When Elena Delle Donne told Washington Mystics fans she would do everything in her power to bring a title to D.C., she probably didn’t have the events of the 2019 WNBA Finals in mind.
Delle Donne left minutes into game 2 against the Connecticut Sun with back spasms and head coach Mike Thibault, shaken by déjà vu from his previous trips to the Finals, revealed she had been dealing with back pain for a short while.
“It’s the one nightmare I had for the last month is, you know, seeing her lying on her back,” Thibault told reporters.
She returned to the court with an assist from a five-day scheduled break between games, played 93 of the final 120 minutes of the series that went to game 5 with a herniated disc and did bring that championship home to the District for the first time in franchise history.
Teammate Natasha Cloud, boosting credit her teammate never takes for herself in a rowdy postgame press conference, revealed it wasn’t one but three herniated discs for Delle Donne.
Delle Donne plays with 3 herniated discs
Delle Donne, 30, finished answering a question about her injury past when Cloud jumped in.
“I’m about to drop this bomb on y’all,” Cloud said. “Elena not only has one herniated disc, she has three, and when you’re talking about ...”
“The medical staff is going to kill you right now,” Delle Donne interjected.
“Oh, I don’t care. But when you’re talking about it — it’s so important, because when you’re talking about playing for the players to the left and to the right of you and being a leader on this team, and being one of the captains and pushing through to win us a championship, that’s a huge testament to both her and Ariel [Atkins] in this last series. So again, thank you, Della.”
Delle Donne confirmed to reporters she played with three herniated discs, adding, “Surprise!” The official report was a “small disc herniation” that Thibault said was pinching a nerve.
“Three of them things! Three of ’em!” Cloud exclaimed, later joking it was four after accidentally patting Delle Donne’s back too hard.
Atkins was also playing with a bad back after the 23-year-old bent down to pick something up days before Game 3 and couldn’t get up. Despite it, she knocked in 14 points during 18 minutes in Game 4 and had seven rebounds in the clincher.
Cloud’s reveal and her glowing words about Delle Donne — who received scores of them last night on social media — is a serious moment that illuminates how much the star went through in the last week. It was also a genuinely funny back-and-forth between the three that showcases their personalities.
It begins at the 37:15 mark:
‘I pissed the basketball gods off’
Delle Donne, who also had a broken nose this season and has Lyme disease, is no stranger to injuries in the finals. The two-time MVP played through back issues in the 2014 Finals while with the Chicago Sky. They were swept by the Phoenix Mercury in her sophomore campaign.
The Mystics made it to the 2018 Finals, and Delle Donne battled through a deep contusion in her left knee suffered in the semifinal. That team was swept at the hands of the Seattle Storm, and Delle Donne missed games at the start of 2019 due to the knee injury. She played the year with a brace on it.
That’s 3-for-3 on WNBA Finals injuries.
“I’ve contemplated long hours over why every time I get to a Final, something happens,” Delle Donne said. “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.
“To be on a team that can carry me when I wasn’t 100 percent really means a lot to get over this hump and to really push through when not feeling great.”
Delle Donne: Lizzie’s been my journey
One of the greatest to play the game stepped away after initially accepting a scholarship from UConn for the 2008-09 season. She left Storrs days into her first summer and returned home to be closer to her family, including her sister, Lizzie, who was born deaf and blind and has cerebral palsy and autism.
Delle Donne enrolled at Delaware in August and, citing burnout, joined the volleyball team as a walk-on. The Blue Hens won the conference title and made the NCAA tournament. She returned to play basketball in 2009-10 and years later wanted to sign with Washington in part to be closer to her sister, whom she called “my journey.”
“Somehow she’s got me to this moment ... Another reason I can battle through injuries [is] she’s been dealt the worst cards possible with her disabilities and every day she gets up, she smiles, she laughs, she loves, so she’s always just been my inspiration.
“I was talking to her all game long. Trying to have them miss free throws. I’m like, ‘Come on, Liz, give me a little something.’ She doesn’t know it; She doesn’t even know I’m a basketball player. But she’s been my biggest motivator. She’s brought me here and she’s brought me to this moment. So once again, I have to give all credit to her.”
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