Game 5 of the WNBA Championship ended as regular season MVP Elena Delle Donne dropped the basketball carelessly to the court, searching to hug a teammate and celebrate her and the Mystics’ first WNBA Championship. The obsessive in me worried the ball would roll across half court and cause a meaningless turnover. The storyteller and story-lover in me was focused on the newly-minted champion — her play during the season, her injuries in the Finals, her 1-on-1 duel with Liz Cambage in the closing game of the Conference Finals that felt as noble and epic as any Greek myth. Even with the WNBA Finals relegated to ESPN 2, anyone with an interest in the league and the sport who witnessed this crowning moment and knew any of Elena Delle Donne’s path there would feel that same sense of epic closure.
Of course, this is not the end of Elena Delle Donne’s career. Not even the end of the larger professional women’s basketball season for most of the players on both Finals rosters. Yet, the end of each season brings with it a sense of finality for the stories that were told. The Mystics win signified the first title for the WNBA’s winningest coach, Mike Thibault, and a two-time MVP in Delle Donne, both of whom fell short with many of these returning players in the Finals against the Seattle Storm just a year ago.
That story isn’t completely new to the sport of basketball. In this decade alone the Minnesota Lynx accomplished a similar comeback against a rival in the LA Sparks that had their number the year before, as did the San Antonio Spurs with an epic NBA Finals split in the final two seasons of the Miami Heat Big 3 Era. The overall structure of the story is the same, though the paths of the players in each series were unique.
For Delle Donne, the title was a well-deserved marker along her road less traveled. Rather than make her name with the UConn Huskies team that she initially signed to play for in college, Delle Donne took a year away from basketball and moved to a school closer to home, while those same Huskies went on a record-setting winning streak without her. Delle Donne led the country in scoring at Delaware and brought that school to new heights, the same as she did with the WNBA’s Chicago Sky. However, in both stops, she was left title-less. The same fate fell her and the Mystics last year, with injuries taking her from the finals, and Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and the Storm taking what could have been her happy moment.
When Delle Donne was hugging Natasha Cloud, her teammate who had guaranteed this moment would take place on Washington’s home court, it was hard not to think back to that series from the year before, and EDD’s story overall. Basketball itself offers this unique opportunity that any time you look on the court, you’ll see 10 individuals, working together as two teams, but each having taken a unique path to be playing in that moment. It’s the same on the playground as in the arena, but those in the arena play in front of much bigger crowds, who are much more likely to know at least a part of each team’s path.
Delle Donne dropping that ball to the court seemed symbolic of the monkey now off her back, but the composed, consistent nature in which she plays the game — through pain, injury, victory and defeat — paint the portrait of an athlete and an artist who has mastered a sport in large part due to the unburdened nature in which she plays. Delle Donne has attributed much of her perspective on life and basketball to the struggles her older sister, Lizzie, has experienced with cerebral palsy, autism, deafness and blindness. For Delle Donne, the weight she carries is the resentment of all the obstacles her sister has faced, when compared with all the talents and skills Delle Donne had been blessed with. Faced with that heavy feeling, it makes sense why Delle Donne seemingly plays the game of basketball with a practiced calm. It makes sense why she would so easily drop the ball in those closing seconds, rather than hang on tight to memorabilia from that moment, and instead reach out to hold another person and celebrate that shared victory together.
As Delle Donne hugged Cloud, I remembered a picture I had seen in her Player’s Tribune article — Elena and Lizzie, communicating outside through hand-over-hand sign language. I thought of how Elena would no doubt tell her sister about this moment in the very same fashion, and how they would embrace in a similar fashion to celebrate — similar to that embrace with Cloud as the seconds ticked off and the ball rolled to a stop. Even more similar to the hug an older sister no doubt offered her younger sister after the injuries and defeats that ended the season before. For Elena Delle Donne, the moment was earned, but like everything else in her life and career, it was a moment put in perspective.
Delle Donne and the Mystics will have to wait for their official championship parade, the realities of a WNBA that does not pay enough for their players to consider the league their full-time job. Accolades have poured in for the regular season MVP and the team as a whole. The victory feels even more epic because of the defeats first suffered. Ask the team; all would likely say they would take two titles over the epic story that led to their first. For Delle Donne, the real championship is those she embraces along the way. For fans of the Mystics, WNBA, basketball in general, or Elena Delle Donne in particular, her story has a very real embrace of the hearts who know it, and the family, on and off the court, she shares that story with.