Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault said it was "like Christmas" less than two hours before two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne returned to play in her first WNBA game since October 2019 on Sunday.
And it took roughly five minutes for that Christmas feeling to permeate through the Washington, D.C., arena, when Delle Donne scored her first bucket with two hands in her face.
Thibault wasn't the only one feeling emotional. Delle Donne told reporters she was holding back tears as she was introduced to a roaring crowd welcoming her return from a pair of back surgeries that kept her sidelined for 22 months.
Unfortunately for the home team, her return wasn't enough to fend off the Seattle Storm, who posted an 85-78 victory.
"It was an amazing day just to be out there and competing with my teammates. It's been quite a whirlwind," she said. "You know I'm running out and I was like, a little bit emotional. I was like, I can't add crying right now [because] I'm nervous. I certainly felt it welling up in my eyes for a second."
In the first half, Delle Donne was just 1-for-4 from the field, and despite moving up and down the court with what looked like ease to the naked eye, she certainly looked hesitant to make aggressive plays.
The second half was a different story, with Delle Donne fighting for rebounds and driving to the basket. She said how important it was not to beat herself up from the first half to the second half.
"It was more just like I needed to let the game come to me a little bit more. And also be OK with the fact that it was going to be ugly at times and still will be ugly at times," Delle Donne said.
After a Seattle run that gave the Storm (18-7) a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Mystics had one of their own, highlighted by a tough layup in the post through contact with 6 minutes, 12 seconds left to cut the lead to three.
Even though the Mystics ended up losing to the defending WNBA champions, Delle Donne finished with 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting with three rebounds in 22 minutes. The minutes restriction could change before Tuesday's game based on how she feels after treatment and Monday's practice.
Delle Donne said that her back and body feel good and that she will do treatment and see how she feels for the rest of the week. But the most difficult part was "being so unsure if the nerve pain is going to take over again, so that's the concern."
Natasha Cloud said having Delle Donne back will set the tone as the team grinds for the next few games pushing for the playoffs. The Mystics are 10th in the standings at 8-14 and are on a four-game losing streak.
"Her presence alone on the court is huge for us. Just her voice and her leadership has been phenomenal," Cloud said. "Elena has a way of saying the right thing at the right time all the time. And to have that poise, to have that calmness when s--- is kind of hitting the fan right now for us, that's huge, to have that in your leader."