I've been writing stories at The Philadelphia Inquirer since 1985. Here are several of my favorites:
My 1997 series of articles which won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism. I followed five people as they approached the ends of their lives, and I wrote powerful, intimate narratives about the decisions they made, the choices they faced. These were deeply moving personal stories, but also explained the dramatic changes underway in American society regarding how we die. I will always be most grateful to the people who let me into their lives, and trusted me, at the most tender and private moments of their lives. I am proudest that I didn’t betray that trust, and told stories that were true, powerful and helpful to so many readers.
My recent series, Bolting Down Broad, profiles twenty-one runners in Philadelphia's 2012 Broad Street 10-miler.
When Elena Delle Donne, the leading scorer in the nation in women’s college basketball, couldn’t sink a shot against Drexel on Feb. 19, she kept hitting the tattoo of her sister, Lizzie, on her rib, saying to herself, “You’ve got to help me.” She rubbed the tattoo with her shooting hand. “Come on, Lizzie, help me!”
Finally, Lizzie did.
After having missed 15 of her first 18 shots from the field, Elena hit the game-winner with two seconds left, and the University of Delaware beat Drexel, 40–39.
Elena and Lizzie Delle Donne live at life’s opposite extremes, and Elena’s profoundly disabled sister has given the superstar an incredible gift - perspective on life.
“She’s my inspiration,” said Elena. “When I tap my side, it’s a reminder of why I play, who I play for. The battles that she faces are way more than any battles that I’ll ever face on a basketball court.”
It was this perspective, and closeness to her sister and family, that convinced Elena - a hugely heralded recruit, the top player in the nation her senior year of high school - to defy the basketball gods four years ago and walk away from the University of Connecticut, the top college program in the country, and return home to Delaware to play for the humble Blue Hens.
That decision - so controversial at the time - has so clearly blossomed into the right one.
Delaware is 27–1 and ranked No. 8 in the nation. Elena is arguably the country’s top player, averaging 28.2 points a game. She has a 3.6 grade-point average and was named a first-team academic all-American and academic all-American player of the year for NCAA Division I women’s basketball. She goes home one or two nights a week to see her sister and of course brings her laundry, but her mother swears Elena does it herself, saying, “she’s good about that.”
Ernie and Joan Delle Donne, who live just outside of Wilmington, have three children: Lizzie, 27, Elena 22, and Gene, 25. Gene, who was a first-team, all-state quarterback at Salesianum School in Wilmington, played tight end at Middle Tennessee State University and is now back home, working for his father, a developer. But this story is really about the striking contrasts, and connection, between the sisters.
Lizzie cannot see, hear, walk, or talk. A virus attacked her in the womb, her parents were told, and impeded development. She recognizes her family by smell and touch. She can communicate by hand only the most basic needs - eat, sleep, hug. With the mental capacity of a child, her greatest joy in life, her family says, is riding around on the family’s 35 acres in a golf cart with Elena, wind blowing in her hair, smells all around.
Elena, 22, who stands 6-foot–5, was named the nation’s top high school basketball player in 2008. She once hit 80 free throws in a row. Brian Agler, head coach of the Seattle Storm of the WNBA, who was scouting Delle Donne a week ago, compared her story with basketball immortal Larry Bird’s - a gifted player going back home to a smaller school, elevating it to greatness. With the NCAA tournament nearing, that is still to be determined.
Elena is Delaware’s crown jewel, one family friend said. Fans love that she came back home. She signs dozens of autographs after every game. After a strong performance a few weeks ago, she tweeted, “@GovernorMarkel thank you!” and “@SenatorCarper thank you so much!” Vice President Biden watched her play earlier this season.
Always a superstar
Elena was a great athlete with remarkable drive from the get-go. She found a wrench and removed her own training wheels at age 3, her father says, just because Gene was riding without them. Her father said she learned to juggle in second grade.
She played football in the backyard with Gene and all his buddies.
“She used to play wide receiver and I would be the quarterback,” said Gene. “I used to call her Randy Moss. She was always the deep threat. My buddies were like high school D-backs, and she’d go over them and catch it.”
Elena’s spectacular skills were evident at Ursuline Academy, where she was the presumed top recruit in her class in the country. In fact, Sylvia Hatchell, the head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, had offered her a scholarship when she was 12, just out of seventh grade, Elena has said.
