Decades before Elena Delle Donne became a Washington Mystics superstar and two-time WNBA MVP, she was a 6-year-old girl, taking lessons on exactly where to place her thumb before shooting a marked toy basketball. As Ernie taught her; He also taught her to shoot with beach goggles and to aim with a 14-foot structure called an “Oscar” (a broom on a ladder).
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And although statistics show that Elena is the greatest shooter in the history of basketball and the first player in the league to reach 50-40-90 percent from the field from behind the 3-point arc and from the free throw line. One season, Ernie only got occasional calls from the customer when she needed to fix her mechanics.
“It’s funny. He’s still consistent. I got some shots with him [Monday and Tuesday]Elena said. He’s been my shooting coach since I started playing basketball, and he’s been there ever since.
Ernie – it’s Ernest for professional settings but anything to do with Elena – calls back in an hour. He has some time before lunch before he gets funded for Office Mama, and he always makes time to talk about his favorite basketball player.
“I tell people, if I were a really good shooting coach, I’d have 10 to 15 players that I coached,” Ernie joked. I coached one player, and she was very talented.
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But all this does not prevent him from creating chaos on his side.
“I have a full-time job,” Ernie said. “To be honest, the only thing that worries me the most is the shooting,” he said.
Care? He is modest. While listening to both Dale Dons’ accounts of Baller’s upbringing, Ernie seems to be worried about her shot.
“Instead of trying to learn as much as I can when it matters to my children, I thought about what I could do as a father,” he said. “I think it’s just giving your kids the patience and courage to do the best they can.”
Ernie was a golfer and basketball player growing up and later studied biochemistry and economics at Columbia. So Ernie tutors Elena in sports science, combining golf lessons and using his brain to break down physics into child-effectiveness.
Ernie started with her right hand. He made sure her index finger was perpendicular to the floor. And how did you get a 6-year-old to understand this? He watched her fingers on that little orange basketball, so she knew how to put her hand in the right spot every time and lift her index finger to the 4½-foot rim.
As she got older, Elena remembers telling her to wear a baseball cap when shooting jump shots. He remembers it like an accountant’s look or an eight-inch-long beach look. Purpose: It requires the elbow, forearm and glenohumeral joint to be at a 90 degree angle. The ball stays about 14 inches from Elena’s face, and if her mechanics go through and the shot is released too close to her head, she will bounce off her hat.
Also, 8-year-old Elena wears an oven mitt on her left arm — to teach her to use it only as a stabilizer — and spends a lot of time with “Oscar.”
“It made it fun,” she said. “Shooting at the Oscars was a lot of fun for me, and before I knew it, I was making an arc at that moment.”
For the final element, Ernie coaches his daughter to hit the ball mid-range to the rim, which becomes the tip of the arrow. Forget about elbow extension—that’s dart shooting—and instead think about the forearm going vertical. So on a 22-foot shot from long range, Elena is aiming right at the 11-foot midpoint. Her legs do the rest.
“It’s great, it’s always my dad. He was,” says Elena. “Even if other coaches come into the area, they know: ‘Ugh.’ Don’t touch that.’ “That’s between me and him,” he said.
All these decades and awards later, Elena still shoots like she did on those 7-foot hoops at the YMCA. And when it’s time to work, the Dale Dons still fall back on the same practice — but the oven mitts, beaches, and Oscars have long since retired.
Still, they have rules. Although Ernie notices what’s going on with Elena’s shot better than anyone else, he can only offer help when asked.
“The big thing is, I have to get him. It’s probably going to kill him because he’s going to see that my shooting isn’t as efficient as it used to be and I’m sure he’s going to reach out and say something. It’s worth reaching out to because at the end of the day, he’s my dad. He doesn’t want to mess that up or be too much about basketball. So It’s kind of like our rules for each other and it’s done.
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But following the Mystics’ final Sunday of the regular season, when Elena shot 8-for-13 overall and 1-for-4 from the arc, she made an appointment with the shooting coach. She’s a regular shooter, so her feet never have to be square to the basket, and Ernie missed one of her three-point attempts from the left side to the right because her body wasn’t to the side. On Monday, the pair worked on those mechanics. Then the next day they come back and refine those mechanics even more.
“And as soon as she got that elbow and 14 inches, she turned right to the side. I really mean it,” says Ernie. “I’d say she had one of the best shooting drill days we’ve had on Tuesday and probably her best shooting day. [since] She was 14 playing AAU basketball.”
Elena Delle Donne’s shooting coach now has to go back to the 9-to-5. Those office buildings are not going to finance themselves. But he will watch Thursday night when the Mystics open a first-round contest in Seattle. He studies how her index finger, the 90-degree angle of her hand, is turned slightly away from the basket. And when Ernie calls, she’ll be ready to tear it all down.
“It’s not like feeling and touching. Once you check these things off the list, the shot should go in,” says Elena. “That’s the way his mind works, and I’m lucky to have a father who thinks like that. He’s been a shooter all my life and always will be.