Elena Delle Donne, with ‘a new body,’ still looks like her old self

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Elena Delle Donne does this thing with her hips.

During breathers when she’s standing away from the Washington Mystics’ sideline. While she’s on court preparing for another run. Even during a video sketch played during a timeout Friday night, when she demonstrated to teammate Tianna Hawkins the slow, rotating pelvic motion she has to do to stay loose these days.

After a pair of back surgeries, painful days of rehabilitation and the unseen toll that has burdened an otherwise young professional athlete who before the season opener had played in only three games over the past two seasons, those granny hip rolls are now just part of her everyday life. As is her hatred for sitting down.

Elena Delle Donne flashes familiar form as Mystics win opener

“I don’t love chairs,” Delle Donne said while adjusting into one following her 21-point, nine-rebound season debut. It was the first time she had played on opening night since 2018, but before she could talk about it, she warned a room full of reporters about the daily battles between the seated position and someone with a balky back.

“You guys shouldn’t, either. You’ll learn one day,” she deadpanned.

Her body shows the evidence of a strenuous cupping therapy session — those dark reddish circles across her back and shoulders. When she takes a break, she towers over everyone else on the Mystics’ sideline because she sits on a special ergonomic chair that makes the 6-foot-5 star look as if she’s perched atop a booster seat. But despite the appearance of being an aging veteran, the 32-year-old Delle Donne still looked like herself throughout a day that finished with an 84-70 win over the Indiana Fever.

In the morning, she found her rhythm — and swagger — from beyond the three-point arc. The Mystics finished shoot-around with a version of knockout. Players took turns attempting threes. Delle Donne remained in the same spot and swished hers. When a teammate tried to follow one of her velvety jumpers and missed, Delle Donne looked her way, smiled and waved goodbye.

“She loves being out here. You can see it — she’s laughing, smiling,” Coach Mike Thibault said from the sideline while observing the post-practice scene. “Feels good to be doing what she loves the most. It was taken away from her for a while, and part of that — I mean, she will tell you, there’s an appreciation to be able to do it again and an appreciation for what she went through to get back to this.”

By the evening, Delle Donne was much better closer to the rim, where very large humans who wanted to block her shot resided. But not once did she shy from contact while schooling Fever rookies Emily Engstler and NaLyssa Smith, both of whom had the difficult task of defending a two-time league MVP, new body and all.

In the fourth quarter, Delle Donne posted up Engstler, dribbled once, then turned and ducked in to score through the foul. She walked away exulting because slow, hip-rolling grannies can’t do what she does.

There’s nothing geriatric about leading the team in rebounding or teaching Smith that her real signature move actually involves her footwork — not her hip rolls — then maneuvering inside the paint to score the first of her eight field goals. Delle Donne didn’t play in the slow lane, but she showed patience in serving up a few “Welcome to the league” moments for the neophytes.

“I had my share when I was young, so it’s about time I get to have those,” she joked.

At times, Delle Donne looked like the preseason MVP favorite, as one WNBA blogger recently predicted. But even more, she looked more relatable. Like someone pursuing her passion even when it can act cruelly in return.

She’s a little older now, with a bit more perspective on what’s important in life, but there’s still more for her to learn.

“What this new body I created can do,” Delle Donne said. “I have put many hours, especially into these legs. There’s times where it’s almost like I jump and get higher than I used to off the floor and it messes up my timing, at times. Just trying to figure out what it feels like to have a base and be able to move from below.”

When Delle Donne strutted on the floor as the last player introduced and fans made sure she heard their admiration ringing in her ears, those cheers had to mean something more. They know what she has gone through just to show up. But they don’t know the whole story.

With all due respect to the halftime act — a guy entertained the crowd by balancing a sombrero on his chin, then a table, then a ladder, then climbed a ladder to perform the same balancing trick with another ladder — Delle Donne showing up and playing might have been the most impressive act seen on this court since the Mystics celebrated the 2019 title.

“She played through pain to get us a championship,” Thibault said. “I know just from the day-to-day stuff, everything she’s gone through that most people haven’t seen but I’ve seen, that she’s done it for two years to try to get back to this point.”

Thibault paused as he tends to do when he delivers a thoughtful answer. We have seen the hip rolls and read about how she couldn’t even bend over to pick up items she dropped. But he has seen the more private torment and the secluded work. Those six- to seven-hour days through December and January when it was just her and the trainer in the arena doing rehab. So Thibault needed a few beats to make sure people understand this isn’t just another comeback story about an injured athlete.

“The work that went into it,” he went on, “she’s given everything she’s had to be able to do this.”

When Delle Donne finally left the court for the last time, with a little more than a minute remaining until a season-opening victory was final, she doled out high-fives all the way to the end of the Mystics’ sideline. Neither her expression nor her body revealed traces of pain or fatigue. Still, she did not travel with the team to Minneapolis. Instead, she stayed inside Entertainment and Sports Arena late into the night for recovery work.

She planned to return early the next morning to get shots up with her forever shooting coach, her dad. Then back on her return-to-play protocol. And she probably will do a few more hip rolls. That revamped body of hers hasn’t seen this much action in a long time, but Delle Donne proved that she can still be the player she has always been.

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