- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2019

Natasha Cloud first broke the news to reporters while she was still standing on the confetti-strewn court, in between dancing and signing fans’ shirts.

“Y’all don’t even know, Elena has three herniated disks. Not one, but three!” she said. “And she played through like a champion.”

Fitting how the year Elena Delle Donne won her first WNBA title, she was not only playing hurt, but more hurt than the public ever knew.

Delle Donne injured her back last week in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals and missed most of the game. With four days off before Game 3, she was able to return for the Washington Mystics and play the remainder of the series.

But the team said her diagnosis was “a small disk herniation,” not three of them.

Delle Donne has played in three WNBA Finals and has never been 100% healthy for any of them. In 2014, playing for the Chicago Sky, she suffered a back injury in the first round and was not herself throughout the final series. Last year with Washington, it was a bone bruise in her knee suffered in the semis that hindered her in the finals.

After falling short both years, Delle Donne lifted the championship trophy for the first time when the Mystics beat the Connecticut Sun in Game 5 Thursday, 89-78.

“I’ve contemplated long hours over why, every time I get to a finals, something happens,” Delle Donne said. “And I think it’s because I pissed the basketball gods off years ago when I decided to step away. So I’m hoping this ends this little drama that I’ve been having in the finals.”

She was referring to the year she walked away from a basketball scholarship at the University of Connecticut to attend the University of Delaware — and played volleyball for one season before returning to hoops.

Delle Donne transferred to Delaware to be closer to her family. She requested a trade from Chicago to Washington for the same reason. Delle Donne’s sister, Lizzie, suffers from cerebral palsy, autism, blindness and deafness. The league MVP has always called her sister an inspiration, and that’s especially relevant when she’s had to fight through injuries.

“Another reason I can battle through issues — she’s been dealt the worst cards possible with her disabilities, and every day she gets up, she smiles, she laughs, she loves,” Delle Donne said. “I was talking to her all game long. Trying to have them miss free throws, I’m like, ‘Come on, Liz, give me a little something.’ She doesn’t know it. She doesn’t even know I’m a basketball player. But she’s been my biggest motivator, and she’s brought me here and she’s brought me to this moment.”

While Delle Donne’s big sister motivated her, she in turn motivated her teammates with her ability to grind through her pain in the most important series of their careers.

“It’s so important because when you’re talking about playing for the players to the left and to the right of you and being a leader on this team and being one of the captains and pushing through to win us a championship, that’s a huge testament to both her and Ariel [Atkins] in this last series,” Cloud said. “Again, thank you, Della.”

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