Elena Delle Donne Q&A: WNBA star opens up about return from injury, new team Mystics, story behind her Nike shoe
It has been a long time since we last saw one of the best basketball players on the planet on a court. October 10, 2019 was the day. More than 600 days have passed since Elena Delle Donne celebrated with her Mystics teammates after defeating the Connecticut Sun to win the 2019 WNBA title. Everything that has happened since, well, there’s a lot. She missed the 2020 season due to health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, she underwent back surgery for a herniated disc. Then rehabilitation. Then another back operation after a new back hernia. It’s been a long return process, but she’s aiming for a comeback this season.
As Delle Donne continues her rehab, she took the time to surprise one of the best basketball players in the country with an incredibly prestigious award. Saniya Rivers, who pledged to play basketball for Dawn Staley at the University of South Carolina, received the gift of her life when Delle Donne told her she won the Gatorade National Girls Basketball Award. Player of the Year 2020-21. Delle Donne spoke to Rivers virtually as the prep star shared the moment with her family and teammates at her high school in Wilmington, North Carolina. Rivers joins a star-studded list of past winners that includes Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Maya Moor and Paige Bueckers.
In an exclusive interview with CBS Sports, Delle Donne discusses the honor of presenting the award to Rivers, the advice she passed on while talking about her new Mystics teammates, the early hits of this WNBA season and more.
CBS Sports: How does it feel to be part of the Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year award?
Elena Delle Gives: I am always honored to be a part of this presentation. I have been able to do this for a few years now and I am always honored to be able to experience this joy and this moment of surprise. It gets better every time I do it. I even get nervous every time I do it too because it’s such a big surprise it’s the best reward you can get in high school basketball so I try to make one nice surprise. Obviously this time I was doing it from Zoom … my first time this way which included different issues but it was one of my favorite surprises due to the emotion Sinaya showed and the enthusiasm that her teammates had it up for her. It was really a great time.
CBS: What advice would you give Sinaya, who has already reached an incredible level as a pre-season player, as she prepares for college?
DD: Honestly, reaching this level shows that she has the work ethic, dedication and passion for it, so more of the same in that aspect. But I’m also trying to say live in the moment and enjoy what you’re going through right now because it’s such a crazy time where, like, high school ends, there’s summer practice. and things you need to do to prepare for South Carolina then this may be a time when you are so worried about the future that you don’t even live in the moment and experience it. incredible price she received today and all the other things to come. This was my main message to her. Seriously, it’s like the blink of an eye – and I’m almost going to be 32 – and I remember my experience in high school and it goes by so quickly.
CBS: 2020 has been an eventful year in all areas, what did you take away from such a difficult year?
DD: The ability to pivot and change the comfort of what we are used to. Being able to adapt and try to still have some normalcy and still interact with others in a way that might not be in person but rather virtually. It’s been the most important thing, is trying to find ways to always be with people, and luckily, it comes down to feeling a little more normal, but it has definitely come a long way. Just take those days and times to catch your breath and see how you are that day. And it’s okay if you have a bad one. We are all going to go through some tough times and emotions and I think you need to give yourself the time to be easy on yourself and not always beat yourself up during these tough days.
CBS: Not having basketball as an outlet, dealing with injuries, are you more excited than ever to get back on the court and start hooping again?
DD: Yes! I am. As normal as it may seem like coming back, being with the team, but the moment when I can really get on the pitch and play, it’s going to be huge. It was quite a whirlwind. Having back surgery is already a lot, but doing it during COVID and having that feeling of isolation and having times where I just feel like ‘do we ever get out of this? It will be huge the day I can do it.
CBS: How is this Mystics team different from the 2019 title team and do you see the potential for a deep race with this team?
DD: We’re different because there are literally only a few faces that were part of the 2019 championship squad, so it’s a whole different team. You can try to be a leader from a distance, you can try to learn trends in people by watching, which is obviously what I’m doing now, but the best way to get your flow with new teammates is by you. tossing and paying with each other, so I’m excited to step onto the pitch and see where people like to be, what positions they’re most confident in, and to move our flow forward together.
CBS: What have been your first lessons since the start of the WNBA season?
DD: It’s already a great season. I feel like all the games are so close. There were a lot of winners. What you see is that when you have a league with only 12 teams and only 11-12 players on a roster, that means every night any team can compete with the best teams. It’s a lot of fun to watch, not just because I’m a player and a part of it, but I also think for the fans because every night it’s a battle.
CBS: I usually ask every athlete what their favorite shoe is, but I already know what it would be for you. So, can you describe what the Nike UNVRS sneaker means to you?
DD: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s my favorite! I mean, we developed it from scratch. From the ground. I feel like it’s a very specific shoe not only to me, but it’s a shoe for everyone. This is the biggest point to remember when creating this shoe. I wanted it to be a shoe for my sister to wear, who has severe special needs. I wanted it to be for maybe a kid who hasn’t laced their shoes yet. I wanted it to be for an avid basketball player because it just performs at such a good level. It was super fun to find different ways to make the shoe work for everyone and that’s what I’m so proud of.
CBS: Nike recently launched a hands-free sneaker – the GoFlyEase – you advocated for brands to make shoes more accessible to users with special needs – what do you think of this Nike initiative?
DD: It’s pretty amazing to see where it all started and where it is now. It all started with a letter from Matthew Walzer, who wanted an accessible shoe that he could put on himself and wear and look cool. From there Matthew and I developed a relationship and FlyEase is coming! Literally, Nike has brought together the best brains to create these amazing and accessible shoes. The best people were part of it. And it’s really become a brand that helps others, it’s super cool and it’s something that will continue to grow. I am so proud to be a part of it.
CBS: You have to get up and go, what sneaker are you grabbing?
DD: (Deep Thinking) My God… you know it’s probably a connection between a Jordan 1 and a Nike Blazer. These are my two must-have sneakers that I know will go with any outfit I wear.