number one, to see any young athlete go into a store and not be able to get, you know, their hero's merchandise is one thing, and that's tough, in itself. But then to have somebody so negatively make that experience that much worse was really eye-opening to me. And it kind of shows me why many girls drop out of sports at a young age. And, obviously, that's something I don't want to see.
DONNEI know how great sports can be, whether you go on to be a professional athlete or whatever you end up doing, sports are so important for development and for growth. So, for me, I first just wanted to reach out to her and say how proud I was for telling her story, because that can be really tough. And then the next step was, okay, how can we put our heads together and make something happen?
DONNESo, I've been on calls with her and Big Sporting Goods about this process. And I'm hoping that we will be starting to see change soon, because both Adi and her friends and some of her coaches were on this call, and they were able to express to sporting good stores the need to see WNBA gear and other gear of professional leagues. They need to be accessible for our athletes, for young boys and young girls. So, I thought that was a really big step, where she told her story. We were able to get in touch, and then it was like, all right, how can we make this business get better?
NNAMDIHere, now, is six-year-old Emily, in Maryland. Emily, it's your turn. You're on the air. Go ahead, Emily.
EMILYI wanted to know what inspired you to play basketball.
DONNEHi, Emily. I started playing basketball just because I loved it, and I had so much fun when I was able to go outside and play with my brother and my parents. And then, from there, I really looked up to Sheryl Swoopes. I thought she was so incredible, and she also had some really cool Nike basketball shoes that I wanted to get, and I was able to get my hands on. So, it was like when I was playing in Sheryl's shoes, I felt like I was Sheryl.
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left. You've written several books for kids. Can you tell us about the "Hoops" series and why you wrote it?
DONNEOf course. So, it's a "Hoops" series, and I wrote it because I want people to be able to see themselves or a friend in this book. So, a lot of it goes through being very tall, as a young girl, and going through bullying and trying to figure that out. And then also experiencing different things with my sexuality, and I have put my wife Amanda in the book, as well, because I just feel like we need books that we can either see ourselves or other people in.
DONNEAnd I also didn't feel like there were many basketball books when I was growing up, so I wanted to do that for the kids. And I also love just being a part of schools and being -- if I wasn't playing basketball, I probably would've been a teacher. So, it kind of got me back into the school system, a little bit.
NNAMDIElena Delle Donne plays for the Washington Mystics and led the team to its national championship. Elena, thank you so much for joining us.
DONNEOf course. Thank you.
NNAMDIKojo for Kids with Elena Delle Donne was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation with Dr. Leana Wen was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, after searching for decades, archeologists have uncovered St. Mary's Fort, a nearly 400-year-old colonial site. We'll speak with the archeologist who led the dig and the executive director of Maryland's historic St. Mary City.
NNAMDIThen we'll talk with veteran journalist Judy Woodruff, the anchor and managing editor of the PBS News Hour. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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