Elena Delle Donne is again feeling the debilitating effects of Lyme Disease and may be sideline (Photo courtesy Delaware Athletics)
Elena Delle Donne is again feeling the debilitating effects of Lyme Disease and may be sideline (Photo courtesy Delaware Athletics)

Delle Donne's setback is a blow to the game

November 5, 2012 - 4:55pm
Madison Williams career may have come to an end when she suffered a third ACL tear. (Photo courtesy Michigan State Athletics)

Madison Williams career may have come to an end when she suffered a third ACL tear. (Photo courtesy Michigan State Athletics)

Is Elena Delle Donne doomed to be the next Jacki Gemelos?

Gemelos was once one of the brightest stars in the women’s basketball firmament. She was a brilliant, creative, vastly entertaining 6-0 guard who could shoot threes, score off the dribble and set up teammates – and her career was all but destroyed by a painful series of ACL tears.

Delle Donne has the potential to be one of the special ones as well. She’s a 6-5 pure shooter, is capable of spectacular performances and has the looks and personality to be the face of our game. But she too has battled a health issue, in one of those weird happenstances that seem to dog certain people, Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is a nasty infection caused by a tick bite, and Delle Donne has dealt with it for a while. She took tons of antibiotics (the only known, if not completely certain, way to deal with Lyme) and felt better. So she went off the drug regimen, and now a few months later the symptoms of lethargy, aches and general malaise are back.

This is terrible news for Delle Donne, the worst cases of Lyme disease simply never go away, and can lead into a suite of nasty aftereffects that last a lifetime. One of the lesser impacts, of course, would be to derail her basketball career, if not completely, at least significantly.

This is not good for Delaware’s Blue Hens this season, but also makes the WNBA draft a lot more dicey. Delle Donne is generally expected to be the second pick, going to the wing-deprived Chicago Sky, but now Pokey Chatman and company have to do some serious thinking. Skylar Diggins will be available, but she doesn’t have the ceiling Delle Donne does, and she doesn’t fill the same roster need.

But this is even worse for the WNBA and women’s basketball in general, because there just aren’t that many players and personalities like Delle Donne (or Gemelos), and losing any of them is a serious blow. If Delle Donne never fully overcomes Lyme disease, she will never be the player she might have been – and everyone, from Delaware to the Sky to the game as a whole, will suffer along with her.

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Don’t think, however, that the dreaded acronym has decided to leave the game alone. Madison Williams, a 6-7 center for Michigan State, just tore her left ACL for the second time, and has already torn her right one once.

Williams, a McDonald's All-American, was heralded as one of the best recruits in Spartan history, given her size and athleticism, but has only appeared in three games in as many years in college. Now what's left of that career is in serious jeopardy: Eligibility can be extended, but not only does it seem that her right ACL would also be in danger, but even the best rehab protocol can’t restore knees to their pre-surgery level.

Again, this is a blow not just to a particular school, but to the game itself. Women’s basketball needs all the talent it can muster, and when players like Gemelos, Delle Donne and Williams are removed from the equation (not to mention the many other victims this year and in the past), it hurts everyone involved in the sport.

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There was some good news, however, though it was cloaked in less than positive trappings. David Stern, without whose fervent support there would be no WNBA, announced he will retire in 2014. That, in itself, is not the good news. Succeeding him, however, will be Adam Silver, who from all accounts is a major supporter of the WNBA, so presumably NBA backing will still be in place for the near future.

That said, the league isn’t behind the WNBA just out of a sense of justice for all, or even because its leaders believe the W will turn a profit any time soon. Stern and other veterans of the professional sports business are all too aware that the biggest danger to a business like the NBA is a competing league –- that is, a league that would bid up prices for top players and cost owners, and ultimately fans, tens of millions of dollars.

How does the WNBA fit into the NBA monopoly equation? For any group to challenge the NBA, it needs a platform, and a successful women’s league, run by another group, would have arena contacts, business models, financing and personnel in place to build from. One of the most difficult things to do in terms of going after an established professional sports league is to build an entire organizational headquarters from scratch, on top of securing owners, players and arenas. So let's say the NBA dumped the WNBA, and another group stepped in to run a women's professional league (which would happen). That group would now be in a much, much better position to make the jump to the men's side than a group that was trying to build from ground zero. Is the threat remote? Yes, but the stakes are incredibly high. A competing men's league would cost NBA owners hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with, and victory for the competing league is simply having a couple franchises absorbed by the NBA, or getting a cash settlement to go away.

The NBA's interest in the WNBA might be less than its interest in men's minor league, but the issue is the same -- which is why the CBA, a long-standing men's minor league that appeared to be no threat to the NBA, was driven out of business so ruthlessly. Its replacement, the D-League, is owned by the NBA, and thus helps preserve the huge profits to made in professional basketball. And by the same token, the NBA's investment of even $20 or $30 million in support for the WNBA is money well-spent considering what's at stake.So supporters of women’s basketball don’t have to rely entirely on the good will of the commissioner and some owners; there are business reasons to support the WNBA as well.

Of course, having Silver replace Stern instead of some antediluvian anti-female commissioner is certainly good news, and it’s nice to get some good news now and again.