Meeting Elena Delle Donne, The Unknown Megastar

“Boarding Zone 2, all zones can now board.” I scurry my way in line as I board yet another Monday morning flight from Chicago to New York. I have my chai latte, my book, my earbuds, and my suit – I’m ready for another week of the travel grind. As I look around for my coworkers, one head towers above the crowd – a young blonde woman that bears a striking resemblance to Elena Delle Donne, the star forward of the Chicago Sky. I recognize her immediately, but do a double, triple, quadruple take, since no one else seems to have noticed her – am I really the only one here who knows who she is? I hand the gate agent my boarding pass and file onto the plane.

*****

It went something like this: “On behalf of Samsung, I’m proud to present the 2015 WNBA MVP Award to Elena Delle Donne!” A modest applause echoes in a nearly empty stadium. She waves to the crowd, holds up the trophy for a quick photo, mouths a humble “thank you” and retreats to the sidelines to continue her pre-game rituals.

Elena pairs the MVP trophy nicely with her 2013 Rookie of the Year hardware, along with a scoring title to boot. She beat out the likes of fellow stars Maya Moore, Brittney Griner, and Candace Parker for the award, racking up accolade after accolade. Here’s a laundry list of accomplishments: Seven straight 20+ point games to start the season, three 40 point performances if you include the short three-game post season, and put up six 30+ point games in 34 total games played, averaged 23.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks, all in 40 minute games, not 48.

It doesn’t stop there: she had 11 double-doubles, shot 95% from the free throw line (207/218 … she only missed eleven all year)–including a 19-19 FT outing–and she had a player efficiency rating of 32.7 – Wilt Chamberlain’s all-time NBA-leading single-season efficiency rating is 31.8. She has been rookie of the year, has led her team to the playoffs three years running, including a Finals appearance, and is now the MVP – arguably the best female basketball player on the planet. Following her MVP win, she scored a photo shoot with Nike. Elena Delle Donne has done nothing short of completely dominated the sport.

I should probably also mention that she has done all of this while battling lyme disease, causing her to miss practices for treatment, feeling chronic fatigue and muscle soreness, and other severely limiting symptoms.

Lyme. Disease. PER of 32.7. 95% FT shooting. Three 40-point games.

But that’s not the story here. It’s not about her accolades and accomplishments. It’s not about her picture perfect jump shot, her textbook fundamentals, her leadership, or her drive to win. It’s not even about her contract with Nike. The story is that an athlete with this resume would usually be swarmed in public, but Elena goes about her day virtually unrecognizable.

Admittedly, I’m guilty of contributing to the lack of recognition for the WNBA. I didn’t pay enough attention this year to the Sky, or to the greater WNBA League. I honestly didn’t even realize Elena won the MVP until I looked it up after seeing her on my flight, nor did I know the results of the Sky’s playoff run. ESPN wasn’t airing many highlights of the postseason either. The only reel I saw on ESPN was a last-second turnover and a foul, followed by a one-for-two free throw line appearance by Maya Moore to result in a one point win. Other than that, hardly any mention of the WNBA playoffs. Maybe it would have been more of a story if the MVP took her team to the Finals. Maybe the WNBA would have at least grabbed one headline somewhere in Chicago: “2015 WNBA MVP Leads Chicago Sky to a Title; Win for WNBA.” But it wasn’t meant to be. At least not this year.

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I write this inflight, as she sits across the aisle from me, JBL brand headphones sitting atop her head, keeping her head down, staying to herself, next to a fragile, thin, middle-aged woman who certainly has no idea who’s sitting next to her. She lowers herself to be eye level and looks out the window in her purple hoodie and gray Nike sweats, and I wonder if the lack of recognition ever bothers her, or if it’s nice not being too recognized when she’s away from the basketball world; what thoughts must be swirling in her mind – is she thinking of the two games that got away from them against Indiana, or going through her offseason workout plan or her fatigue from Lyme, maybe thinking of what else she could have done to bring home a W.

Maybe she’s thinking about how, even if she could bring home that win, how little most of Chicago might have noticed. Or maybe she’s thinking that she could have changed all that had she won a few more playoff games or even a title. She might be thinking about her Nike shoot, her MVP award, her bright future. Or, is she thinking about her dog, Wrigley, who she might have left at home, or about how much NY pizza she’s going to eat when she lands. I wonder if she’s pondering ways to improve recognition of women in basketball, the inequity, the unfair compensation, the grind that they endure and for what? Just to fly Zone 2 on Delta with lowly Bulls bloggers who happen to catch a glimpse into the life of a superstar.

Or maybe she’s just thinking about getting some sleep and hoping people like me will just shut up and mind their own business, since they’re way off in everything they’ve written.

One thing is for certain: the WNBA isn’t thriving, and it will never attain close to the level of recognition that the NBA boasts. There might be hope for the WNBA to reach new heights and become a bigger competitor in basketball markets, but it will almost certainly take players like Elena Delle Donne’s leadership, and this can become bigger than just basketball – it can be a catalyst for recognition of women’s sports – it has to start by promoting basketball more publicly to young women (a potentially significant consumer market), and expanding credibility through sensational talent – a WNBA title for Elena Delle Donne wouldn’t hurt. As Chicago fans are used to saying, but are starting to actually believe: “There’s always next year.” Why not next year?

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