- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2017

For the second straight game, Elena Delle Donne had a slow start. The Washington Mystics star didn’t score until 2:28 left in the first quarter in Friday’s 88-79 win against the Chicago Sky.

But this time, Delle Donne’s start was unrelated to nerves. Delle Donne, the 2015 WNBA MVP, had gotten over playing the Sky, her former team who traded her in the offseason. The Mystics concluded a home-and-home series with the Sky last Friday with Washington taking both games.

Delle Donne, who admitted she was nervous in her return to Chicago last Wednesday, can spend the rest of the season finally moving on. The Mystics only play the Sky one more time in the WNBA regular season.

The return — and the drama that comes when a star like Delle Donne changes teams — is over.

“I love what I feel here (in Washington),” Delle Donne said. “There’s really no need to talk about Chicago anymore. I’m gone.”

The fact Delle Donne was traded to the Mystics in the middle of her prime was surprising and rare. The WNBA has only 12 teams and Delle Donne was the face of Chicago Sky basketball. She appeared on magazines and had sponsorships. She led the Sky to a 2014 Finals run, even though the Sky were 15-19. The next year, she won the MVP. At 6-foot-5, Delle Donne is a special mix of a playmaker and a scorer.

But Delle Donne, to put it mildly, forced her way out.

At the end of last season, Delle Donne was a restricted free agent. Even if she had reached a free agent deal with the Mystics, Chicago could have matched. The WNBA also has an NFL franchise tag equivalent called core designation, which would have kept Delle Donne with the Sky.

Delle Donne, though, made it clear she had no intention playing with Chicago. She gave an ultimatum: find a trade so she could be closer to her family in Delaware or she would sit out the entire 2017 season.

Delle Donne said she wanted to leave after her contract expired.

“If you express and you gave your time there, and it’s time to move on, and you like something else, hopefully both teams would want to move in that direction,” said Delle Donne, who played in Chicago for four seasons.

Delle Donne’s camp relied on precedent to get her way.

Chicago is a market where a star player leaving isn’t unfathomable. The Chicago Bulls traded Derrick Rose. The Chicago Cubs got rid of Sammy Sosa. Michael Jordan was a Wizard, for God’s sake. If fans can see these icons in other uniforms, then Delle Donne deserved a chance to be happy.

The Sky, more importantly, had a direct history of caving to players who wanted out. In 2015, center Sylvia Fowles refused to sign a contract extension and sat out the first half of the season.

Seeing as Fowles wouldn’t rejoin the team, Chicago traded her to Minnesota.

On Feb. 2, Delle Donne was traded to the Mystics for center Stefanie Dolson, guard Kahleah Copper and the No. 2 overall pick.

Media outlets called it the biggest trade in WNBA history.

It’s not hard to look at the trade and wonder about the health of the league. Delle Donne was a star in Chicago, but Sky owner Michael Alter told Crain’s Chicago Business his team still wasn’t profitable. How is the WNBA expected to grow if stars in each market leave?

“I think the next collective bargaining agreement, there will be a lot of discussion about owners and players about these kind of things,” Mystics coach and general manager Mike Thibault said. “It’s not my job as a coach to be involved in that.”

There is an argument to be made, though, player movement helps the popularity of sports. Kevin Durant and LeBron James are two of the NBA’s most popular players and they each switched teams in the primes of their careers. ESPN has had entire shows dedicated to the start of free agency and the trade deadline.

Movement is drama and drama causes people to tune in.

“When there’s a shakeup in the league, it at leasts gets people talking about it,” said Kristi Toliver, an all-star point guard who signed with the Mystics this offseason. “There’s been a lot of offseason moves. … Whatever gets the chatter going for the league is good. It’s a pretty rare thing in this league.”

Delle Donne, to be honest, probably doesn’t care about the politics surrounding her move.

For her, family is the priority.

Delle Donne chose the Mystics because she wanted to get closer to her family who lives in Delaware, including her older sister Lizzie, who is blind, deaf and has other special needs. Delle Donne famously left college powerhouse UConn and basketball all together before her freshman year, so she could be closer to her family. She transferred to Delaware and played volleyball before eventually getting back to basketball.

“They’re going to come to every single home game, so it’s pretty special to have them here in the stands,” Delle Donne said about her family. “Not only that, but there’s been days after practice where my mom calls me up and says, ‘Hey, let’s meet in Annapolis and go get some lunch together,’ or ‘Hey, I’ll bring Liz. We’re going to go to the beach for a little. Come over and we’ll hang out.’

“Those are the moments, I’m like ‘Oh my gosh. I’m really close in this proximity especially.’”

And on the court, Delle Donne said “the family vibe” was the biggest difference when joining the Mystics. She declined to go into specifics about the atmosphere in Chicago, but said Thibault sets the culture.

When Delle Donne was nervous in her return to Chicago, she relied on her teammates to help get her through the moment. They told her to embrace the weirdness.

Besides being back on the court she played most of her career, last Wednesday’s game was an 11:30 a.m. start on “Camp Day.” Rather than having a game in primetime or thanking Delle Donne for her service, the Sky elected to have kids from surrounding elementary schools in attendance for a field trip.

Delle Donne, who scored 21 points in a 82-67 win, said she didn’t expect anything special in Chicago. There was no need for a video montage or to relish in the past, she said. Delle Donne worked through nerves and the game went fine.

Delle Donne said she was glad to have gotten her return to Chicago out of the way in just the third game of the season. Last Friday, Delle Donne could just play basketball.

“We’re both ready to move on,” Delle Donne said.

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