But Lizzie always made Elena understand basketball was only a game. Lizzie has had more than 30 surgeries. She spent her childhood in and out of hospitals, and has always needed to be toileted and fed. These realities, the importance of family, of supporting one another, tempered the ups and downs of wins and losses.
Everyone who followed basketball assumed Elena would go to one of the top college programs, to Connecticut or Tennessee.
Elena understood it herself after that first scholarship offer.
“I knew that one day I would have to leave home,” Elena said. “I didn’t like the idea right then that basketball was going to rip me from my family, from Lizzie.” But the path was inevitable. The nation’s best high school player had to go to the nation’s best college program. National championships were her destiny. Elena signed with powerful Connecticut.
The night before she left home, the last night in her own bed, she panicked. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m not going to be back here,’ ” Elena said. But she kept quiet. Who could fight fate? Her parents dropped her off at college. But about midnight that first day, Elena called a friend from home to come get her. When her father came down to breakfast in the kitchen at 8 a.m., Elena was sitting there.
The pressure and stress were almost unbearable.
Her father still tears up when he recalls. “So many people, coaches, people that know everything about basketball, not realizing it was about so much more than basketball, said that by not going to UConn, she’ll never be in the Olympics, she’ll never be a good player, never be a national champion - all that stuff goes away. And that made it so difficult for the poor thing. Because Elena knew. She’s no dummy.”
Elena didn’t even realize herself exactly what she was feeling. She thought she was just burned out on basketball.
But in time she has come to understand. Her sister and family had pulled her back. “If I’m not physically with Lizzie, I can’t have any contact,” Elena said. “It’s not like we can e-mail, or Skype.”
She enrolled at Delaware, and wasn’t allowed to play basketball for a year because she was transferring from UConn - NCAA rules. She might have been able to get a waiver, but never tried. “Since she had no intention at all of playing,” said her father, “it was a moot issue.”
So Elena played volleyball for one year.
After a year away from basketball, Elena approached the Delaware coach and asked if she could join the team. The coach, Tina Martin, had summoned all the strength in her being to stay away from Elena - and ordered her players not to pressure her, either. And the strategy worked.
Elena is now in her third year of basketball at Delaware. It was a slow start. She suffered from injuries and rust her first year, and was hit hard by Lyme disease last year.
This season everything has come together.
The team is winning, she is flourishing, and she is happy. As she tweeted Feb. 17: “Nothing better than the feeling of going home to a home-cooked mom special.”
Elena says leaving Connecticut “was the best decision of my life.” She adds: “I was too young to realize that I could form my own path, and thank God I did.” Her father feels she has grown so much because of it - making a decision that was so unpopular, so criticized, and seeing now that it was the right one.
When she can, Elena accompanies her mother to the Mary Campbell Center in Wilmington, where Lizzie goes during the day. Joan volunteers there two days a week.
Residents from the Mary Campbell Center came to the home game against Old Dominion on Feb. 9. Lizzie has no concept of basketball, or that she was at a game, but Elena knew.
“It means a ton having Lizzie here and supporting me,” she said after the game. “It’s just a different feeling when she’s in the gym. I can feel it. It’s weird. I just feel her presence, and I know she’s with me, and it’s kind of like a calming presence. And she also puts that fighter in me. When she’s here, I can never give up.”
Elena scored 27 points that night in a victory.
After the game was over, after 9 p.m., residents from the center were lined up in their wheelchairs behind a basket. The arena was empty except for Elena’s family and friends and the media. Elena did a short news conference on the floor, and after it was over she greeted each of the residents. Down low and close. She knew them all. “Hey, how are you? Did you have a good time?”
She worked her way to the end of the line, to her sister.
She scooped Lizzie out of the chair, a big, enormously loving, swallowing scoop, and soon Lizzie was high in Elena’s arms. Lizzie knew Elena immediately by smell and touch. The nation’s leading scorer - who will fearlessly fight off three defenders to take a shot - whispered tenderly to her sister, “You had a long one, huh?” She kissed Lizzie several times. “You going to sleep?”
Elena hugged and kissed Lizzie a few more times before saying goodbye.
Elena Delle Donne will come back to Delaware for one more year and one more season of basketball. Then she will play professionally. But it is unlikely she will ever be away for too long.
As Al and Betsy Lucas pulled out of Narberth on Thursday afternoon, on their way to State College, Al was wearing a Penn State jersey - Lady Lions, 33 - the number of his daughter, Maggie. But wife Betsy wore no Penn State gear. She just couldn’t.
