Digging Deep

Book #4 of Hoops

About The Book

From WNBA MVP, Olympic gold medalist, and global ambassador to the Special Olympics Elena Delle Donne comes the fourth novel in a middle grade series with as much heart as there is game.

Elle is still reeling from her BIG decision but is also amazed at all the free time she has without basketball. With so much time to fill, she can figure out what she really likes doing—and maybe finding ways to spend more time with Amanda.

But when she keeps being drawn back to the gym, could her big decision have been a big mistake?

Excerpt

Digging Deep

1 Time for Something New?
In my dream I was tearing down the basketball court, dribbling so fast past the defenders that they were just a blur. The crowd chanted my name. “Elle! Elle! Elle! Elle!”

I approached the basket and jumped up, my body feeling light as I floated upward, ready to dunk. I flew high above the basket, but when I looked down, I didn’t see net. I saw a dark, swirling tunnel of wind.

“Nooooooo!” I yelled as the tunnel sucked me inside. My body twisted and turned as I plummeted down into the tunnel, about to . . .

“Zobe, no!” I cried. My Great Dane was licking my face as I sprang awake, my heart pounding from the dream.

I thought I knew what the dream meant. On Friday I had quit the school basketball team. Today was Monday, and I’d have to face most of my teammates for the first time since I’d walked out. I was pretty nervous about that.

I pulled my covers over my head. Zobe nudged them aside with his big doggy nose. I knew he wanted his morning walk, and breakfast.

“Can’t we just stay home today, Zobe?” I asked him. “Let’s just stay right here in this bed.”

“Woof!” Zobe gave a loud, deep bark. I sighed and threw off the covers. Zobe was not going to let me win this argument.

Twenty minutes later Zobe was eating his kibble and I was eating my cereal, nervously tapping my foot on the floor.

Mom sat down next to me and plunked her steaming coffee mug on the table. “Jim’s going to drive you and Blake to school this week. I’ll be picking you both up, except on days when Blake has basketball practice, or when you’re staying late for the anti-bully club, or Camp Cooperation. Then I’ll just get you.”

I nodded. Jim is my older brother, Blake is one of my best friends, and we all go to Spring Meadow, a private school in Wilmington, Delaware. We live in Greenmont, which is about thirty minutes away. And now that Jim is a senior, and has his own car, he helps out sometimes.

“What am I doing?” Jim asked, yawning as he walked into the kitchen.

“I believe you are driving Elle and Blake to school,” Dad said, not looking up from his laptop. He owns a real-estate business in Wilmington, and he works a lot. Even during breakfast!

“Cool,” Jim said, and I felt grateful that he wasn’t the kind of older brother who would complain about taking his little sister to school.

Actually, I’m not sure if the phrase “little sister” can technically apply to me. I’m twelve years old and six feet tall. So I’m not very little. It’s one of the reasons I started playing basketball in the first place.

It’s also one of the reasons I quit.

Jim grabbed a protein bar from the cabinet. “You ready, Elle?”

I jumped up from my seat. “Yes!” I put my dishes in the sink and then moved over to my sister, Beth, who was sitting in her wheelchair at the end of the table.

I leaned over and let Beth sniff my head so she would know it was me, because she couldn’t see or hear me. Then I took her hand and traced two symbols onto her palm with my finger, part of the special language that we used to communicate with her.

Good-bye. Love.

Beth took my hand and answered me. Love.

“I’ll be at the pickup area at three,” Mom told me.

“Thanks,” I said, and inside I was thinking, Three, not five, because I’m not going to basketball practice. Weird! I was going to have to get used to my new Monday routine.

I walked outside with Jim and saw Blake making a beeline for Jim’s car in the driveway.

“Shotgun!” I yelled, and dashed to the front passenger seat side of the car.

“Not fair!” Blake protested.

“Of course it’s fair,” I said. “I called it.”

Blake couldn’t argue with that. Those shotgun rules had a history going back to when we had both grown tall enough to sit in the front seat. He frowned and slid into the back. I got into the passenger side and then, to bust him, I pushed the seat back as far as it would go.

“Hey, now that’s definitely not fair!” Blake cried.

Jim shook his head. “Are you two twelve or five?” he asked.

I quickly pulled up my seat and locked in my seat belt. I heard Blake yawn behind me.

“I hate Mondays,” he complained as Jim pulled the car out of the driveway.

“I hate this Monday,” I said. “I haven’t seen anybody since I quit the team, except for you and Avery.”

Avery is my other best friend. She and I played on the girls’ basketball team together, the Nighthawks. Pretty much everybody I hang out with in school is on the team.

“You think it will be a big deal?” my brother asked.

“I know it will,” I groaned.

