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

Elle has been having a lot of fun on the volleyball team, a mentality she has decided to take with her to basketball once she rejoins the team. But even though Elle has decided she wants to return…will her teammates and coach welcome her back with open arms?

It may take more than a swish to make this a winning decision!

Chapter 1: I’m Back!

1 I’m Back!
Pepperoni is the only kind of pizza that matters,” Dina was saying.

Natalie made a face. “Ew! What is pepperoni supposed to be, anyway? I mean, they’re like weird spicy coins of unidentified greasy meat.”

“And delicious!” Dina replied, taking an enormous bite of her pizza slice.

It was a typical post-game pizza lunch celebration at Spike’s Pizza Joint for the Nighthawks, the girls’ seventh-grade basketball team at Spring Meadow School. That morning, the team had won a game against the Cardinals. Everybody was laughing and talking, and Dina was eating more slices of pizza than looked humanly possible. There was only one problem.

I wasn’t on the team anymore.

That had been my own choice. A few weeks ago, I’d decided to take a break from basketball. I’d been questioning whether I really loved the sport, or whether I felt I had to play. When you’re six feet tall and twelve years old, everybody expects you to be a basketball star.

So I’d quit. I’d helped out the girls’ volleyball team for a few games while one of their players was out with an injury. Some of the girls on the Nighthawks had understood, like my best friend, Avery. But a few others, like Natalie, Hannah, and Bianca, had been pretty upset with me for leaving in the middle of the season and joining another sport.

But the season wasn’t over yet. The Nighthawks were just a few games from the playoffs. I had gone to their game today, and they’d played great and won. Lauren, the injured player on the volleyball team, was better, so they only needed me for one more game. After watching the Nighthawks play I’d decided: I wanted to rejoin the basketball team!

The problem was, I didn’t know how my coach or my teammates were going to feel about that. I wasn’t sure how to tell them, but I thought it might be easier to start with my friends first.

“Do you want me to tell everybody?” Avery whispered, leaning in to me. “This might be a good time.”

I scanned the faces of my former teammates. Natalie and Hannah would probably be happy to hear that I was coming back, since they’d been angry that I’d left in the first place. Caroline was chill, Amanda was sweet, and Patrice, the coach’s daughter, was quiet and nice. No problem there.

That left Dina, Tiff, and Bianca. Dina could be pretty hot-headed and unpredictable, so I wasn’t sure what she would do. Tiff was cool with me, but loyal to Bianca.

And Bianca … she and I had had problems since the beginning of the season, when Coach made me center and moved her to shooting guard. I guess I was most nervous about her reaction, but before coming out for pizza she had talked to me and asked me to come back. And promised to stop calling me stupid names and criticizing me all the time.

I had to believe her if I wanted to come back to the team.

Just girl up and tell everybody! I coached myself. I took a deep breath and raised my voice.

“Hey, everybody!” I said, and everyone quieted down and looked at me. I could feel myself blushing. “I just wanted to say that … um … I’ve been thinking, and …”

“Elle is rejoining the team!” Avery shouted out happily, and I flashed her a grateful look.

To my relief, a cheer went up from the table. Even Bianca looked happy about it.

“I still have to ask Coach,” I said. “But if she says yes, I’ll be back.”

Patrice grinned at me. “That is awesome, Elle!”

“We missed you,” said Caroline.

“Welcome back, Elle,” Hanna added.

Amanda looked at me, her freckled nose wrinkled with concern. “Are you sure, Elle? You’re not going to leave again, are you?”

From the tone of her voice, I couldn’t tell if she was saying it because she cared, or if she was challenging me. I was a little bit surprised, because Amanda and I get along really well. I figured I was misreading her. She couldn’t be annoyed with me, could she?

“No, I won’t quit the team again,” I said. “I promise.”

Bianca smiled. “Just in time to help us get to the playoffs,” she said.

Dina raised her soda bottle. “Cheers to Elle! Cheers to the playoffs!”

We all raised our beverages and clinked. I felt great and couldn’t wait to get back on the basketball court!

My bubble started to deflate just a teeny bit when I broke the news to my family at dinner that night. The whole Deluca family was seated around the table, eating Dad’s famous Sunday night spaghetti and meatballs. Dad, Mom, me, my brother, Jim, and my sister, Beth. My dog, Zobe, sat next to me on the floor, watching jealously as we passed plates of food back and forth.

“So I’ve decided to rejoin the Nighthawks,” I blurted out between bites of garlic bread.

“That’s good news!” Dad said.

“I knew you would,” Jim added.

Mom looked at me with concern. “Are you sure about this, Elle? Really sure?”

I nodded. “I don’t regret quitting. I had some good reasons to. Volleyball was a lot of fun, and I loved the energy of that team. Everyone there is really supportive of one another, and I didn’t stress out during the games. I think I figured out that when I relax, I can concentrate better on my game.”

“So why not stick with volleyball?” Mom asked.

“Even though it was fun, I didn’t love the game. The pace, the action, it’s really different than basketball,” I explained. “It made me realize how much I missed being on the court. And that I really do love basketball.”

Dad nodded. “Well, you know, Elle, you were—”

I interrupted him. “Please do not say that I was born to play basketball. Everybody always says that, and that’s one of the reasons why I quit. I don’t want to feel like I have to play. I want to do it because I want to. And I do. I want to be back on the team.”

“Well, if that’s the case, then I’m glad Coach took you back,” Mom said.

“Well, I haven’t exactly asked her yet,” I admitted.

