The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elena Delle Donne is competing against herself now

Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne has played just three games over the past two seasons. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
9 min

Elena Delle Donne and her wife, Amanda, were driving to New York in December 2020 for the basketball star’s second back surgery within a year when Amanda, who was at the wheel, posed two questions.

“Was winning a WNBA championship worth two back surgeries and probably a lifetime of shooting leg pain?” Amanda said with a smile in a scene later published on Delle Donne’s YouTube channel.

“Let’s pump the brakes on ‘a lifetime of shooting leg pain,’ ” Delle Donne replied, laughing. “It’s funny: After the first back surgery, I would have said yes. If this is an ongoing life struggle? Uh-uh. I can’t say yes anymore.”

Amanda’s next question: “Whenever you retire, do you think you’ll ever pick up a basketball again?”

“No,” Delle Donne said. “No.”

The Washington Mystics’ franchise player has traveled a long road since that moment, some 16 months after her second operation to repair multiple herniated disks in her spine that were pressing on a nerve and more than two years after her last full WNBA season.

In 2019, Delle Donne reached the mountaintop, collecting her second WNBA MVP award and steering the Mystics to their first championship. But the fall was steep: Since then, she has appeared in just three games as she battled debilitating daily pain that persisted through an initial surgery and brought her close — multiple times — to giving up basketball.

When Washington opens its season Friday against Indiana at Entertainment and Sports Arena, Delle Donne will begin a new era in her career. Logistically, she will have to manage her schedule like an NBA veteran, and she will move differently on the court after her injury required her to learn to walk differently and to breathe differently.

And though Delle Donne is generally pain-free and optimistic that her return will be a success, this season has the feeling of a high-stakes experiment that could determine the next few years of her career.

“I do have all the confidence that I think this will be great, because I can’t handle another …” she said in April, trailing off. “That would be the end, I think. I don’t think I could keep doing it.”

How Delle Donne finally made her way back to the court is straightforward. After her second surgery, Michael Davis, the director of physical and performance therapy for Monumental Sports, took over her recovery. The two spend hours together daily, and Delle Donne credits Davis with “changing her life” and giving her a shot at playing again.

But Delle Donne’s reasoning for wanting to be back on the court, given the danger of aggravating her injury, is multifaceted. For one, the ­32-year-old is consumed by a desire to win again. Her comeback is an irresistible opportunity to retake control — and regain some sense of self — after years of submitting to her body’s whims.

“It’s very Elena-esque to try again,” Amanda Delle Donne said. “She’s had these surgeries, and I feel like she feels like she owes it to her team and she has to give them this one last effort. And it’s sad for me because there’s a chance it might ruin her, and she just kind of continues to push.”

‘Should I even do this anymore?’

Delle Donne has been pushing since the fall of 2019, when months of fruitless therapy finally led her to her first surgery Jan. 24, 2020.

She was supposed to wake up and feel immediate relief. But afterward, she experienced severe stiffness, and her nerve pain eased only temporarily before roaring back. Often, the agony was so overwhelming that she could do nothing in the middle of the day but go to bed; when she was up and about, Amanda had to dress her. Amanda would return from grocery shopping to find the house littered with items her wife had dropped and couldn’t bend down to pick up.

Delle Donne’s lack of progress meant a second surgery was necessary — the exact same procedure, this time performed by a surgeon in New York — but even then, she wasn’t improving as doctors said she should.

Her case was complicated by a history of minor back issues stemming from her 6-foot-5 stature. Delle Donne had hoped she could return for the start of the 2021 season in May, but months after her second surgery, a light workout would leave her bedridden for a week. As the season neared, she called Stu Singer, the Mystics’ mental performance coach, and told him she was done.

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

“I had a moment of awareness, like: ‘You’re not even close. What the hell is happening?’ ” Delle Donne said. “I felt like I was letting down the organization, the fans. ‘Should I even do this anymore?’ I felt a lot of outside pressure of missing another season.”

Singer assuaged Delle Donne’s feelings of guilt and made her promise not to make a final decision until after the season ended.

By then, she had met Davis and turned the corner thanks to an intensive approach in which the pair focused on Delle Donne’s most fundamental bodily movements. A back injury is a nuanced puzzle with multiple factors, not least of which is that you use your back for everything, which can impede rehabilitation that isn’t precisely managed. Brian Neuman, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Johns Hopkins Medicine who was not involved in Delle Donne’s recovery, said surgery is often the easy part for patients — especially high-impact athletes eager to get back in the game.

Davis, who declined to be interviewed for this story, worked with Delle Donne for four to six hours per day, every day. He taught her how to breathe into her lower stomach, filling an imaginary inner tube sitting above her hips, to strengthen her core. He taught her how to walk so she isn’t striking her heel so hard, which pounds on her back and can undo anything the operation had fixed. He continues to oversee her weightlifting, body work and basketball workouts, and he will help determine when Delle Donne should rest during the upcoming season.

Davis not only got Delle Donne back on the court mere months after she was prepared to quit, but he provides the type of specialized attention that is critical to preventing reinjury in what Neuman said is an issue that can carry as high as a 15 percent risk for re-herniation.

“When I met [Davis], that gave me a new beginning,” Delle Donne said.

She worried her brief appearances in just three 2021 games might have been viewed by outsiders as a failure. But just playing again felt nothing short of miraculous — as though she had gotten her head above water for the first time in years.

‘How the hell does this story end here?’

Delle Donne does not live for basketball. She loves it deeply, even more now that it was nearly snatched from her. But she often speaks about the game being equal parts her passion and, quite simply, a job.

Delle Donne gave up the game before — for a year while in college — and returned only after a happy, peaceful break. She and Amanda had dozens of serious conversations over the past few years about Delle Donne quitting, almost always when her mind was fogged by pain and all that mattered was finding reprieve.

“The quality of life is something we talked about a lot,” Amanda said. “I don’t know — say we have kids. ‘Are you going to be able to pick up our kids? Are you going to be able to walk down the street? Are we going to be able to go to an amusement park and you walk through and not be in excruciating pain?’ It appears that she’s come to terms that she’s just going to hurt for the rest of her life, because she’s trying. But then again, it’s scary, because she’s our breadwinner. She provides for our family, so it’s always a conversation of, not only are you going to not play this sport you’ve played your whole life, but there needs to be something else that we’re going to do as a team.”

Elena Delle Donne is back, and the Mystics are championship-minded

Delle Donne signed a four-year maximum contract with the Mystics, which pays her just shy of $230,000 per year, in February 2020 — after her first surgery. Washington continued to pay her throughout her recovery, organizational loyalty that she is eager to repay on the court.

But consideration for her financial well-being and wanting to give back to the team feel, in a way, to be external reasons for coming back, not enough to offset the pain at its worst. To be fully committed to returning, Delle Donne needed an internal flame. She unlocked a power she wasn’t aware she had these past few years — the strength to wake up every day and put every ounce of effort in her body toward reaching a goal she knew might have been Sisyphean.

“I have always, always in my career loved competing against myself,” Delle Donne said. “I run my own race, and this has by far been the biggest challenge of my career. That was my thing: I needed to decide. Like, really? How the hell does this story end here?”

Now that she’s back with the Mystics, Delle Donne is obsessed with winning again. But the knowledge that she doesn’t need to have a carrot dangled in front of her to push through hard times has changed her definition of the word.

Winning isn’t just capturing awards or defeating opponents — it’s beating the odds. Winning is working in the gym and quelling snarls of pain with a response of “You don’t own me.” If Delle Donne gets to decide when she walks away from basketball, then maybe she already has won.

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