“You might be right,” Blake said. “Bianca’s been texting me all weekend, freaking out.”

“Really?” I asked. “I thought she’d be thrilled. She hated it when Coach Ramirez made me center.”

“Well, she’s happy she’s center,” Blake admitted, “but she’s worried about the team. She wants to make it to the championships. And she doesn’t think the Nighthawks can get there without you.”

“Of course they can,” I said quickly, but that was followed by a pang of doubt. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that my leaving could hurt the team’s record. That they might lose without me.

They won’t, I told myself. They’ve got too many good players. Bianca was really good. So was Avery, and Tiff and Dina were pretty solid. They didn’t need me.

That didn’t stop me from feeling guilty though, especially when we got to school and my friends Hannah and Natalie ambushed me at my locker. They both squashed me in a double hug.

“Elle, please don’t quit!” cried pink-haired Natalie as they pulled away from me. “I thought you loved basketball more than any of us!”

“I still love basketball,” I said. “I just don’t feel comfortable playing it competitively right now.”

“What can we do to get you to stay?” Hannah asked. I felt awful, because her big brown eyes looked so sad when she said it.

“Nothing,” I said. “I mean, thanks, but this is just something I need to do. It’s not personal.”

Hannah sighed. “I thought you would say that.”

“I get it,” Natalie added. “As long as you’re happy, Elle.”

“Thanks,” I replied, although I wasn’t sure if I was happy, exactly. Relieved, maybe. But I hadn’t gotten to “happy” yet.

Next, Bianca walked by with her best friend, Tiff. Bianca didn’t say a word to me; she just tossed her glossy black hair as she passed and glared at me. Tiff, who was wearing a blue hijab over her dark brown hair, shot me a look of apology.

Luckily, Avery was right behind them. She stopped and grabbed my arm.

“You all right?” she asked.

I nodded. “Just walk with me to homeroom, okay?”

“Sure,” Avery said.

I’m glad I asked her, because even though it was a short walk, I passed all the rest of my teammates.

“You can’t really be quitting, Elle,” Dina said, talking fast as she kept pace with us. “Say it’s not true.”

“It’s true,” I replied, and Dina stopped following us and shook her head.

Patrice looked up at me from her locker and just nodded. The coach’s daughter, she had almost quit too, a week ago. She kind of looked like she wanted to talk to me, but she didn’t say anything.

Then Caroline walked up to me and Avery.

“I’m going to miss you on the team, Elle,” she said.

“Yeah, me too,” I said. “But I’ll still see you at Camp Cooperation!”

Caroline and I both volunteer for this after-school program for kids with special needs.

Then Avery turned the corner and literally bumped into the last (but definitely not least) member of the team, Amanda. She smiled at me, and I smiled back. But seeing Amanda always makes me smile.

“Hey, guys,” she said. “Elle, I mean it. We need to go on a doggy date this weekend.”

I laughed. “I definitely want to,” I said. Amanda has a dog too—an English springer spaniel named Freckles. “I just need to check my scheduling app. Even without basketball, I still seem to have a packed schedule.”

“Make sure to squeeze me in,” Amanda said with a grin, and then we all stepped into homeroom together and took our seats as the bell rang.

“Good morning, Spring Meadow students and staff!” Principal Lubin’s morning voice, always cheerful, rang out over the school sound system. “I’m wearing my sunglasses to school today and do you know why? Because the students here at Spring Meadow are so bright!”

Everybody in class groaned. Principal Lubin’s puns were always painful, but he was a really nice principal, so we all forgave him for it.

“I’m proud to reannounce that Ms. Ebear is organizing the Buddy Club, an anti-bullying club in the middle school that will meet after school on Wednesdays,” he said. “This club is open to all students in grades six through eight. We’re currently working on a club for elementary school students that will meet during lunch period. Stay tuned for more details, and if you haven’t already, look for the sign-up sheet for Ms. Ebear’s club in the middle school front hallway.”

Then we said the Pledge of Allegiance, and the speaker crackled off. Besides being the advisor for the anti-bullying club, Ms. Ebear was also our homeroom and World History teacher, and my favorite. She wore her shiny brown hair in a neat bob, and she had kind green eyes behind her severe black eyeglasses.

“I need to thank Principal Lubin for that shout-out,” she said. “And I hope to see some of you in this class at our meeting on Wednesday.”

Avery leaned toward me. “I wish I could go, but we—I mean, I—have basketball practice.”

I nodded, feeling guilty. I was planning to join Ms. Ebear’s club. In fact, learning about it was one of the reasons I had decided to quit basketball. Avery had been really supportive of my decision to quit, but I felt bad telling her that I was joining the club when I knew she couldn’t—so I didn’t say anything.

