The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, April 21, 2021
The tectonic forces of Elena Delle Donne's career — Must-click women's basketball links — Arella Guirantes explains why she's going to make teams regret passing on her
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I have a list of basketball players who changed what I thought of as possible after seeing them for the first time.
I remember seeing Allen Iverson as a teenager at The Spectrum in Philadelphia. I covered the other four — LeBron James at a high school showcase tournament in Trenton, NJ. Steph Curry as a precocious combo guard for Davidson at Madison Square Garden. Breanna Stewart, too many times to count. And Elena Delle Donne, who I first saw, live, at Mohegan Sun Arena, on a night Anne Donovan had no answer for slowing her down, during the first of her two MVP seasons back in 2015.
It was easy to envision what was still to come that night, given Delle Donne’s age, 25, and skillset, unlimited and unprecedented. No one can argue she’s failed to live up to her potential, with a pair of MVPs, a WNBA title, and the kind of stats we haven’t seen before and may not see again — a cheat code on free throws, an ability to avoid turnovers like no one else, interior and perimeter skills unmatched.
But as we discovered this week, Delle Donne is carrying a burden of injury that is far beyond what most elite athletes ever have to as well. Her high-risk status cost her 2020, a life spent battling Lyme Disease. Even so, the extra rest did not allow her back, which suffered the physical effects of carrying her teams by the end of 2019, to heal.
Instead, she has stenosis of the spine, and endured a second surgery. And that’s a very different diagnosis than some herniated disks. Sadly, I know this from my time covering David Wright of the New York Mets, another elite performer whose time was too short.
The forces of Delle Donne’s life aren’t just the stuff of drama. They are Shakespearean. Somehow the aspects of EDD that are most impressive — her willingness to carry the league, promotionally and on the court, during the fallow mid-2010s, her invincibility when moving downhill on the floor, her shooting range — are matched by the only things that can stop her: physical maladies.
I remember sitting in the room with her after her Mystics won it all in 2019. There was relief, certainly, but also a feeling that this was merely the first of many titles ahead.
Now we know she may not even be ready for training camp in 2021. But moreover, the grind of WNBA seasons and commercial flights on a body that’s endured so much — well, it is almost impossible to imagine Delle Donne having anything like the extended career her greatness would guarantee in a normal, graceful aging process.
That is a cause for sadness if you care about basketball at all, if you appreciate that EDD has never stopped speaking out on the need for men’s and women’s basketball to be equal. She was firm and unapologetic about it the first time we spoke, she’s been a forceful advocate ever since, she understands the underpinnings of it all as well as anyone I know — she is, I can say without giving away too much, a person who has provided more context on the league’s marketing efforts through the years than, in many cases, the people the league hired to run those efforts.
But another thing I try to do, when I get the privilege of covering the true greats, is to remember that this is all temporary, that it can disappear sooner than anybody thinks. Even so, I know I didn’t walk out of E&SA in Washington that night in 2019 thinking it would be well over a year until I got to cover another WNBA game in person.
And I certainly didn’t think it might be one of the last times I’d see Elena Delle Donne play basketball at her peak. Whatever happens next, however long she continues playing, she is an easy, obvious Hall of Famer. She’s earned the right to conclude her career on her own terms.
But the Elena Delle Donne story is never that simple. It is triumph and tragedy, always paired.
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This week in women’s basketball
Good stuff from Charlotte Carroll on what #WNBA picks have been worth, historically.
Always listen to Bria Felicien. This video on why Black women are treated differently in sports media is foundational to the work we all must do.
There’s still time to learn about the Lynx you are buying, Alex Rodriguez!
Great work Varsity Aces. We lost Anne Donovan way too soon. Come for the history, stay for the Jeff Jasper perspective.
A must-read from Britni de la Cretaz on Layshia Clarendon and non-binary folks in women’s sports.
I got to talk TO Renee Montgomery ABOUT Ann Meyers Drysdale, so you can be sure it was a great time for me.
Tweet of the Week
Do this, everybody
Five at The IX: Arella Guirantes, Los Angeles Sparks
I gotta tell you: I can’t believe Arella Guirantes lasted until 22 in the 2021 WNBA Draft. I’ve heard various explanations why, none of which have convinced me. All I see is a top-five player who worked herself to the bone for C. Vivian Stringer, in a Rutgers program that consistently produces overlooked, WNBA-quality players. Anyhow, she was gutted but determined on draft night. Here’s what she had to say.
Q.Is there anyone you’re looking forward to getting into camp with, and have you had a chance to look at the team so far and maybe think about what you could bring to the Sparks this year?
ARELLA GUIRANTES: Yeah. LA has the Rutgers alum with Erica Wheeler, so I’m excited to hear the knowledge she has for me, going undrafted and being a WNBA All-Star MVP. She knows what it takes to last and survive, beat politics. I really have a number of questions for her, and I’ve already spoken to her. That’s my sister. So I’m excited to get to training camp and ball out with her.
And as for the roster and the style of play, I know LA likes to run up and down. They like to open the floor. And that’s what a lot of pro teams, obviously, their game is worked out on a pro level. So I feel like I would just fit right in with the spacing and being able to score, and also just play defense because I love playing defense, too.
Q.I know that you had some training with Dennis Smith Jr., and I know he came out with his own shoe. Tell us your favorite pair of shoes to wear on the court, and would you ever collaborate with Dennis Smith Jr.?
ARELLA GUIRANTES: First, yes. Working out with Dennis this summer was a really great blessing. He brought physicality to me, challenged me. We had a lot of fun.
My favorite shoes to wear would probably be adidas and I’m accustomed to their shoes. But my all time favorite shoe to wear would probably be in high school, I really love the Kobe 5s, probably the most comfortable shoe I’ve ever put on. But also I know Dennis is coming out and he’s creating his own path. I love trendsetters. I love people that go against status quo and make their own path. So of course I would definitely support not only a friend but a trendsetter.
Q.Obviously you had to probably wait a little longer than you expected. What was the wait like for you, and did the moment still live up to what you thought it was going to be?
ARELLA GUIRANTES: The wait was terrifying. Yeah, the wait was terrifying. It was just a bunch of emotions flying around. I didn’t know, because you talk to coaches and they’re selling you a dream. So to not see other things happen from the other side of things, and just be kind of left out on an island, I can’t say I’m not used to it, but it’s okay. God has a plan for me. I know He doesn’t play about me at all. Eleven other teams that missed out, that’s fine.
Q.I’m guessing you can use this as motivation: Coach [Derek] Fisher on his press conference said he was thrilled that you were still available for him at that pick, and he was so ecstatic that he’d have a chance to draft you and potentially coach you. How much is this going to motivate you, falling to where you did against other teams you may face in the WNBA?
ARELLA GUIRANTES: If I did need any more motivation, that was it. Definitely poked the nice little bear, it’s like where you don’t get picked at the park and you’re the last pick and you know you can play, and you’re waiting on somebody to take a chance. I’m grateful for the chance that I have. But yeah, I’m definitely — I don’t need any more motivation for sure.