As she enters her 11th year in the WNBA, Kristi Toliver doesn’t want to lose her edge. She stays late after practice at the Washington Mystics’ new arena in Southeast Washington, launching three-pointer after three-pointer.
That’s when Toliver breaks down film, because this isn’t just the start of her 11th WNBA season, which officially tips off Saturday when the Mystics travel to play the Connecticut Sun. It’s also her first NBA offseason, and she doesn’t want to lose all she learned in the past year working with the Washington Wizards as the first active WNBA player to serve as an NBA assistant coach.
“It’s like game rhythm,” Toliver said. “You don’t want to fall out of it.”
The 32-year-old made headlines during her inaugural season on the Wizards’ bench, not just because she was the first of her kind in such a role (Becky Hammon, Nancy Lieberman and Jenny Boucek were all NBA assistants after their playing days), but also because she was paid just $10,000 for an entire season of work because of WNBA salary cap rules.
Toliver hopes her salary issue is addressed in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement that are underway between the WNBA and the players’ union. But last season, she decided to forfeit fair pay to jump-start the coaching career she has dreamed of for years. As a result, her life now is heading home to study film in her free time after practice — one foot firmly planted in the WNBA, the other in the NBA.
Toliver acknowledges that it’s a unique thing to occupy both spaces equally, but that’s the point. She insists her move into coaching isn’t a transition into retirement; for one, she has a lot left to accomplish as a player. She also thinks it’s important to show that playing and coaching can be done at the same time.
“One of my friends called me a Renaissance woman,” Toliver said with a smirk. “It didn’t hit me until coaches or other people started coming up to me saying, ‘It’s awesome that my daughter gets to see you do this.’ There are young women out there that didn’t think coaching men’s basketball was even an option. And obviously it is, and I’m part of the reason why.”
An eager new coach
The move to coaching was natural for Toliver, who as a point guard has always been her team’s coach on the floor and as a person has always been hyper-confident. Wizards practices were just like every other practice she has been to. She had no problem speaking up, even though she was a first-time coach and almost always the only woman in the room.
“Her strength is she’s fearless,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said.
Operating on an all-male coaching staff was fine for the point guard, who said she was used to the dynamic having grown up with mostly male friends. But she knew the work lay in making her colleagues comfortable.
“I would do and say things to kind of poke them to make sure that they know it’s okay, that they can say stuff and joke around me. I knew I would have to do that. For me, [working on an all-male staff] was nothing. For them, I think it was more, ‘Can we trust this woman?’” Toliver said, laughing. “Whatever they gave, I could give back, so it was a level of, ‘Okay. She’s all right.’”
It helped that Toliver and Brooks clicked so naturally. An easy kinship formed over a shared background — Brooks is a point guard-turned-coach, too — and life philosophy.
Brooks even designed for Toliver a special pair of sneakers with her initials on them. She plans to wear them when both the Wizards and Mystics are in Las Vegas this summer and she’ll be able to steal away for some time at NBA Summer League.
“His story, of him being undrafted and going through the [Continental Basketball Association], getting to the NBA and having to fight every day, for a living, was just — I always thought, he’s more of like a WNBA player than an NBA player,” Toliver said. “We work hard, we play hard. All the time. I think that's why he loves our game so much. He can see his era in how we play and work.”
Toliver’s co-workers on the Wizards didn’t mention her salary when it became public knowledge that she was making a small fraction of what many NBA assistant coaches make. Because Toliver coached for a team that falls under the same corporate ownership as the Mystics, by WNBA rules her pay had to come out of a $50,000 pool each team in that league has to pay players for offseason work.
The first-year coach didn’t want her co-workers to make a big deal about her salary, in part because she didn’t want them to pity her, and in part because she was trying herself not to focus on it.
Toliver’s days as a coach started with a 9:30 a.m. meeting, then she would have a full day on court before, during and after practice with players, staying after to help whoever needed individual work. Then Toliver would work out with the Wizards’ director of player development, David Adkins, lift for an hour or so and head home to break down a couple of hours of film.
She wasn’t happy to be on what was essentially an intern’s salary, but she was happy to be coaching — blissfully, never-a-bad-day-at-work happy. And she had saved enough of her earnings from the past decade of her career that she could afford it.
“There were moments when I went to dinner and it’s like, 'Should I get this?’ Because I’m thinking about bills that I have to pay,” Toliver said. “I’ve never had to do that before, because I’ve always had a money flow, playing year round. This offseason was probably the first time that it crossed my mind … but people have to think about that all the time. So that’s why I go back and check myself, like, you’re okay. I live within my means. There are a lot of people that would want to swap lives with me right now.”
A rested and refreshed player
Though Toliver forfeited a far heftier salary she would have made playing overseas this winter, the benefits of not playing during the WNBA offseason were myriad. Without the year-round pounding on the court, Toliver figures she can add a couple of years onto her playing career in the United States. This year, she also got to focus on improving her game and not just trying to fit into the role a team needs.
She had a laundry list of things to work on, including ballhandling, practicing isolation situations and perfecting what she called “the Curry exit” — getting a pass off and relocating quickly on the three-point line, a la Steph Curry.
Toliver also spent the offseason going up against NBA players and staffers, which improved her physicality as well as her confidence to pick apart a big defender one-on-one or finish at the rim over post players.
Those are the assets Toliver, an all-star last season, brings back to a loaded Mystics team that is a popular favorite to win the league title — should its players remain healthy. The team’s top player, Elena Delle Donne, couldn’t practice fully for much of the preseason because of a left knee injury. Its top draft pick, Kiara Leslie, could miss the season after undergoing knee surgery earlier this month.
Coach Mike Thibault already sees increased confidence and more willingness to speak out from his starting point guard. Toliver blends her coaching life into her playing life, including showing Delle Donne offensive sets she thinks the Mystics could incorporate.
“I didn’t think Kristi’s IQ could get much better, and it did,” Delle Donne said.
That blend of playing and coaching is Toliver’s new reality, although she’s keeping her goals as a player at the forefront of her mind this summer. Among other things, she wants to make the all-star team again, and she wants to add another league title to the one she won with Los Angeles in 2016.
“I’m in a place where I want my footprint to be deep in this league, and to me I’m not there yet,” Toliver said. “Even if we won this year — hell no. There’s nothing like playing. Why would I choose one or the other when I could do both?”