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Ellen DeVoe ’86.

Photo courtesy of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame

“I’ve retired.”

That’s how Ellen DeVoe ’86 ends our interview. But DeVoe, a professor at the Boston University School of Social Work, hasn’t actually left her job. She’s referring to a different kind of retirement.

Though she’s 34 years removed from Princeton’s campus, DeVoe’s accolades still loom large in Jadwin Gymnasium. She still holds the record for most single-game blocks (nine) in the history of Princeton women’s basketball. She still has claim to the program’s second-highest single-game field goals (17), second-most career rebounds (942), second-most career blocks (157), second-highest career rebound average (9.7), third-most single-game points (38), and sixth-most career field goals (548). And the list goes on.

But in three decades, DeVoe has gone from an on-court superstar to a sideline fanatic; she leaves it to her son, sophomore guard Ethan Wright, to carry on her legacy.

DeVoe grew up in Indianapolis, Ind. — basketball country. The sport filled arenas and attracted huge crowds; the Hoosiers occupied a godlike role in the state’s imagination. DeVoe also had a family connection to the game. Her father, John Devoe ’56, and uncles Charles ’52 and Stephen ’57, had all played for Princeton’s team. After his time at the University, her father had gone on to co-found the American Basketball Association and become president of the Indiana Pacers.

But DeVoe’s interest in basketball wasn’t immediate. There was, she says, very little opportunity for elementary and middle school girls to participate in organized sports when she was growing up. 

But the older she got, the harder DeVoe — who stood over six feet tall in the hallways of her Jesuit high school — found it to hide from both her family’s legacy and from her school’s coach, a former Pacer who’d known her father.

“He said I had basketball in my blood,” she said. “So that got me started.”

He was right. Before her senior year of high school, DeVoe made it onto the national high school All-American list, sending up a flare to college recruiters nationwide. Letters flooded her mailbox; opportunities poured in. A majority of them went ignored.

“I was more focused on getting an education than being in the NBA,” DeVoe said.

A regular application — nothing, she stresses, like the formalized recruitment process of today’s NCAA — started her journey to Princeton. The University’s foci aligned neatly with hers; the education it promised was impressive.

The basketball? Not so much.

“The ’80s were difficult for women in athletics,” DeVoe said. “We had fewer resources, the coaching was quite different, and the program wasn’t as excellent as today.”

New Jersey’s basketball scene proved a far cry from Indiana’s. Founded only in 1971, the Princeton women’s team was sparse on fans, overlooked by the athletics department, and neglected by everyone in between. DeVoe still recalls times when the women’s squad was booted from courts they’d booked so the men’s team could take over. The football training facility, the nexus of Princeton athletics, was largely off-limits to women. DeVoe was one of the first allowed inside, but only because a blown-out knee meant she needed some rehabilitation equipment.

In the face of adversity, DeVoe dominated. By the time she graduated, she was a four-year letterwinner, a two-year captain, a first-team All-Ivy honoree, a two-time second-team honoree, and Princeton’s second-highest career scorer, with 1290 points. 

DeVoe’s take:

“At the time, there weren’t many records to break.”

But there is no shortage of records for Princeton women’s basketball now. And superstar senior captain Bella Alarie has spent her past four years doing an admirable job of smashing them, including five of DeVoe’s. What’s it like for her to watch her name sink on the program leaderboard?

“It was thrilling to make history,” she said. “Now I’m thrilled to be supporting Bella.”

DeVoe didn’t just leave the University as a basketball champion. She graduated with a degree in history and as part of the first cohort of the Women’s Studies program. Interested in social justice issues, she wanted to make a difference; she moved to Colorado to work in a shelter for abused and neglected young children.

She went on to receive her Masters in Clinical Social Work & Mental Health from the University of Denver and her Ph.D. in Social Work and Psychology from the University of Michigan. During a postdoctoral fellowship in New Hampshire, in which she studied Family Violence Research Training, she met her husband, Don Wright.

Basketball had been fun during those undergraduate years — fun while it lasted. But for DeVoe, the sport had faded out of her life.

With the birth of her first child, Ethan, it came back. The son of a Division I basketball star and a Division I rower (Don Wright rowed for Yale), Ethan Wright had brains, height, and athleticism. He was drawn to basketball almost immediately — with, he insists, no maternal pressure.

“She put it in my hands,” Wright said. “It was up to me what I wanted to do. She said, ‘If you want to do this, I can help, but you’ll have to do it yourself.’”

DeVoe took Wright under her wing, coaching him from his baby league at the YMCA in kindergarten until high school. She coached her daughter, Abigail, too, until she entered high school this past year. 

When it came time to make a college decision, DeVoe took a hands-off approach, allowing Wright to navigate his 15 recruitment offers to make the decision for himself. 

“It was nice to have the family connection, but that wasn’t my top reason for choosing Princeton,” he said.

How does Wright — who’s clawed his way this season to a starting position — feel about the history his mother made on their shared home court?

“I don’t try to compare myself to her,” he said. “She had an unbelievable career. I’m very proud of that, but I’m doing my own thing.” 

Both of his parents rarely miss his games. Whether they live-stream online or make the journey from Boston to Princeton, they are always there watching, DeVoe cheering from the sidelines.

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