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Elena Delle Donne reveals surgery, docu-series

2019 WNBA Finals - Game Five
Elena Delle Donne in Game 5 of the 2019 WNBA Finals (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

Elena Delle Donne was driving in 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, when she’d undergone surgery because a disc in her back was pushing on a nerve.

Up until then, Delle Donne had been feeling better. She had the operation in January 2020 and took the year to rehabilitate and strengthen. After finishing the 2019 WNBA Finals with three herniated discs — playing through the pain to win her first championship with the Washington Mystics the two-time MVP was getting closer to making a full return.

She tried to continue with her physical therapy after the car incident, but the herniation was back and bigger this time.

“I knew the pain from before,” Delle Donne said over Zoom from her home workshop. “I was just hoping, along with the rest of my team, that through therapy I could get rid of it. But unfortunately it wouldn’t go away, and there are some things you can’t fix through rest, therapy and strengthening. I needed to go back for surgery.”

Delle Donne, 31, scheduled surgery to repair the herniated disc in early December. At that point, as she prepared for her second back operation in a year, she and her wife Amanda had an idea for a new project.

Since the 2019 Finals, Delle Donne had mostly been out of the public eye. She didn’t travel to Bradenton, Fla. last year to play in the WNBA bubble because of her chronic Lyme disease. She stayed within her pod through the COVID-19 pandemic, meeting with her physical therapist virtually and passing the time with board games, woodworking and at-home dance parties. It was Amanda who first suggested they document their lives from that point on, taking people behind the scenes of Delle Donne’s recovery and giving themselves a way to chronicle this bizarre but memorable year.

“Beyond the Game” will premiere Monday, April 19th, with new episodes dropping every Monday thereafter. 

“This series certainly goes through right after surgery, when I’m a little loopy, through all the different progressions and ways that I’ve tried to get back, like swimming,” Delle Donne said.

“There’s just a lot of silliness through it all, but I think people will really enjoy it.”

Delle Donne isn’t sure whether she’ll be ready for the first day of training camp on April 25 — she has her good days and bad days with the back. But she’s spending hours in the gym every day getting stronger, with the goal of playing in the Mystics’ regular season opener against the Chicago Sky on May 15.

It’s also not only her back she has to worry about. Delle Donne has been living and playing basketball with chronic Lyme for over 10 years now. She brought awareness to the condition last summer when she opted out of the bubble season and called out the WNBA for denying her a medical exemption and forcing her to decide between playing and forfeiting her paycheck (the Mystics ultimately paid out her full salary for the season).

Delle Donne revealed then that she takes 64 pills a day to manage the disease, and the side effects still linger.

“With the recovery of my back, there are days where I can tell that the Lyme stuff is what’s making it difficult to recover because it adds so much inflammation to my body,” she said. “It makes it confusing when you’re trying to figure out like, ‘OK, why is my back so inflamed now? Was it the workout yesterday? Is it something with Lyme?’ It’s just kind of a constant thing.”

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G Fiume/Getty Images

The year and a half away from basketball has given Delle Donne an appreciation for her health and her loved ones. She’s found comfort in being home and taking time to pause, reflect and enjoy what she has.

The separation has also made her crave competition again. The Mystics return just five players from their 2019 championship team and yet boast arguably more talent now than they did then. Tina Charles will suit up for Washington for the first time after signing in free agency last year and sitting out of the bubble season with a medical exemption. Starting guard Natasha Cloud also returns, and Myisha Hines-Allen will look to build on her breakout 2020 campaign. Alysha Clark signed with the Mystics in February, but will miss the season with a foot injury.

And Delle Donne, after all, is just 19 months removed from her historic MVP season, when she became the first WNBA player to join the 50-40-90 club. After a year and a half spent staying in touch with teammates over Zoom and text messages, she’s counting down to the reunion with her team and basketball.

“I’m just trying to keep life simple now and keep my eyes on what is in front of me,” Delle Donne said. “And at this moment, it’s continuing to strengthen, get better and get myself back on the court for my teammates.”

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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