August 23, 2021
‘That’s my Batman’: Sights and sounds from Elena Delle Donne’s season debut
The Washington Mystics star and two-time WNBA MVP showed some familiar moves, scoring 16 points in her first game since 2019
WASHINGTON — A child sat courtside at the Entertainment and Sports Arena on Sunday afternoon, wearing a red Washington Mystics jersey and holding up a homemade sign. “ELENA IS BACK!!! SCHOOL IS NOW IN SESSION!” the sign read in brightly colored letters.
The Mystics didn’t school the Seattle Storm, as they lost 85-78, but the sign was still accurate. After all, how many players could do what Elena Delle Donne did on Sunday—or what she has done over the past two years?
Consider this: The Seattle game was Delle Donne’s first since Oct. 10, 2019, when she fought through three herniated discs in her back to lead the Mystics to a WNBA championship. She missed the next 22 months recovering from two back surgeries and at times wondered if she’d ever play again. She relearned how to walk, run and sit to better protect her back and gradually progressed all the way from being unable to sit at a restaurant for dinner with her wife to playing 22:27 against the 2020 WNBA champions.
In her first game in 682 days, Delle Donne had 16 points on 5-of-11 shooting from the field, hitting a 3-pointer and all five of her free throws. The 6’5 forward/guard also had three rebounds and only one turnover.
“I think I’m happy with—I mean, shoot, that’s the first game she’s played in, she gets 16 points and was pretty engaged into the game,” Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said postgame. “There’s some things that probably still aren’t comfortable for her yet, but I wasn’t expecting maybe even that today.”
“It was an amazing day just to be out there and competing with my teammates,” Delle Donne said. “It’s been quite a whirlwind of just trying to get back, seeing how I can do, and … I’m just super excited that I was able to be out there. It was just so much fun to be back in a game atmosphere—it feels like it’s been forever.”
Delle Donne’s morning began with a game day breakfast of eggs, pancakes, bacon and hash browns, according to her wife Amanda’s Instagram Stories. She arrived at the arena nearly four hours before tipoff, and she told ESPN’s Holly Rowe afterward that she had “that first day of school, butterfly feeling” before the game. But her pregame routine felt familiar to her, as it mirrored all the hours she has put into rehab and preparing to practice. She started by receiving treatment from the medical staff, did some work in the weight room, went on the court and returned for more treatment, all before tipoff.
Shortly after Delle Donne came out to the court, about 90 minutes before tipoff, Seattle star Breanna Stewart came to the Mystics bench and greeted Delle Donne with a hug. Delle Donne then did some warm-up shooting and later participated in the layup line. A few minutes before tipoff, she practiced her pivots and a few other movements against a resistance band held by a staff member.
Delle Donne replaced Shatori Walker-Kimbrough in the starting lineup and was the last one to be introduced. The crowd, which was at about three-quarters of capacity and sporting plenty of Delle Donne jerseys, roared with approval and appreciation.
“When [the PA announcer] called my name out, I’m running out and I was a little bit emotional,” Delle Donne said. “And I was like, I can’t add crying right now! I’m nervous; I can’t have tears and all that [too]. But I certainly felt it welling up in my eyes for a second … I love our fans. I love this city. The last time I was on this court, I was competing for a championship and they were here. So we’ve been through a lot together, to say the least. So the welcoming me back felt really special.”
The Mystics medical staff limited Delle Donne to about 20 minutes of play, and Thibault broke her minutes into three- to four-minute segments, both to manage her conditioning and to ensure that she didn’t stiffen up from being on the bench too long. When she wasn’t in the game, she mostly stood at the end of the bench, occasionally stretching but electing not to ride an exercise bike like she did to stay loose in the 2019 WNBA Finals.
Delle Donne hit the first shot she took, a 15-footer over Seattle’s Katie Lou Samuelson three minutes into the game. But that was her only basket of the first half, as she shot 1-for-4 and declined to attack a mismatch on one possession in the second quarter when Seattle point guard Sue Bird was defending her.
“The first half I felt like I was rushed at times. Sometimes I was forcing things or just not going right up into my shot and hesitating,” Delle Donne said. “But the game kind of was able to just come to me and I was able to work through my teammates and get comfortable and settle in.”
Delle Donne drew a shooting foul against Samuelson on the opening possession of the second half, which seemed to set the tone for her. She drew another foul about a minute later, then got the crowd fired up when she blew by Stewart on the baseline and finished the finger-roll layup to give her six points in under two and a half minutes.
She had another highlight-reel play in the fourth quarter, catching a high-low pass from Tina Charles between two defenders and splitting them to get a layup.
“We just tried to make it difficult for her,” Stewart said postgame. “But she’s Elena, and she showed that. No matter if she didn’t play for two years, she came out and made it tough for us.”
Delle Donne displayed her versatility in her first game back: She played the three and four positions, played in three-big and three-guard lineups and played alongside her fellow starters and with four reserves at various points in the game. She also defended forwards Samuelson and Stewart as well as centers Mercedes Russell and Ezi Magbegor.
“[She] opens up so many possibilities for what we can do,” Thibault said before the game. “The ability to change matchups, have some size against certain teams … You’re talking about a person that can do about everything on the court: She can post up, she can shoot threes, she can handle the ball. So it gives us different dimension we haven’t had. [It’s] like Christmas.”
“That’s my Batman!” point guard Natasha Cloud, who assisted on three of Delle Donne’s five baskets, said afterward. “It was really good to have her back on the court. Her presence alone opens up the floor so much for me to be able to do what I do, for all of our guards and our posts to be able to do what they do, because you have to commit to her on the 3-point line. …
“And then defensively, I thought she did really good today. I know she was probably nervous … but I think she played extremely well for being her first day back in two years.”
Throughout the game, Delle Donne didn’t shy away from physicality. She battled for position in the low post, and she absorbed contact well, including a collision with teammate Myisha Hines-Allen and a foul in which Bird grabbed her from behind.
Thibault and Cloud both added that Delle Donne’s return lifted the team’s spirits after a three-game losing streak. “I’m still biased; I think she’s the greatest player in the world,” Cloud said pregame. “… To see her on the floor today, obviously, it gives you that energy boost, like, ‘Yeah, we’re about to get this fucking started.’” Delle Donne’s teammates have emphasized throughout the season how her communication and overall presence makes them better, keeps them calm and gives them confidence.
Delle Donne’s performance also gave her confidence, as she admitted after the game that she had visualized how it would go but ultimately didn’t know how she would feel in an official game against another team. “It could have been a, I’m in the first two minutes and I’m out [situation]. So it was kind of just [playing] it by ear. So I’m most proud of being able to stay in there, sustain a game feel,” she said.
After the game, Delle Donne said her back felt good, though she noted that her adrenaline hadn’t yet worn off. She was slated to receive a few hours of treatment after speaking with the media, with more to come on Monday to help determine her status for the Mystics’ game against Los Angeles on Tuesday.
Whatever Delle Donne’s status is for the rest of the season, she has already won her comeback, battling back from excruciating pain to resemble her old self in many ways.
“She’s put in so many hours that nobody knows about, being here at seven in the morning and then being here until our practices finish, maybe around 1:30, 2:00,” said LaToya Sanders, who played alongside Delle Donne in 2018 and 2019 and is now a Mystics assistant coach. “She’s worked really hard to get to this point, and the work is not even finished; she still puts in a lot of effort and a lot of work to be ready for game days and stuff like that. So I’m super proud to kind of just see the process and how … she’s done everything to try to get back to her teammates and help in any capacity. So I’m excited that she’s back on 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.