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.”
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.”