After the loss to Michigan State at home last month, Betsy decided she needed to wear “the opposite” - a plain sweater. Maybe the loss wasn’t her fault. She is only the mother of the shooting guard. But the Lucases, like sports parents everywhere, love to see their daughter play and thrive, and they have to do their part.
They were leaving around 1 p.m., in time to arrive comfortably before the 7 p.m. tipoff. They always go to a bar for one beer before the game. This is a ritual they don’t dare break.
Maggie is a sophomore on the Penn State basketball team, and all last season and this season, until the Michigan State loss, her parents went to an Irish bar. But they now have switched to a Mexican bar. Betsy realizes that if Penn State loses at home again, “we might have to go to the opposite of the opposite” - maybe back to the Irish bar, and even put a Penn State sweatshirt on.
But not yet.
Maggie is a star, a former Inquirer player of the year, a McDonald’s all-American in high school. Last season, as a freshman, she broke the three-point scoring record for the Big Ten Conference. But she went 1 for 11 in the second-round game of the NCAA tournament, a loss, and vowed to shoot 100,000 shots over the summer. And she did.
That’s 100,000 makes. Misses didn’t count. One thousand shots for 100 days. She kept a spreadsheet.
Even her parents, who have grown accustomed to Maggie’s basketball intensity, and are in part responsible for it, couldn’t believe her pledge. “Are you crazy?” her mother asked - and this is a mother who would sit in the car in her pajamas and shine the high beams on the Narberth basketball court late at night just so middle-school Maggie could shoot and shoot.
By the way, Maggie wouldn’t wear long pants, truly nothing but basketball shorts, through seventh grade - not to school in winter (the teachers would call home), not even to church on Easter.
As Maggie explained, “I had to be ready if there was an opportunity to shoot.”
Maggie did finally wear her first pair of jeans after her AAU team, consisting of girls a year older who had started to wear makeup and act like teenagers, performed what Betsy called an “intervention,” and took Maggie to T.J. Maxx and made her buy jeans.
‘Come to Penn State!’
Maggie chose Penn State for two reasons. One is that college had to be near enough so her parents could go to every home game. And they do.
The second reason was that in August 2008, before Maggie even began her junior year of high school at Germantown Academy, she was already being recruited by many colleges and went back to Penn State for a third visit. She had already met the college president. This time, the basketball coaches took Maggie and her parents to the football stadium, and walked them down onto the field (“The grass itself felt like Augusta,” recalled Al) and Maggie met linebacker Sean Lee, who now plays for the Dallas Cowboys, but was then a Penn State football star. He was handsome and charming and modest and exactly the kind of boy parents such as Al and Betsy would love for their daughter to meet at Penn State.
But then, of course, who should walk up to them in the end zone but Joe Paterno. The coach had been prepped and he had come to meet Maggie Lucas and close the deal.
JoePa asked Al and Betsy if they’d mind if he and Maggie took a walk. The Legend put his arm around Maggie and took a stroll toward the 50-yard line, and Joe told her, “I’m going to come see you play. Any of the other football coaches tell you that? We’ll have you over for dinner. Sue makes a great plate of pasta … ” He whispered in her ear, according to her parents, “Come on, Maggie. Come to Penn State!”
And she was blushing and her parents swore she grew taller that very day. Two days later Maggie, just 16, committed in words and in her heart to play for Penn State.
Cookies and fingers
As Al and Betsy approached State College Thursday afternoon, the light on the gas gauge in their SUV came on. “I should put gas in,” Al said. “That’s not our normal routine, honey,” Betsy replied. “I know,” he said. Their normal routine is always to stop at the Exxon and Dunkin’ Donuts as they leave town after the game, to fill up on fuel and coffee for Al. Even though they still had miles to go, they decided to risk it. Didn’t want to jinx Maggie.
At the Mexican bar, they had their beer, and were joined by Betsy’s parents, Margaret and Carl Milleker, both 79, who had driven up from Baltimore. Then they went to the Bryce Jordan Center, the arena, for the game. Betsy carried in four tins of cookies and brownies. She has become known for her baking, a tradition she started when Maggie was in AAU ball.