Mom frowned. “Don’t get your hopes up, then, Elle. She might not let you play again until next season,” she said. “After all, your other teammates have been putting in a lot of work, and you haven’t played in weeks.”

“I think you’re wrong, Mom,” Jim interrupted. “A few weeks away from the court hasn’t hurt Elle. Coach Ramirez loves to win. She’ll take Elle back in a heartbeat.”

I was starting to feel unsure of myself. After dinner, I pulled up a chair next to Beth’s wheelchair. She can’t see or hear, so we communicate using a special form of sign language. When I sat next to her she grabbed my hand and formed the symbol for dog into it. I laughed.

“I think Beth loves Zobe more than she loves me now,” I said.

“She loves both of you,” Mom assured me.

I called Zobe over to us and started scratching his head. “Don’t worry, Zobe, I’m not jealous. You can’t help being so lovable.”

Zobe is a Great Dane, so he’s a big dog, but he’s as cuddly and sweet as one of those giant teddy bears you win on the boardwalk. Beth reached out with both arms to pet him, and he nuzzled right into her with his big snout. I joined her in petting Zobe, and soon his tail was wagging with doggy happiness.

Being with Beth always calmed me down. Tomorrow was Monday, and I planned to talk to Coach before basketball practice—and hopefully, she’d let me stay. I knew that asking Coach wasn’t going to be easy, but it wasn’t going to be terrible, either. Still, I had butterflies in my stomach thinking about tomorrow!

The next morning, me and my other best friend, Blake, got a ride to Spring Meadow School with Jim, who’s a senior. Spring Meadow is a small private school near Wilmington, Delaware. There are three buildings: One for K to fifth grade, one for middle school, and one for high school. Each grade has about fifty kids in it, so we all pretty much know one another.

I walked into the building with a duffel bag containing my basketball shoes and practice clothes tucked under my arm. I was taking a chance that Coach Ramirez would let me back on the team—but I wanted to show Coach that I was prepared and ready to go.

As I floated through the school day—taking a World History quiz, eating a turkey burger at lunch, trying to sculpt Zobe out of clay in art class—in the back of my mind, I was preparing the speech I was going to give to Coach.

When the final bell rang, I grabbed the duffel bag from my locker and bolted across the field to the high school building, where we practiced in the gym. I found Coach behind the desk in the athletic department office, looking all-business as usual in a yellow polo shirt without wrinkles, and not a dark brown hair out of place.

I knocked on the door, and she looked up.

“Coach, can I talk to you please?” I asked.

She didn’t seem surprised to see me, which puzzled me, until I remember that I had told Patrice about my decision. She had probably told her mom that I wanted to come back. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but my palms started to sweat.

“Have a seat, Elle,” she said.

I sat down and took a deep breath. “So, Coach, I’ve done a lot of thinking, and I really want to come back to the team.”

“Patrice told me,” she said, confirming my guess.

I waited for her to say more, but there was an awkward pause.

“I’m sorry for leaving the team before,” I said. “I just needed to make sure that I really loved playing basketball. And now I know that I do. I just have one volleyball game left on Friday, but I’m ready to start basketball practice right now.” I held up my duffel bag.

Coach leaned across the desk, focusing her dark eyes on me. “Here’s the thing, Elle. I expect a one hundred percent commitment from all my players. When you quit, you showed me that you couldn’t commit,” she said.

My mouth felt dry. All I could do was nod. She wasn’t going to let me rejoin!

“But, I also understand that you’re at an age where you’re trying to figure out who you are,” Coach said. “That’s tough for me to remember sometimes, but I get it. I believe that you do want to come back. But if I let you back on the team, how do I know that you won’t quit again?”

“I won’t!” I promised. “I really want to play. I … I needed to figure out if I loved basketball, or if I was just playing because people thought I should. But I missed it. I love it. I swear.”

Coach sat back, frowning. “When you quit the first time, it was hard on morale. But from what Patrice tells me, the rest of the girls want you back,” she said. “Unlike you, they’ve been putting in the time all season. I can’t guarantee that I’ll let you play until you’ve proven yourself.”

I nodded.

“I’m willing to give you another chance, Elle,” Coach said. “But it’s not going to be easy. We’re trying to get into the playoffs and I’m going to be pushing everyone very hard. Can you handle it?”

I wanted to shout, Yes, but I knew I needed to give her a more careful answer.

“I don’t mind working hard on something I love,” I said. “Playing with the volleyball team—we work hard, but everyone is really supportive of one another. It made me a better player. It really helped that even though we practiced hard, and wanted to win, it felt fun. And I … I want to play basketball no matter what, but it would be nice if it could maybe feel that way too.”

Coach looked at me like she was going to say something, but she didn’t. She walked over to a closet and pulled out a green-and-yellow Nighthawks basketball jersey and a pair of matching shorts.

“Here you go, Elle,” she said. “Don’t disappoint me.”

I stood up and took the uniform from her. “I won’t. I promise! Thank you!”

Then I turned to leave the room, and in my excitement I tripped over the chair I’d been sitting in—but I caught myself before I fell. Embarrassed, I rushed out into the hallway.

I felt like whooping and cheering, but I didn’t want Coach to hear me. Instead, I took out my phone and texted my mom.

I’m back on the team! I typed. Pick me up after practice!

Great news, Elle! Mom replied. Have fun!

Have fun. I stared at the words on the screen. That was the one thing I knew I had to remember. I knew I had something to prove to Coach, and to all my teammates—that I deserved to come back. I had to prove that I wasn’t going to disappoint them again.

That was a lot of pressure. But I knew that if I played basketball because it was fun, and because I loved it, everything would work out fine.
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.

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