April 20, 2021 

What we learned from Elena Delle Donne’s new documentary

The Washington Mystics star released the first episode of “Beyond the Game” on Monday

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In the first scene of their new documentary “Beyond the Game,” Elena and Amanda Delle Donne loaded up their car with luggage, their dogs Rasta and Wrigley, and the board game In Kahoots. It was a rare excursion for the Delle Donnes during the COVID-19 pandemic; they have been especially careful because of Elena’s Lyme disease, which Elena’s doctor believes puts her at a higher risk of contracting a severe form of COVID-19.

But this trip wasn’t optional. “Let’s get the bad news out of the way right away,” Amanda said as they hit the road.

Elena explained, “I’m headed for back surgery number two.”

Elena’s first back surgery took place in January 2020, three months after she led the Washington Mystics to their first-ever WNBA championship. She has had back problems dating back to at least 2014 and was clearly hampered during the 2019 championship series, but the public didn’t know the extent of the injury until teammate Natasha Cloud spoke about it after the title-clinching win.

“I’m about to drop this bomb on y’all,” Cloud told the media. “Elena not only has one herniated disc—she has three!”

Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne (left), guard Kristi Toliver (center) and guard Natasha Cloud (right) spoke at the press conference after Game 5 of the WNBA Finals on October 10, 2019. Photo credit: Chris Poss

Elena traveled to Dallas for her first surgery, which was performed by Dr. Andrew Dossett, an orthopedic surgeon who consults for several men’s professional teams in Texas. She appeared to be recovering well, though the pandemic closed many rehabilitation facilities and slowed her progress.

Then, as Just Women’s Sports’ Hannah Withiam reported last week, Elena was driving her car in September “when a familiar, unwelcome sensation gave her pause. Pain shot down her leg, radiating and taking her back to eight months earlier.”

Delle Donne tried to treat the pain with physical therapy, but she had another, bigger herniation. “I knew the pain from before,” Delle Donne told Withiam. “… There are some things you can’t fix through rest, therapy and strengthening. I needed to go back for surgery.”

Elena opted to travel to New York City for that second surgery in December 2020. As she explained in the documentary, however, the pandemic complicated the process. She and Amanda had to test negative before leaving the Washington, DC, area and quarantine for a week in New York before surgery, so they rented an Airbnb and brought Wrigley and Rasta along. Elena then had to test negative two more times before surgery.

“Beyond the Game” premiered on Monday, April 19, and new episodes will be released weekly. At just under 14 minutes long, the first episode featured Elena and Amanda driving to New York and settling into their temporary home. Here are four things we learned from the premiere:

The first surgery wasn’t all smooth sailing

Delle Donne revealed that, in addition to the herniated discs she has dealt with for a year and a half, she also suffers from stenosis. Stenosis is a condition in which the spaces within the spine get narrower, potentially putting pressure on a person’s spinal nerves and causing pain, numbness, and/or muscle weakness.

“People always say, when you go for a herniated disc back surgery, which—I have stenosis, too, so that kind of complicates it a little more—they always say you wake up from surgery and you feel so good; the nerve pain is immediately gone,” Elena said during the drive to New York. “And that didn’t happen for me.

“So hopefully this time I’ll wake up and feel better.”

Amanda added that Elena’s first surgery was “brutal” for her, too, because she was constantly picking up things that Elena had dropped and couldn’t bend over to retrieve. With Amanda and Elena ramping up their woodworking business this year, Amanda fretted that she wouldn’t always be home to help Elena this time around. “I’m going to come home to just stuff all over the house,” she joked.

The Delle Donnes—and their dogs—on their road trip. Screenshot from “Beyond the Game,” episode 1.

The Delle Donnes don’t fully agree on the best Delaware eats

Driving through Elena’s home state of Delaware, the Delle Donnes fielded a call from Elena’s mother, Joan, and discussed their favorite Delaware foods. The winner was Buckley’s Tavern, a casual American restaurant in Wilmington that operates out of a house built in 1817.

Elena also name-dropped Capriotti’s, a sandwich chain that originated in Delaware and that she “was so proud of” when she was younger, and Breadeaúx Pizza, a Midwestern pizza franchise that Amanda was decidedly less keen on. “It’s a whole different pizza experience,” Elena conceded of the French bread crust.

Wrigley attempts to join the bedtime fun, much to Elena’s dismay. Screenshot from “Beyond the Game,” episode 1.

There is at least one very spacious Airbnb in New York City

The Delle Donnes gave viewers a tour of their Airbnb, which featured New York City’s signature exposed brick and a small patio. It also had a basement and enough beds for 14 people. “There’s beds everywhere,” Amanda said. “Who knew a New York apartment could have this much room in it?”

However, it was a challenge for them to decide which beds they—and the dogs—would occupy on their first night. Amanda needs a television on to fall asleep, and the television in one bedroom was broken. And then there was the issue of finding a bed that would fit Elena, who is 6’5. She ultimately settled on a daybed in the basement that was just long enough.

“I mean, surgery will fix whatever this sleeping arrangement does to me,” she laughed.

Elena isn’t sure a championship was worth the pain

Long car rides can sometimes evoke candid discussions, and this one certainly did. At one point, Amanda asked, “Was winning the WNBA championship worth two back surgeries and probably a lifetime of shooting leg pain?”

Elena quickly objected, “Pump the brakes on a lifetime of shooting leg pain!” But she didn’t dodge the question.

“It’s funny,” she said. “After the first surgery, I said yes. If this is an ongoing, lifelong struggle, I can’t say yes anymore.”

Before Mystics fans panic, that does not seem to be a retirement announcement. Aside from the fact that Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said last month that Elena was working out in hopes of being ready for training camp, Amanda phrased a question about Elena’s future plans by asking about “when you finish—like, whenever you retire.”

Whenever that day comes, Elena said, she will remain physically active, but she has no plans to pick up a basketball ever again in retirement. Her hoop days are numbered, but the hope is that this second surgery will help her extend her career and, more importantly, be pain-free on and off the court.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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