After homeroom I stayed in the room for World History class with Ms. Ebear. Nobody talked to me about quitting the basketball team, which was a relief. Same in second period science class. But then came third period gym.

I had changed into my green gym shirt and shorts and was leaving the locker room when Kenya and Maggie approached me. I know them because Spring Meadow is a small school, but I’ve never really hung out with them. They were both athletic—and both on the girls’ volleyball team.

“I heard you quit basketball,” Kenya said.

“Yeah,” I replied. Where was this going?

“We need your help on the volleyball team,” Kenya continued. “Lauren sprained her wrist and we’re down a player until she gets better. And we’ve seen you play in gym and we know you’re good.”

Maggie hadn’t said anything yet—I knew she was quiet—but she stared at me with intense blue eyes that peered out from under her blond bangs.

“Oh wow, I don’t know what to say,” I replied. “I mean, I like volleyball. But I . . . when are the practices?”

“Tuesdays after school, and Fridays at five,” Kenya replied. “And then a game every Friday at seven.”

I bit my lip, thinking. The schedule was definitely less stressful than the basketball schedule. It still left me free to volunteer on Thursdays, and to join Ms. Ebear’s club. I had loved playing volleyball in gym class. And it would only be temporary, until Lauren’s wrist healed. Still . . .

“I need to think about it,” I said.

“Don’t think too hard,” Kenya told me. “If you decide to do it, come to practice tomorrow.”

I nodded. “Okay,” I said.

Avery walked up to me. “What was that about?” she asked.

“Oh, nothing,” I said. Once again, I felt awkward telling Avery I might be doing something cool instead of basketball. Avery looked at me suspiciously, but she didn’t press me.

I thought about Kenya’s offer as I jogged around the gym. One reason I had quit basketball was because it was getting stressful. Coach Ramirez expected a lot from me. Would volleyball be the same? I wondered.

I jogged past Bianca and Dina. Dina nodded to me, but Bianca deliberately looked the other way.

What was her deal? Bianca had been mad when Coach Ramirez had given me her position on the team, and the pressure and taunting I’d gotten from Bianca was another reason I’d quit. But even though I wasn’t on the team anymore, nothing had gotten better. I’d thought maybe she’d be nicer to me once I left, but obviously I was wrong about that.

I glanced back at the volleyball girls. Was one of them another Bianca? Would I be walking from one bad situation into another?

That’s not the only reason you quit, I reminded myself. One of the main reasons was because it felt like my height had sentenced me to play basketball . . . forever. People were already telling me that I was on a track to become a pro player, and I was only twelve! What if I wanted to do something different with my life? If I didn’t find out now, when would I?

You love sports, I told myself. Why not give volleyball a try?

• • •

That question bounced around in my head all day. I decided to ask my parents about it at dinner, and when I did they were thrilled, which surprised me a little bit.

“I think it’s a great idea to try something new!” Dad said.

Mom nodded. “I was worried that you were just going to be moping around, Elle. I know you’re joining the anti-bullying club, but that’s only one day a week, and basketball was such a big commitment.”

“The volleyball schedule is easier,” I said. “I can help out the team and still have time to try some new things.”

“It seems like a good idea,” Mom agreed. “But are you sure that you won’t have the same issues with volleyball that you did with basketball? I hated seeing the way the pressure got to you, Elle.”

I shrugged. “I have no idea, because I’ve never been on a volleyball team before. All I know is basketball. But I think maybe it’s worth finding out. And the team needs me—I’d really be helping them out.”

“Fair enough,” Mom replied. “So have you decided?”

I took a deep breath. “Yeah. I’m going to do it.”

“Great!” Mom said. “E-mail me your new practice and game schedule.”

After dinner I saw I had a text on my phone from an unknown number. It was Kenya.

Got your number from Blake. Did you decide? We have practice tomorrow.

Wow, she’s persistent, I thought. It was kind of flattering, though.

See you at practice, I typed back. I’ll join the team until Lauren is better!!

About The Author

Photograph by The Players Tribune/Todd Rosenberg

Elena Delle Donne has been a professional women’s basketball player since 2013, when she was selected by the Chicago Sky second overall in the WNBA draft. She was the 2015 WNBA MVP and won the gold medal with the USA’s women’s basketball team in the 2016 Olympics. She is the global ambassador for the Special Olympics and became the first national ambassador for the Lyme Research Alliance. Elena also plays host to De11e Donne Academy, a basketball camp that runs throughout the year, where she mentors and coaches girls ages seven to eighteen. She now plays for the Washington, DC, Mystics.

Raves and Reviews

"Highly recommended for middle grade sports collections."

– School Library Journal Online

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