“To be a role model is one of the greatest things I get to do. I never take that for granted because I know the impact it can have on a young kid’s life,” the two-time MVP tells Boardroom.
Two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne remembers her days growing up in Delaware watching Sheryl Swoopes and the dominant, dynastic Houston Comets during the league’s earliest years. She even had the Hall of Famer’s signature Nike basketball sneakers as a kid.
“I’d watch her and lace up my shoes and go outside to the backyard and start trying to be Sheryl,” Delle Donne told Boardroom last week from the Washington Mystics’ practice facility in DC.
A generation later, the 32-year-old WNBA champion, two-time league MVP, and Olympic gold medalist is herself a superstar role model for kids to admire. 193 games into her career, she’s even a member of the W25, a list of the 25 best players of all time released to celebrate the league’s quarter-century anniversary this year.
Now, Delle Donne has partnered with Gatorade on a short film called Reflections. Debuting Wednesday, the project celebrates the rising generation of women in basketball while paying tribute to the greats that first paved the way.
Who’s Got Next?
A prominent member of that next generation Delle Donne wants to lift up is a 13-year-old girl named Isabella Escribano, nicknamed “Jiggy,” whose skills on the hardwood have already earned her 125,000 Instagram followers. She has a signed Delle Donne Mystics jersey in her bedroom in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita, and says she’s inspired by superstars like EDD, Candace Parker, and Kelsey Plum.
Talking to Delle Donne was nerve-racking and unreal to Izzy, but she found out that they share the same reason for getting into basketball: their older brothers.
“To see that I’m the player that Izzy’s looking up to, it means so much to me,” Delle Donne said.”I’m so proud of it, and I know the importance of being able to see her, to be her. I always think that maybe there’s a young girl or even a young boy looking up to me that I inspire in some way. And I never take that for granted because I know the impact it can have on a young kid’s life. To be a role model is one of the greatest things I get to do.”
Growing the Game
Beyond accomplishing great things on the court, a major goal Delle Donne had for herself entering the WNBA in 2013 was making the league better than when she first joined it. The new WNBA collective bargaining agreement signed in January 2020 — which Delle Donne has fingerprints all over as WNBPA Vice President — certainly went some ways toward accomplishing that goal. Salaries are up across the board, revenue sharing with the league is more equitable, and other benefits like fully paid maternity leave, improved travel, and increased investment in marketing the W are all in motion.
That last aspect, an improved buy-in from brands over the last few years, is something Delle Donne considers huge for the league’s growth trajectory.
“We’ve always had the product, but it’s just been really hard to access the product and to see it,” she said. “I used to always say too, being a W fan, you might have to be one of the greatest fans ever because to be able to search out our games at times used to be so hard. If you wanted to go buy a product of your favorite team, oftentimes you couldn’t find it or buy it. So to now know that we’re giving fans the experience, the access to us and our teams and to be able to see us, is crucial.”
Another recent innovation that constitutes a step forward is the WNBA’s Commissioner’s Cup. It seemed like a foreign concept for American sports, a tournament running parallel to proper league play commonplace in European soccer but practically unheard of in the states. But the players, Delle Donne said, knew that what was on the line made the process worthwhile: Cash bonuses for Cup winners, new opportunities for branding, and more showcase events for television and streaming partners.
“It’s exciting when you get to play for a little something extra in the middle of the season when things can feel monotonous at times,” she said. “Those Cup games have a different importance to them.”
Now that the Commissioner’s Cup is going to be an annual tradition, it’s going to be something that Escribano and the next generation of WNBA fans and players alike will look forward to playing — and winning.
But despite her 13 years of age, Jiggy’s goals are bigger than just a Cup. She wants to be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, win an MVP award, and become a champion just like Delle Donne.
“To work with the WNBA and just have a voice and to add in the commercial is just really exciting,” she said, “and to inspire the next generation of girls to do anything.”
Delle Donne is likely inspiring young girls who are one day going to be on the WNBA 50 list. And through this project with Gatorade, a brand that has been aligned with and supporting the league from day one, she was able to reflect on the women who have made the W what it is today over the last 25 years.
“And now we’re in the position to do the same,” Delle Donne said. “So the next generation can carry it on and take it to the next step to where it needs to be.”