The last time Elena Delle Donne played a game in a Mystics jersey, she was also wearing a face mask and knee brace.
It was October 10, 2019, and the Washington Mystics were hosting the Connecticut Sun for the decisive game five of the WNBA Finals.
The mask was to protect Delle Donne’s nose, which she had broken earlier in the season, while the knee brace was a relic of a bone bruise she had suffered during the previous year’s WNBA Finals.
Less visible were the three herniated discs in her back, an injury that she sustained during the second game of the series.
But Delle Donne, who had just been named MVP of the 2019 season, played through the pain, surprising even fellow Delaware resident and now-President Joe Biden.
She tallied 21 points that night – including four as part of an 8-0 run in final three minutes of the game – helping the Mystics earn the franchise’s first ever WNBA championship title.
“I’m a player who – everybody knows – plays through a lot of stuff,” Delle Donne reflected on Monday during the Mystics’ media day.
But Delle Donne’s journey back to the court has not been speedy.
In the last 18 months, Delle Donne has had back surgery twice: first in January 2020, followed by a second operation in December 2020.
Last summer, Delle Donne also detailed her experience with chronic Lyme disease, revealing that she takes 64 pills a day to “keep my condition under any sort of control.” (While Delle Donne was denied a medical waiver to opt out of the 2019 season due to Lyme disease, the Mystics paid her 2019 salary as she rehabbed from her first back surgery.)
“The biggest challenge for me is health and getting back on the court,” Delle Donne explained on Monday. “I’ve been working with some amazing people who are helping me move properly, even walk differently, sit differently… Trying to figure out new ways to move my body that do not put pressure on my spine.”
Delle Donne is spending at least the first week of camp working on individual skills and she is expected to start the season with restricted minutes.
Still, the 31-year-old has high expectations for this year. “If I ever enter a season and the goal isn’t [winning a championship], I think that’s the time I need to hang up the shoes and call it quits.”
Delle Donne is also hoping to be named to the U.S. roster for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics. She made her Olympic debut at the 2016 Rio Games, helping the U.S. win its sixth straight gold medal in women’s basketball.
“If they want me, I would love to be there.”Follow @AlexAzziNBC
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