Already a legend, Elena Delle Donne displayed legendary toughness

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Updated: October 11, 2019



2:00 PM ET

Mechelle VoepelespnW.com

CloseMechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

WASHINGTON — Last year, Elena Delle Donne took to meditating. As befits the devotion she brings when she commits to anything, this isn’t a casual pass at mind control.

“She’s obsessed with it; she cannot miss that 10 minutes a day,” her wife, Amanda, explained. “It completely relaxes her. She says it makes her let go of the things she can’t control. We talk about that all the time — ‘Just let go’ — but actually doing it is another thing.”

So meditating contributed to how the Washington Mystics star managed to play three intense WNBA Finals games — helping the franchise win its first WNBA title — even after the Oct. 2 diagnosis of three herniated disks in her back.

And there’s the skilled Mystics’ medical and physical therapy staff, which Delle Donne credited for getting her and keeping her on the floor at the most important time of her career.

Some of her scars were visible, but no one knew the extent of Delle Donne’s injuries until the Finals had concluded. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

There’s also this: She’s a ridiculously tough competitor. The extent of the injury wasn’t known publicly until her teammate Natasha Cloud revealed it after Thursday’s Game 5. The team had announced that she had one herniated disk. In WNBA Finals history, it was a performance never to be forgotten.

Delle Donne already was a two-time WNBA MVP, and an Olympic and World Cup gold medalist. But the Mystics are her team. She is the face of the franchise, and in public opinion, that generally comes with the mandate that a championship — or lack thereof — defines a legacy.

Delle Donne needed this title for hers, and she knew that. But to not only break through but do so despite a painful injury that cost her one game of the Finals and had other games in potential jeopardy was her ultimate WNBA achievement. She might still win another league title, but this one was a career-maker.

It isn’t the only time we’ve seen this kind of valor from a player in the WNBA Finals who won a title. Phoenix’s Penny Taylor took an elbow to the mouth in Game 2 of the 2009 Finals, suffering a laceration inside her mouth and the displacement of two front teeth. She played the rest of the series, which the Mercury won in five games.

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Seattle’s Lauren Jackson and Indiana’s Tamika Catchings both dealt with leg injuries and played through more pain than most realized in winning WNBA titles in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen gutted through ankle and Achilles issues in the 2015 Finals. Seattle’s Sue Bird played with a broken nose in both the 2004 and 2018 Finals.

Those are just some of the injuries we know about. There are undoubtedly many more that we were never even made aware of.

Still, back injuries can be particularly painful and debilitating, preventing players from even moving normally. What we saw over the past week-plus from Delle Donne just further cemented what we witnessed last year, too, when she played two semifinal and three Finals games — and the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup — despite a painful bone bruise in her left knee.

Delle Donne isn’t just one of the most skilled players in women’s basketball. She’s also mentally tough in a way the best champions in sports have to be. She has proved that for a long time now.

After previous Finals heartbreaks, Delle Donne looked determined to earn an elusive WNBA Championship Trophy. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

From mononucleosis in high school to Lyme disease in college at Delaware to back injuries, knee injuries and a broken nose in the WNBA, Delle Donne hasn’t just persevered. She has played at a consistently great level.

Delle Donne mostly will shrug this off for two reasons. First, her sister, Lizzie, has severe disabilities, and Delle Donne always has the perspective of knowing how challenging her sister’s battle has been. Second, Delle Donne just looks around at her WNBA colleagues, several of whom play almost year-round — Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas has been playing for a while with labral tears in both shoulders, for instance. After a valiant effort that likely would have earned her Finals MVP honors had the Sun won the WNBA Finals, Thomas is headed overseas very soon. No time now for rest or surgery.

For virtually all professional athletes, some degree of pain tolerance and management is essential. It’s even more the case with WNBA players because so many compete overseas as well to supplement their incomes.

Delle Donne is financially in a position where she doesn’t have to do that, and she is quick to point out how fortunate that makes her. But that knowledge didn’t make the physical reality of playing 26, 30 and 37 minutes in Games 3, 4 and 5 any less grueling. To Delle Donne, though, this was an easy choice.

At 30, she knew this was her best chance to date at a WNBA title, not just for herself but for her teammates, coach Mike Thibault and the franchise.

It’s ironic to think there was a time, when Delle Donne stepped away from basketball before what was supposed to have been her freshman year at UConn, that some people actually questioned her commitment.

But that decision was about not being ready to be separated from home and her sister then, which playing at UConn would have required. Delle Donne instead stayed close at Delaware, where she returned to basketball after a season away. She’s been one of the game’s best ever since.

Delle Donne also dealt with a back injury in the 2014 WNBA Finals, when she was with Chicago. With the WNBA’s silver trophy sitting nearby at Thursday’s postgame news conference, Delle Donne whimsically pondered why she’s had particularly bad luck with injuries in her three Finals appearances.

“I’ve contemplated long hours over why every time I get to a Finals, something happens,” she said, smiling, “and I think it’s because I pissed the basketball gods off years ago when I decided to step away. So I’m hoping this ends this little drama that I’ve been having in the Finals.”

In the WNBA Finals, Delle Donne needed it all — meditation, great medical support, the help of her teammates — to close the curtain on the drama that was her own championship drought. Her basketball talents have long been heralded, but Delle Donne didn’t get this championship on her talent alone — she had to overcome the type of physical challenges that have stopped many others. In the end, Delle Donne had to dig deep. That’s what the real legends do.



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