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Elena Delle Donne doesn’t have a specific date in mind for her return to the basketball court. She takes it day by day, and a practice at a time. For nearly two years, the two-time WNBA MVP has been recovering from a pair of back surgeries and has not played in a competitive game of basketball since leading the Mystics to their first WNBA title on Oct. 10, 2019. During the process, Delle Donne, who turns 32 next month, has not always felt confident she’d be able to return.
“I’ve had many moments of being very concerned,” Delle Donne told reporters Monday. “It’s been a really tough process, but I’ve been able to stay the course and just try to honestly lock into each day because backs are different. Like, I’ve had some injuries before, but this has been something where, like, my goodness, there’s a lot of gray. And as many times as I want that, like, black and white answer, it hasn’t been that way. It’s been a lot of gray, a lot of confusion.”
Monday marked a positive development for Delle Donne. In a video conference call with reporters, Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault announced that Delle Donne is back to practicing five-on-five with the team. The Mystics are currently eighth in the league with a 8-10 record and resume play on Aug. 15 after an extended break for the Tokyo Olympics. Tina Charles and Ariel Atkins will return the team as Olympic gold medalists.
The Mystics’ current roster looks significantly different than it did when Delle Donne last played. Only Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, Myisha Hines-Allen, and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough remain from the championship team. Charles, a former MVP, is the team’s leading scorer.
“A lot of us, we haven’t played together,” Delle Donne said. “But it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve had a lot of time to watch. So I feel like I know where players are comfortable and where they want to get the ball. I think they’re trying to still learn me at times. I’ve had too much time to watch and start learning all their tendencies, but I guess it’s good I used that time to figure that out.”
And while Delle Donne said it was “incredible” to watch Team USA’s dominance in women’s basketball during the Olympics, she admitted that she struggled to watch the games as a spectator from home. Delle Donne won a gold medal with the team at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“I was much better at watching the sports that I do not play,” she said. “As much as I did want to watch Team USA—I kept up with them—but I really struggled to watch any of the basketball. And it was kind of, I think, it was best for my mental space to not sit and put myself through that. And I mean, I want to play for as long as I can. And I think the best thing is that I have people helping me to keep that in perspective. Like I have, hopefully, knock on wood, a long career ahead of me.”
There were days where Delle Donne couldn’t go out to dinner with her wife, Amanda, because she couldn’t sit for longer than 10 minutes without pain. She doesn’t walk her dogs anymore. Instead, Delle Donne walks alongside them and Amanda. Sometimes, basketball wasn’t even on her mind. Delle Donne just wants to feel healthy again.
“My motivations have been quite different from day to day,” she said. “There were days where I was motivated that I’m going to get myself to feel good enough that I can go have dinner with my wife, like, basketball wasn’t even something I was thinking about at times like that. And I had to keep that in perspective, like, my goodness, I’ve got to have a better life than this and this pain.”
Then there were days where she showed up to the gym early and trained for hours. In her video conference call Monday, Delle Donne specifically gave a shoutout to former Wizards guard Russell Westbrook for motivating her. She credits him for pulling her through some tough times.
“There are people along the road who like helped me so much,” Delle Donne said. “Russ was one of my biggest helps throughout all this. I work with Russ’s body guy who now is a part of the Wizards organization, but there were days where Russ would come in, way too early, on a game day even, and he would come in and rebound for me as I’m barefoot and shooting two footers close to the rim. And, like, days I just didn’t want to have it or be upset and just like wanting to be in my feelings, there were moments like that where he would show up and it would just bring me out of the funk and be like, ‘I got this. Like, I can keep doing it. He believes in me. These people believe in me. My teammates believe in me. I can do this.'”
Now, when Delle Donne is on the court, she is going “full-tilt 100 percent.” She told reporters that she is “excited and confident” in where she is. Whenever Delle Donne returns to a WNBA game, she will almost certainly be on a minutes restriction, but she spoke with optimism of the next steps and days ahead. Delle Donne doesn’t plan to step away from basketball anytime soon.
“This is a game I’d like to play for a good amount of time,” she said. “Yes, this has been crazy and tough, but I love this game, and I still think I have a lot more to play.”