Just 31, Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver knows her WNBA career is far from over. Still, she has plans beyond her playing career.
“Coaching has always been on my radar just because I want to stay involved in the game,” she said. “I know that I love the NBA; I grew up around the NBA. So, now as I’m getting older . . . it’s like, ‘Okay, let me see if coaching is what I want to pursue.’ And it is — 1,000 percent. It would be a dream.”
Toliver got her first taste of that dream last week when she caught a red-eye to Las Vegas following back-to-back Mystics games to work as an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards’ Summer League team.
In the not-so-distant past, a woman coaching in the NBA would seem like a long shot. But not anymore.
If Toliver becomes an NBA assistant coach, she will join the ranks of Nancy Lieberman, Becky Hammon and Stephanie Ready. To them, and others in the league, gender has no bearing on coaching ability. The advice they give Toliver is the same they would give to any player, male or female, who is trying to make the transition to the bench.
“Be about figuring out ways to help your team win and help your guys get better,” said Hammon, the top assistant to San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich and someone Toliver readily admits she would want as a mentor. “At the end of the day, these guys are athletes. If they know you can help them, they will welcome you in and all the coaching you can give them.”
Ready, who became the first female coach of a male professional basketball team when she served as an assistant for the NBDL’s Greenville Groove starting in 2001, knows that well. But she said there are challenges for female coaches — namely, people who think women aren’t up to the task of coaching professional men’s players.
This criticism didn’t come from those in the league, she said, but from people on the outside looking in. In response, Ready received strong support from her colleagues, including coaches, players and league officials.
“You have to work hard, you have to be passionate, you have to do your due diligence, you have to take the profession seriously,” Ready said. “If you’re an athlete, you’re an athlete. The ball goes through the hoop the same way.”
As a 10-year veteran with a WNBA title, an NCAA title and a EuroLeague championship, Toliver seemingly has a résumé that would make her more than qualified to coach. Her pedigree is also something that Mystics Coach Mike Thibault believes will give her automatic footing in the NBA.
“She’s got a basketball rep that guys respect,” Thibault said. “She’s won, she’s got great skills, and the fact that she’s one of the best three-point shooters in our game gives her instant credibility with those guys.”
Toliver landed her short-term Wizards gig when she accepted an invitation from Ryan Richman, who ran the summer league team. As she walked up to Richman to congratulate him on being named the Wizards’ G League coach, a deal that has since fallen through after he was named a Wizards assistant, Richman asked Toliver whether she wanted to help coach. She replied with a simple “sure.”
Lieberman, who played and coached in the WNBA and was an assistant coach with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, said that is how Toliver, and anyone else looking to make the jump, will get in the door.
“You have to be around the people that will hire you, and you have to create relationships,” said Lieberman, who became the first female head coach of a men’s professional team when she led the D-League’s Texas Legends starting in 2009. Toliver is “going to have to spend time, when she’s not in the WNBA, being around the NBA game. It is very sophisticated, it’s very intelligent, and you just have to learn the next level. The more she’s around it, the more she will learn that transition.”
While coaching in the summer league, Toliver saw the advice of the pioneers ring true: Players don’t care about gender — just who can help them win.
“As long as they know the game of basketball, I will listen to them,” said Wizards center Thomas Bryant, who was coached by Hammon at an Adidas summer camp. “My mom used to coach me a lot when I was growing up because she played a lot of basketball . . . and she helped me a lot. Becky helped me a lot, too. As long as the person knows the game of basketball and knows right from wrong, it shouldn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman.”
In Las Vegas, Toliver joined coaches for timeout huddles. She gave one-on-one advice to point guard Chris Chiozza, suggesting he speed up in transition and get more ball movement going. Toliver’s early coaching style reflects who she is as a leader on the floor with the Mystics and how she interacts with her teammates.
“Just over the past couple years, she started asserting herself more as a leader,” Thibault said. “We needed more of that from her. I think the first thing she has tried to do is, instead of being loud, she’s tried to take younger players, like Shatori [Walker-Kimbrough] and Ariel [Atkins], and talk to them individually and say: ‘Here’s what you can expect in the league, and here’s the little tricks of the trade you need to know. Here’s what your work habits need to be.’ ”
Leading up to her coaching debut, Toliver faced double duty — she participated in 7 a.m. coaching meetings before Mystics practice, and she watched film and worked out with players in addition to managing her full-time job as a starting point guard.
It was a challenge, no doubt, but Toliver said she believes coaching has sharpened her game.
“It’s really helped me practice staying in the moment and focusing on one thing at a time,” Toliver said. “So, when I’m with the Wizards guys, I’m 100 percent there. When I step across these lines with the Mystics, I am 100 percent here. It’s been a nice challenge. . . .
“As a player, you want to live moment to moment throughout the game. It’s just another practice.”
The experience with the Wizards also gave her the opportunity to see the game from a different perspective and learn what Thibault likes to call the “daily grind of coaching.”
But Toliver isn’t giving up her day job just yet. For now, she will remain on the court and still try to find time to work toward her goal of coaching in the NBA.
“I definitely want to stay in contact with those guys,” she said. “Whatever they need from me — whether it’s watching games, scouting, things in the locker room, things to say during timeouts. . . . I want to be there and contribute in any way I can.”
Candace Buckner contributed to this report from Las Vegas.