Kristi Toliver has long been willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the big picture.
In 2014, she made the wrenching decision to become a naturalized Slovak citizen to further her basketball career — the majority of which has been spent playing overseas — and gave up the dream of playing for Team USA. In 2017, the Virginia-born guard left Los Angeles months after winning the 2016 WNBA title with the powerhouse Sparks to come to Washington and help take a rebuilding Mystics franchise to its first WNBA Finals.
This fall, on the cusp of becoming the first active WNBA player to serve as an NBA assistant coach, the 10-year pro was again thinking of the future when she agreed to join the Washington Wizards’ staff for a salary of $10,000 — a fraction of the six figures NBA assistant coaches regularly make — because of a stipulation in the collective bargaining agreement between the WNBA and its players' union.
“I had to think about a lot as far as living — my mortgage is what it is,” Toliver, 31, said in a phone interview after she landed in Miami on Thursday with the Wizards. “But with no hesitation I told them yes, and in my mind I was just thinking big picture. The NBA was my first love. … I wanted to be a part of this, start this journey, this next chapter, as I’m still in another chapter of my playing career.”
Toliver’s unprecedented situation has brought to light a thorny issue in the WNBA. Since the league launched in 1997, dreams of a pro basketball career in the United States have collided with financial reality for its players, many of whom supplement their WNBA incomes by spending the offseason playing overseas in more lucrative leagues. The matter raised by Toliver — not only of pay disparity but career advancement — could have significant ramifications as the players’ union and the league gear up for negotiations of a new collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA, which was signed in March 2014, will expire in October after players opted out last year.
“Pay disparity, salary cap, equity concerns and many other issues that have not served the best interests of our players are all being examined and addressed during these CBA negotiations,” said Terri Jackson, the executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association.
The issue pits Toliver and the Wizards, who were prepared to pay competitively, against the WNBA.
From the league’s point of view, it is a matter of ensuring competitive balance under the salary cap, which is slightly less than $1 million per team for the coming season, according to a database maintained by HighPostHoops.com. Because Toliver would be coaching for a team that falls under the same corporate umbrella as the Mystics — Ted Leonsis owns both franchises — her coaching salary must come out of a $50,000 pool allotted to each WNBA team to pay players for offseason work. Because $40,000 had already been promised to three other Mystics players, Toliver accepted what was left.
The league argues that the offseason salary cap rule keeps WNBA teams from playing dirty. Five of the league’s 12 teams share an owner with an NBA franchise, and some others, such as the Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun, share an owner with large corporations. The worry is that affiliated teams could lure prized free agents with promises of a position in an NBA franchise or another company.
Alternately, the league frets that affiliated teams could circumvent the salary cap by hiring elite players for lucrative positions within their NBA franchise but sign them to low-paying WNBA contracts.
“The rule placing a cap on offseason compensation that a WNBA team or team affiliate can pay its players is necessary for competitive fairness among WNBA teams and to ensure the integrity of the CBA,” said Mike Bass, who oversees public relations for both the WNBA and NBA. “This rule does not affect WNBA players working for any of the 25 NBA teams that do not own WNBA franchises. The league and our teams remain committed to providing coaching opportunities in the WNBA and NBA for current and former players.”
Were Toliver to have taken a coaching position with any of the NBA teams who aren’t affiliated with the WNBA, she would have been free to negotiate a more competitive salary. The Denver Nuggets were able to pay Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird whatever they deemed appropriate when Bird took a front-office position with Denver this fall.
As it stood, Toliver saw her options when she was told about her compensation with the Wizards as threefold: She could take the Wizards job for the WNBA-mandated salary; she could take the Wizards job at the rate the NBA team was willing to pay and ask her agent, Erin Kane, to force a trade to another WNBA team; or she could go back to playing for her overseas club during the WNBA offseason, making a six-figure salary there but taxing her body and risking her career longevity as a player by continuing to play virtually year-round.
Toliver played in Russia last year right up until the start of the WNBA season because her club, UMMC Ekaterinburg, won two different league championships. By resting during the offseason, Toliver figured she could add years to her playing career in the United States — a move that would also benefit the WNBA, which has long stated it wants its stars to be able to stay at home.
Toliver, whose WNBA playing salary of $115,000 in 2019 is the maximum under league rules, chose the first option.
She and Kane, who also represents one of the league’s biggest stars in the Mystics' Elena Delle Donne, believe Toliver’s situation has little to do with maintaining competitive fairness.
“Certainly, there is work that needs to be done on the CBA to appropriately address the current landscape for women's basketball players, but I don't think the WNBA's interpretation of the current CBA is appropriate with regard to Kristi's coaching position,” Kane said.
Toliver obtained her position with the Wizards without any help from the Mystics — she first forged the professional relationship with a coaching “tryout” with the Wizards' summer league team last year in Las Vegas. Toliver also disputed the notion that her offseason job is a perk that could be dangled in front of free agents.
For one, there is little financial incentive for a player in Toliver’s position. The guard, like many of the WNBA’s top players, commands a larger salary for playing overseas than what a first-year assistant being paid at market value would make with the Wizards. Toliver made more than $500,000 with UMMC Ekaterinburg last year.
More than that, Toliver argues, not every player can do what she is doing as a coach.
“With the travel and all the video, working out the guys every day, the long, long hours that goes into coaching, those things can wear on you,” Toliver said. “There is zero disadvantage to anyone, because honestly, you won't make it doing what I'm doing unless you love it and you're passionate about it. Nobody can buy you, shill you extra money to stick around, if you're not going to be completely invested. Because this job is so demanding, it's really unlike anything I've experienced before, even as a player.”
The WNBA makes it clear it supports players who want to move into coaching or front-office positions, offering initiatives such as the NBA Basketball Operations Associate Program, which provides participants with one year of full employment in addition to training in basketball operations, and the NBA Assistant Coaches Program.
But Toliver, in trying to coach as an active player, ultimately felt unsupported by the WNBA.
“To me, it doesn’t make sense. It’s frustrating. It’s disappointing,” Toliver said. “I’ve invested a lot of my life in this league and trying to promote this league as a player, winning championships, bringing a team that hasn’t been to a championship to its first Finals. You shouldn’t have to choose playing over pursuing another dream, especially if they can coexist. In the NBA and WNBA, it should coexist.
“But I think when you’re a first in anything, you’re not going to be given everything in the beginning. It’s just a matter of trusting those people that make those decisions and hoping that they’ll do the right thing. I think everybody knows what that is. It’s a matter of equal pay for work.”