On Elena Delle Donne, Bodies That Break, and the Long Road Back

By: Hannah Oberman-Breindel
Posted: August 26, 2021

(Image credit: Washington Mystics twitter)

All week it had been building to this. Both Mike Thibault and Elena Delle Donne had confirmed that though she had not traveled with the Mystics for their road trip, when they returned it was possible she would be able to play. On August 21st, for the first time in two seasons, she was listed as “Probable” on the injury report. And then, on Sunday, August 22nd, after 682 days away, there she was, suited up with her team, warming up, getting ready to play. 

To understand the hype about Delle Donne you have to know: there are few players in the women’s game who can do what she does. The only WNBA player to enter the 50-40-90 club (50%+ from the field; 40%+ from 3-point range; 90%+ from the foul line), Delle Donne is also a two-time league MVP. During the Mystics’ run to the 2019 title, she was the best player on the best team in the league, leading the team and the league in offensive efficiency. In an insane feat of guts and grit, she played in the last game of the WNBA finals with three herniated disks, and after two back surgeries and a diagnosis of spinal stenosis (which perhaps most famously ended the career of David Wright of the New York Mets), it was unclear when and if one of the greatest basketball players of all time (yes, I said it) would play again. 

Delle Donne’s is a story that feels very close to home for me.  I’m all too familiar with this kind of uncertainty and disappointment. As a distance runner in college, I spend most of my time on the track and cross country teams in the ice bath and doing cross training workouts rather than competing. It wasn’t until well into my twenties that I was able to run and train again. I’m not as fast as I was but I’m fast enough — to be competitive, to feel as though I haven’t lost too many steps, to lose myself in the pounding on pavement, to get that unquantifiable high from racing and even sometimes from winning. 

But there are times when my body betrays me.  A high ankle sprain. A labral tear in my hip. A stress fracture in my foot. Every time I get injured, I worry that I’ll never be able to run again, and that even if I do return to running, I won’t be fast. Not like I was. Not in the way that someone could watch me and think or say, “Oh, your body was born to do this.” In my most recent injured stretch, I was unable to run for 9 months. I strained my LCL while hiking, and then tweaked my hamstring badly on the same leg months later (and then again when I tried to run too soon). When I started running again, it was slow and painful, and I told myself that I’d take what I could get. But it wasn’t until I raced a 5k and let myself really run, not until I crossed the finish line (having won) that I truly believed I hadn’t lost too many steps, that I let myself both joy and also relief. And readers, I will confess that I cried when I finished, just to know that I could do it again, just to have done it. 

For those who think I’m delusionally comparing myself to Elena Delle Donne, please rest assured, I’m not. But all of us who have struggled with injuries that prevented us from doing what we loved have some sense of what it feels like when your body betrays you, when it feels broken. So, watching Elena Delle Donne get announced as a starter to a roaring crowd, watching her run out with her team, and then watching her hit her first shot, an EDD classic fadeaway jumper, I rejoiced for her. How could you not? 

Yes, the Mystics lost on Sunday but it almost didn’t matter. I write almost because of course it matters. These players are highly competitive. They want to win. If the playoffs happened today, the Mystics wouldn’t make it, as they currently sit in 10th place in the WNBA. No one has forgotten that. But on Sunday against the Storm, there was a palpable feeling of jubilation in Entertainment and Sports Arena, on the sideline, and on the floor. Mike Thibault said that getting Delle Donne back felt “like Christmas”. After the game, Natasha Cloud was frank: “Yes, it sucks that we lost but there was a lot of good in there and it was really good to have Delle back on the court today. That’s my Batman.” Everyone seemed to get it: the first step was getting Delle Donne back on the floor and healthy; the next step is winning.

Megan Gustafson, who was recently signed to a Rest-of-Season Contract, posted, “I love this team so much.” And the truth is, it’s hard not to root for the Mystics. They hype each other up. They’ve shown heart all year, even when most of the team has spent time on the injured list. Tina Charles is having one of the best seasons of her career, and has carried the lion’s share of scoring and rebounding for a team that, because of injuries, didn’t have another option. And now she is injured, out with a left gluteal strain. The Mystics played and won without Charles on Tuesday. They’ll try to do so again tonight against Dallas. Injuries are part of the game, yes, but in a very basic (and childish — forgive me) way, they also feel unfair.

Hopefully the Mystics can continue to find ways to win until Charles is healthy again. The Mystics have the pieces. If they get a few needed victories down the stretch, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with come playoff time. But in the meantime, hopefully they’ll continue to rejoice that one of the best to play the game is playing once again. In a postgame interview, Elena Delle Donne remarked, “We are so lucky to play this game that we love.” It’s clear that the Mystics understand this to be true. 

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