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Elena Delle Donne’s back pain made her question her career, but she’s now eager to return

Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne won't play in the season opener. (Terrance Williams/The Washington Post)

Amanda Clifton has seen her wife cry only a handful of times. Most of those instances came in the past two years.

Last year was supposed to be one of celebration for Elena Delle Donne after she was named the 2019 WNBA MVP on the way to winning her first championship with the Washington Mystics. Instead, she underwent a pair of back surgeries, missed the 2020 season and was isolated from family and friends because of the coronavirus pandemic as persistent, searing pain made her question the future of her career.

“She doesn’t talk about it a ton,” Clifton said. “And one day she’ll come home, and I’ll look at her, and I can tell she’s upset, and nothing even really needs to be said. She’ll just cry. And I’m like, okay, something is really wrong. She’s really stressed out. She’s really worried about something.

“So it’s just been a lot of up and down the last couple of years. And she has certainly been a little bit more emotional, which she should be. I mean, we’re working through it every day. We’re getting there.”

The flow of emotions is new for Delle Donne, who describes herself as the calm one in the relationship. The roles reversed, however, when Clifton developed into a de facto psychologist, supporting and guiding Delle Donne through an uncertain time.

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The Mystics will begin their 2021 season Saturday as they host Delle Donne’s former team, the Chicago Sky, but she’s not expected to be available for at least the first week. In the nearly two years since Washington won the 2019 title on the Entertainment and Sports Arena floor in a decisive Game 5, Delle Donne has not played any five-on-five basketball. The road back continues to be slow and arduous for the 6-foot-5, 187-pound forward, who had to relearn how to walk, run, stand and sit.

“I always trusted in my doctors and the people who are going to get me back, but there comes a point, especially with backs … I’m like, what the heck is wrong with me?” Delle Donne said. “So, yeah, I mean, when something like that happens, there’s always that doubt or question. And [Amanda] helped me through those moments of doubt or fear. And I was able to just kind of be honest and open with her.

Obviously, I’m headed in the right direction now. But before I knew how to walk properly and stand properly, I just wasn’t getting any relief from these surgeries. And that was concerning to me.”

Delle Donne finished that championship series with three herniated disks in her back. Those disks act as shock absorbers between the bones in the spine, and a herniation happens when a piece of those disks breaks through its casing and irritates nerves in the area. Nonsurgical treatments weren’t helping, and the decision was made to go under the knife in January 2020 in Dallas. The procedure helped, but things didn’t progress as doctors expected, and one day that excruciating pain shot down Delle Donne’s leg again while she was driving. At that point she knew something was seriously wrong. Mix in the additional inflammation stemming from Delle Donne’s chronic Lyme disease, which requires a regimen of 64 pills a day and made her high risk to contract the coronavirus, and the result has been some troubling times.

“It’s been quite the process, but I love new challenges,” Delle Donne said. “As crazy as it seems, you would think it’s disheartening to hear you have to stand and walk differently. For me, it was like, thank God because I just kept having so much pressure on my back and after surgeries I wasn’t feeling better. I’m like, okay, this makes sense.”

Besides the physical challenges, Delle Donne had to deal with the psychological stress of not playing organized basketball for nearly two years. Mystics mental performance coach Stu Singer became a much-needed resource. A lot of energy was put into the Delle Donne and Clifton’s woodworking business, which developed from a shared love of do-it-yourself projects — though Delle Donne no longer hand delivers pieces as she once did, often surprising fans who didn’t expect her at their door.

Clifton also challenged her wife to open up a bit more and share the funny and silly side that those outside of their circle don’t get to see. They began a YouTube series called “Beyond the Game," with Clifton documenting their life. Delle Donne is fairly private and not a huge fan of extensive media sessions, but the series allows them to control what is public. There are awkward dance parties that prove, in Clifton’s words, that Delle Donne “has no rhythm whatsoever.” There are cameos by their giant Great Dane, Wrigley, who drinks from the sink while Delle Donne brushes her teeth.

The piece-de-resistance of the series has been a small outtake at the end of Episode 3. Delle Donne sits in the passenger seat, a camera mounted on the dashboard. It’s immediately after her second surgery, Delle Donne has her seat belt on, waiting for Clifton to return from the pharmacy. Speaking to no one in particular and still feeling the effect of the anesthesia, she rambles about wanting random food items and chuckles at a joke that wasn’t told. She contemplates sleeping in the car and worries about getting towed.

The height of Delle Donne’s conversation with herself, while parked in New York, comes as she contemplates: “I want some sourdough bread from San Francisco. You think Postmates will do that?”

Elena Delle Donne had to hate basketball before she could love it again

“It’s so funny seeing the transformation of her kind of letting people in,” Clifton said, “because I love it so much and I just figure that other people would love seeing the silly her and really who she really is.

“She’s obviously a serious person on the basketball court … but as serious as she is on the court, she’s that silly off the court.”

Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault is anxiously awaiting the day he gets that serious former MVP back on the court. The team didn’t get to truly defend its title, with Delle Donne, LaToya Sanders and Natasha Cloud opting out of the 2020 season. Thibault traded for another former MVP in Tina Charles before last season, but she also opted out. Now Delle Donne continues to do individual work and has yet to begin fully playing with teammates. She’s expected to miss at least the first three games, possibly more, as fans continue to speculate on what the Delle Donne-Charles one-two punch will look like. DraftKings Sportsbook gave Delle Donne the third-best odds to be named 2021 MVP and Charles the 13th-best odds.

“In many ways, it will be similar to Elena and Emma [Meesseman] playing together,” Thibault said, “because like Emma, Tina can post up, she can step out and shoot. She’s good in the pick and roll. They can play off each other depending on who’s got what matchup. … They’re both capable of running pick and rolls and pick and pops.

“We aren’t having to tweak a lot of things. It’s just kind of the anticipation of actually getting them out there and seeing it actually work.”

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