But as the public address announcer read through Delle Donne’s list of accomplishments — which ended with her receiving the league’s MVP award — the 6-foot-4, do-everything forward-guard looked as if she would have preferred to be in a dentist’s chair. Anything to get back to her Washington Mystics teammates, who had more important business at hand.
“Our team,” Delle Donne said, “we love each other.”
By this point, the folks who fill this new arena in Southeast D.C. have long ago decided they loved Delle Donne. This is her third year here, and she has one hope: that her second MVP award is followed by her first WNBA championship.
The latest step came after that awkward pregame ceremony, a 103-91 victory over the Las Vegas Aces that gave the Mystics a 2-0 lead in their best-of-five semifinal series. That win guarantees those who have embraced Delle Donne will get at least one more glimpse of her at home — either in a potential Game 5 against Vegas next week or in the Mystics’ second straight finals appearance, which looks increasingly likely.
So she has been the leading lady in engineering the complete turnaround of a franchise. But she also has undergone a personal transformation from her early days with the Chicago Sky. Then, she won the 2015 MVP as a 26-year-old. By Thursday, she understood the award differently.
“I feel like when I first got it, my eyes were wide open,” Delle Donne said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is the greatest thing ever,’ not realizing that making my teammates better and trying to win championships is so much more that this. And somehow when you do that, you play great as a team and you make everyone else around you better, it makes your job easier and somehow this trophy comes along with it sometimes.”
This is not only to appreciate what we have here but to appreciate that there’s time left to enjoy it this fall. That Delle Donne is the Mystics’ first MVP might qualify as an obscure fact, as telling about her excellence since she arrived, via trade with Chicago, before the 2017 season as it is about the Mystics’ struggles before she put on their uniform. Washington entered the playoffs as the favorite for the title for a variety of reasons — overall talent, versatility, explosiveness, experience, coaching. None of those reasons matter without Delle Donne.
So as she stood at center court before Thursday’s game, posing for photos with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and the MVP trophy — longing to get back to her teammates and get to tip-off — it was worth considering where she fits among stars in Washington. Is any D.C. pro athlete performing at a higher level?
This is not a question for Delle Donne.
“I just let my play speak for itself,” she said, “and you guys get to decide that.”
First of all, MVP awards are pretty rare around here. Bryce Harper won the National League’s honor in 2015, but he doesn’t play here anymore. Alex Ovechkin has three Hart Trophies as the NHL’s MVP, but the most recent came in 2013. Ovi’s accomplishments are unassailable now because he followed those Harts by hoisting the Stanley Cup. But in a younger, faster league, a 34-year-old isn’t likely to be the best player.
The football team’s last MVP? That would be Joe Theismann in 1983. Yeah, John Wall and Bradley Beal were both courtside Thursday night, and they have been, at various points in their careers, among the NBA’s best players. But the only MVP in the franchise history of the Washington Wizards was Wes Unseld, back in 1969, when they were the Bullets and they played in Baltimore. D.C. United’s biggest star is Englishman Wayne Rooney, but he’s a short-timer, done with Washington after this season.
So Delle Donne fits in there, comfortably. Maybe Anthony Rendon’s massive 2019 with the Nationals will result in the MVP (as it should). Rose Lavelle was the breakout star of the Women’s World Cup, is the future of American soccer and plays right here for the Washington Spirit.
The point: You have to reach to find a Washington athlete having more of an impact on her or his team and her or his league than Delle Donne. And the reality is, you probably won’t find one.
“Elena Della Donne’s the MVP because she affects every aspect of the box score,” guard Natasha Cloud said.
That was the reality Thursday, when Delle Donne wasn’t in a rhythm. She missed 10 of her 15 shots, including all three of her three-pointers. Two days after opening the playoffs with 24 points, she had just 14.
And yet it was an MVP-worthy performance. She had 10 boards. She hit the shot midway through the third quarter that put the Mystics up for good. With the Aces rallying and less than five minutes left in the game, she made an athletic and impressive block of Vegas forward A’ja Wilson.
“Actually, in some ways, this game kind of epitomized [the award] because she didn’t have a good shooting game,” Coach Mike Thibault said. “And yet people are running to double-team her, and she’s finding somebody else. She gets double figure rebounds. She comes up with a big blocked shot down the stretch. Those other things are things nobody ever thinks about her. . . .
“She knew she wasn’t in a good rhythm. So she gave up herself partly to be a decoy. . . . She has willingly done that because it helps our team win. That’s the Elena Delle Donne that’s the MVP.”
Without Delle Donne’s best shooting game, the Mystics can survive because of Emma Meesseman and Cloud and Kristi Toliver and others.
With her? With her, they have a star, a focal point, a player who can combine the sound with the spectacular. Take a look at her and the trophy she now deservedly holds.
“It’s even more inspiring to know that there’s little girls looking up to me that are maybe dreaming of doing the same or doing more,” she said. “That’s what I did when I was younger because I had them to look up to, and to now think I’m in a position to inspire others is a really cool feeling, and something that still gives me chills.”
The real chills could come this fall. The MVP was a step in solidifying Delle Donne’s legacy in Washington and her standing among this city’s athletes. But the championship, that would matter more. In that sense, Thursday’s win was more important than any ancillary hardware. Just let Elena Delle Donne get back to her teammates, where she’s comfortable.