Perspective | One of basketball’s most accurate shots is a father-daughter production


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The architect of one of the finest jump shots in basketball can’t come to the phone right now.

It’s Wednesday at noon, and Ernest Delle Donne is back to his day job as the CEO of Delle Donne & Associates, a real estate development firm located in Delaware. The previous two days, however, he returned to being Ernie — Elena’s dad and shooting coach.

Decades before Elena Delle Donne became the Washington Mystics’ superstar and a two-time WNBA MVP, she was a 6-year-old heeding lessons about where to properly place her thumb before shooting a marked-up toy basketball. Ernie taught her that; he also taught her to shoot while wearing a beach visor, as well as to aim over a 14-foot structure (a broom atop a ladder) named “Oscar.”

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And though statistics have shown Elena to be the greatest free throw shooter in basketball history and the league’s first player to reach the holy grail of 50-40-90 percentages from the field, behind the three-point arc and from the free throw line in a season, Ernie still gets the occasional call from his only client when she wants to correct her mechanics.

“It’s funny. It’s still consistent. I got some shots up with him [Monday and Tuesday],” Elena says. “He’s been my shooting coach since I’ve started playing basketball, and he’s been there ever since.”

Ernie — it’s Ernest for professional settings but just Ernie for anything related to Elena — calls back about an hour later. He has some time ahead of lunch, before diving back into financing an office tower, and he always will make time to talk about his favorite basketball player.

“Like I tell people, if I was a really good shooting coach, I’d have about 10 to 15 players that I coach,” Ernie jokes. “I coach one player, and she just happens to be so gifted.”

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But that’s not all keeping him from making this his side hustle.

“I have a full-time job already,” Ernie says, “and to be truthful, the only person’s shooting that I really care about is Elena’s.”

Care? He’s being modest. While listening to both Delle Donnes’ accounts of her baller upbringing, it seems that Ernie has obsessed over her shot.

“When it became important to my children, I thought what’s the best thing as a father I can do than to at least try to learn as much as I could,” he says. “I guess it was just being observant and giving a darn about your kids doing their best.”

Ernie was a golfer and played basketball growing up, and he later majored in biochemistry and economics at Columbia. So in merging lessons from golf and using his mind to effectively break down physics to a kid, Ernie tutored Elena in sports science before it was even a thing.

Ernie started with her right hand. He made sure her index finger was perpendicular to the floor. And just how did he ensure a 6-year-old would understand that? He traced her fingers on that little orange basketball, so she knew how to place her hand on the exact right spot every time before lifting and flicking her index finger toward the 4½-foot rim.

As she got older, Elena remembers Ernie telling her to wear a baseball cap when shooting jumpers. He recalls it as an accountant’s visor or a beach visor about eight inches long. The purpose: He needed her elbow, forearm and glenohumeral joint to be at a 90-degree angle. The ball would then be about 14 inches from Elena’s face, and if her mechanics ever lapsed and the shot released closer to her head, then she would knock off the hat.

Also, an 8-year-old Elena wore an oven mitt on her left hand — to teach her to use it only as a stabilizer — and spent a lot of time with “Oscar.”

“He made it fun,” she said. “Shooting over Oscar was really fun for me, and little did I know, I was developing an arc in that moment.”

For the final component, Ernie coached his daughter to shoot the ball to the midway distance of the rim, which would be the apex of the arc. Forget about elbow extension — that’s shooting a dart — and instead think about the forearm going vertical. So on a 22-foot shot from long distance, Elena is actually aiming for the 11-foot midpoint. Her legs do the rest.

“It’s pretty much just always been my dad. He’s been the one,” Elena says. “Even if other trainers come around, they know: ‘Uh- uh. Don’t touch that.’ That’s mine and his thing.”

All these decades and awards later, Elena still shoots the same way that she did on those 7-foot rims at the YMCA. And when it’s time to work, the Delle Donnes still return to the same drills — but the oven mitt, beach visor and Oscar long since have been retired.

Still, they have a rule. While Ernie notices what’s happening with Elena’s shot better than anyone else, he can offer help only when asked.

“The biggest thing is I have to reach out to him. It probably kills him because I’m sure there’s times he sees my shot not being as efficient as he’s used to seeing and he probably wants to reach out and say something,” she says, “But our rule is always that I have to be the one to reach out because in the end 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 rule with each other, and it’s worked.”

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But following the Mystics’ regular season finale Sunday, when Elena shot 8 for 13 overall and 1 for 4 from the arc, she scheduled her shooting coach. She’s a turn shooter, so her feet should never be squared to the basket, and Ernie noticed one of her three-point attempts from the left side of the arc missed to the right because her body was not sideways. On Monday, the pair worked on those mechanics. Then they returned the next day and improved those mechanics even more.

“And as soon as she got that elbow and that 14-inch distance, she was turned sideways perfectly. I mean, just perfectly,” Ernie says. “I would say Tuesday she had one of the best shooting drill days we’ve ever had and probably the best shooting day [since] she was 14 playing AAU basketball.”

Elena Delle Donne’s shooting coach now has to get back to his 9-to-5. Those office buildings aren’t going to finance themselves. But he will be watching Thursday night, when the Mystics open the first round of the playoffs in Seattle. He will study her index finger, the 90-degree angle of her arm, how she’s turned slightly away from the basket. And Ernie will be ready to break all of it down anytime she calls.

“It’s not like off feel and touch. It’s more like if you check these things off a list, the shot should go in,” Elena says. “That’s just kind of how his brain works, and I’m lucky to have a dad with that sort of way of thinking. He’s been my shooting guy my entire life and always will be.”



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