In fact, after a high school tournament in Brooklyn one summer, the New York Post began a story like this: The only thing better than Betsy Lucas’s chocolate chip cookies last night was the three-point shooting of her daughter, Maggie …
Betsy had a ritual, of course. When she arrived, she had to give five cookies to the guy at the Will Call window, where she picked up their tickets, and one each to two people working at the souvenir stand right inside the arena. She then brought cookies to Paul Warnick, 99, in the front row, and Lorraine Roller, 75, a stroke victim, next to him.
“We usually win because of these cookies,” Roller said.
Al went down to courtside, where he always goes, so Maggie would see him when Penn State came in for warm-ups.
Maggie is pretty much always smiling, except when Penn State is losing, but she smiled even more broadly when she saw her father Thursday. She nodded to him, and held up three fingers - he says it’s because she’s a three-point shooter - and then he went off to his seat.
Al sat in Section 107, Row CC, Seat 14. Betsy sat in Section 107 - but Row AA, seat 1. Two rows and 13 seats away.
They haven’t sat together at games in a decade.
Betsy started to move away from Al because he just watched the game differently. Al played high school ball in Baltimore (Al and Betsy, 52 and 53, met at Towson University) and he coached their older sons and Maggie in youth leagues, and he sees the game on a different plane. Al knows every play and can see what doesn’t happen. He will scream, “She missed a pick!” This is not Betsy. She’s concerned much less with actual basketball than with the emotional well-being and happiness of her daughter. In fact, sons Peter and Ben played on the Lower Merion High School state championship team in 2006, and Betsy says of herself, with both pride and embarrassment, “No one has seen more basketball and knows less about the game.”
What really drove Betsy farther away from her husband was when he started yelling at referees by first names, because, of course, going to so many games for so many years he knew them all. She tried shushing him but then people would shush her for shushing him, and she didn’t like that. She says, with both truth and humor, “A lot of parents don’t sit together. We’re all still married. It was those parents that were sitting together that aren’t.”
After the national anthem, Al folded his hands, closed his eyes and bowed his head. As the ref was about to toss up the ball, Al said, “Come on, baby girl, do work now.”
She did. Within a minute or two, she took her first three-point shot. The ball left her hands. “Boom,” her father yelled. And then as if after a delay, the ball floated through the net.
She ‘willed it’
Maggie was first dragged to gyms when she was 2, and her brothers were 4 and 6, and she was the kind of kid who always had a ball and begged her father to teach her how to shoot. He taught her mechanics, squaring the legs, being on the balls of her feet. And he can tell now by her form, and by her release, whether a shot is going to fall.
He also taught Maggie to release the ball quickly, because Betsy Lucas is only 5-foot–2, and Al himself only 6 feet on a good day, and Al figured if Maggie wanted to play on the college level she better learn to shoot quickly before somebody taller could come over and block it. Maggie, amazingly, grew to “an honest 5–9,” said her mother, who insists Maggie simply “willed it.”
Helped by Maggie’s quick scoring, Penn State jumped out to a big lead and Maggie led all scorers Thursday night with 24 points and Penn State won by 32, and it was a fun and stress-free night for both parents. All the various rituals they followed had worked.
After the game, they waited for Maggie to come out after her shower. Maggie walked up, was about to hug her grandmother when she noticed the new sneakers and stopped short: “MomMom. Nike Frees. Oh, my gosh, I’m so proud of you right now.”
The family posed on the floor for some pictures, and when PopPop missed a few shots at the basket, Maggie was very forgiving. But when her father tried and missed, she was less so.
“Oh, my God - that’s so bad,” she said. He missed another. Clang. “You’re a disgrace.” (Give the guy a break. He works six days a week as director of operations for Stephen Starr’s restaurants. He’s out of practice.)
But a voice came down from on high, from the upper level, perhaps from God or a custodian: “If you wear number 33, you can’t be missing.” Al set up for one more shot. “Can’t quit on a miss, right?” he said to Maggie. Swish. “I’m done,” he said.
Maggie was off to a late dinner with her grandparents, who were staying in a motel. Al and Betsy hugged everyone, said their goodbyes. Al did the one thing that all fathers of college daughters do before leaving, and got out his wallet. “Let me give you some money,” he said. Al and Betsy stopped for gas and coffee, per ritual.
It was 1:05 a.m when they pulled up to their home, and both would be working in the morning. Betsy is administrator for Nalls Architecture in Narberth. Al, with complete honesty, said, “I can’t wait to do this again.”
“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”