Elena Delle Donne
Elena Delle Donne Credit: Lorie Shaull/FLICKR

A few years ago, Wendy Jacobs considered dropping her Mystics season tickets. There were too many playoff heartbreaks, and the team under coach Mike Thibault appeared to be trending in the wrong direction. In 2016, the team failed to qualify for the postseason. After more than 10 years as an ardent fan, Jacobs thought it may finally be time to move on.

Then the unimaginable happened. Washington announced that Elena Delle Donne, the 2015 WNBA Most Valuable Player award winner, would be joining the team.

“As soon as I heard, I renewed,” says Jacobs, 61. “This year I got VIP seats, so I can be closer to the action.”

Jacobs doesn’t regret the decision. On this critical Thursday night at the Charles E. Smith Center at George Washington University, the Arlington resident has a front row seat as the Mystics dominate the Los Angeles Sparks, 96-64, to advance to the WNBA playoff semifinals against the Atlanta Dream.

With just under three minutes left in the game, Delle Donne exits the game to a standing ovation. She finishes with 19 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists. A few in the crowd chant “MVP!”

Jacobs thrust both arms in the air. Delle Donne’s number 11 jersey is scattered among the 3,548 announced in attendance at the game, including the one Jacobs is wearing. On the front of her jersey are the autographs from Kristi Toliver, Natasha Cloud—and of course, Delle Donne.

“It’s been nice, I’ve been coming for 15 years,” Jacobs says. “It’s nice to finally have a team like this. It’s nice to have a quality team. Thibault got the players he’s wanted.”

Her face is everywhere: outside Capital One Arena, on front page ads in theWashington Post Express, and throughout the league’s social media accounts. Delle Donne is one of the most prominent and recognizable players in the WNBA. Last season, she topped the most popular WNBA jerseys list.

In a town that’s starting to enjoy sports success after decades of failure, Delle Donne represents a superstar among several game-changing talents like the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin and John Wall of the Wizards.

“She’s everything. She’s our MVP. She’s the MVP of this league, I don’t care who’s in the running for it,” says Cloud, who had 13 points and seven assists on Thursday. “She’s the best player in the world—not just this country, not just this league, [but] she’s the best player in the world and we have the pleasure of having her on our team.”

Says Toliver, the team’s starting point guard and a league veteran who had nine of the team’s franchise playoff high of 28 assists: “As a point guard I want to give people the ball, and when you give the ball to somebody like that, it makes my life super easy. Between her and [LaToya Sanders] and [Cloud] stepping up and making big plays, we’re just playing really good team basketball, but you know, she’s the one, so we have to make sure she’s going.”

This season, Delle Donne, the second overall pick in 2013, earned two Player of the Month honors for the Eastern Conference. She finished the regular season as the third highest points leader with 21 points per game.

In the first half of the single-elimination game against the Sparks, Delle Donne’s full arsenal is on display. She crashes the board for nine rebounds, and scores with mid-range jumpers and by wrestling her way through the paint for acrobatic layups.

Late in the fourth quarter, Delle Donne screams, “Let’s go!” after Cloud makes a three-pointer. Her voice is drowned out by the roar from the crowd.

“I think another reason why we played the way we did is we didn’t want to go home,” Delle Donne told reporters in a post-game press conference. “We truly enjoy hanging out with one another, and traveling, and we want a whole another month to spend time together. It’s just kind of that family atmosphere.”

Afterward, inside a celebratory locker room, Cloud talks about Delle Donne’s contributions off the court. “I think the biggest thing with her is that she’s so genuine,” Cloud begins. “I think you find players that are extremely talented, that can kind of ruin a locker room.”

Delle Donne is standing a few feet away, and interrupts: “Tash you’re going to make me cry, I gotta get out of here.”

Cloud laughs, and continues her thought: “She uplifts us in every single way, her presence in this locker room is huge, if not more than what her presence is on the court for us.”

Photo by Lorie Shaull on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.