On May 6, in an office at the Department of Domestic Affairs in Bratislava, Kristi Toliver — Virginia-born, Maryland-educated, as American as jazz — swallowed hard, signed some documents and swore on her “honor and conscience” to be a faithful and upstanding citizen of the Slovak Republic. A process that had been more than a year in the making was completed in a day and a half. Soon she was in possession of a Slovak passport, now a dual U.S.-Slovak citizen. She was, at least for basketball purposes, a European.
As she boarded her flight back to the United States, she was the same Kristi, but everything felt different. Behind her was another winter-spring season of Russian professional ball; ahead was another summer season with the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA .
Elite women’s basketball players are used to serving two masters — roughly 75 percent of players in the WNBA play overseas during the league’s offseason — but now, for Toliver, there would be a third: the Slovak national team. That was part of the deal for the passport.
Navigating the summer of 2014, as she toggled between Los Angeles and Bratislava, would take all the stamina that Toliver, 27, could muster. “It’s getting to the point where I just don’t want to hit complete burnout,” she said.
The naturalization process, facilitated by her agent, was designed to open doors for her and her career. With a European passport, Toliver can command a significantly higher salary in the Russian pro league and gain entry, via Slovakia, into international competition and, potentially, the 2016 Olympics.
But she also couldn’t help but think of the doors that were closing. She had always dreamed of wearing the red, white and blue of Team USA in the Olympics. That dream, by the rules of international basketball, died the moment she joined the Slovak national team.
And as the summer wore on, she also began to wonder whether this life, with its 12-months-a-year basketball and constant travel, was sustainable — and if not, which part of it she would have to drop. The inevitable answer — of leaving the WNBA entirely — though still merely a hypothetical at this point, gave her pangs of guilt for all that the founders of the women’s league had done for later generations .
“You almost don’t want to let the pioneers down,” she said. “But you also have to make a choice. If you’re not happy, you kind of gotta go with that.”
It all hit her the last week of May. Just three games into the Sparks’ season, she bid an awkward goodbye to her teammates and coaches and headed to Los Angeles International Airport on her way back to Bratislava for a mandatory training camp with the Slovak national team. It was preparing for June’s qualifying tournament for the 2015 European championships.
As usual, her sister, Carli, who lives with her in Venice Beach, drove Kristi to the airport. Miles, Kristi’s beloved pit bull, came along for the ride, growing visibly downbeat as he began to recognize the route to LAX. In the passenger seat, Kristi could barely summon the emotion to comfort him.
“I go overseas all the time, and it’s like nothing,” she recalled weeks later. “This was the first time where it was interrupting a season, the summer season. I felt like I was abandoning my team. I felt like, ‘What am I doing? Why did I make this decision?’”
As her plane took off, Toliver — the elbow-to-your-face tough, 5-foot-7 point guard with an assassin’s heart and the executor, as a freshman, of the biggest clutch shot in the history of Maryland’s women’s team, a three-pointer with seconds left that sent the 2006 NCAA championship game into overtime — put her face in her hands and cried.
At just before 8 p.m. on July 15, Toliver stood with her Sparks teammates on the sideline and gazed up at the giant American flag hanging from the rafters at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” She closed her eyes. In these final moments before tip-off, Toliver turned inward, switching herself into game mode, focusing all her energy on the moment.
It has gotten harder to do. Sometimes, she has found, there isn’t enough energy to focus on anything.
That night’s game against the Indiana Fever was the fourth on the Sparks’ four-game, 10-day road trip to the East Coast and Midwest. The day before, she had a 3:45 a.m. wake-up call in her Connecticut hotel room to make a 4 a.m. team bus to the airport. In the WNBA, teams fly commercial — coach class — and the Sparks’ jagged route from Hartford to Indianapolis featured a stopover in Atlanta.
“Every travel day on this trip has either been a 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. bus,” Toliver said. “Coach still wanted us to practice after we landed. We kind of had to talk her out of that because we had nothing left to give.”
Her hair pulled back in a simple ponytail, Toliver spoke in a world-weary monotone, mustering at most a slight grin or a soft chuckle as she described a lifestyle that would be incomprehensible to anyone familiar only with the men’s version of professional basketball. Top women’s players typically go straight from the end of their three-month WNBA season to the start of their overseas season — and vice versa — sometimes without as much as a full day off. It’s a simple fact of life in the WNBA, where the salaries are a fraction of what players can make overseas.
Toliver has been playing basketball pretty much nonstop since turning pro out of Maryland in 2009. Drafted third overall by the Chicago Sky that year and traded to Los Angeles the following year, she has played overseas in each of her WNBA offseasons — first in Israel, then Hungary, then Turkey and for the last three winters in Russia for Dynamo Moscow. By her count, she already has run the hardwood in seven countries in 2014: Russia, Hungary, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland and the United States.
But by March of this year, Toliver was so burned out that she begged her Russian team for a mental break. The request was granted, and she returned to the United States for the better part of three weeks, hoping to recharge, trying to make herself miss the game of basketball, even if it meant sacrificing three weeks’ worth of her Dynamo salary.
“I didn’t care about the money,” she said. “It was a big thing: ‘Are you sure you want to give up X amount?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ It’s just gotten to the point where my priorities are shifting. For me, it’s not about just making a living and making the money. I need to have a life. I need to see my dog. I need to see my sister, you know?”
But the mental break didn’t work. To her surprise — and her alarm — she came back to Moscow feeling as if she hadn’t missed the game at all.
“Those little things are kind of telling for me,” she said. “I’ve had those moments — for the first time in a long time or ever — where, even for some games, it’s hard for me to get myself excited. I always remind myself to be thankful to be in this position, to get to play the game I love. But at the same time it’s almost gotten so overwhelming, it’s been such a grind, just so nonstop, I’ve just been like, ‘I don’t want to do it today.’ And I don’t ever want to get to that point.”
Toliver’s mother, Peggy, remembers the year Kristi repeated one word over and over: resilience. “I think for her that was the idea, that she simply has to be resilient and stay in the moment and accept what she’s experiencing,” Peggy Toliver said. “And I think there have been times when she was almost on the edge, and she kind of regains her composure.”
But now, with the extra pressure, extra travel and extra headaches of playing for Slovakia’s national team, Kristi isn’t so sure she can keep stepping back from the edge and keep regaining her composure. Most of her numbers are down this season. For the first time, she is having to ice her achy knees after practices and games — a sign, she guesses, of tendinitis.
After her week-long training camp in Slovakia in late May, she returned to the Sparks, catching the team in Atlanta, where she started at point guard the day after she landed. Two more games for the Sparks, then it was back to Slovakia, where, the day after her arrival, she started against Poland in the first game of the two-week qualifying tournament.
And now, here she was again, slugging it out in Indianapolis, trying to ground out a win — for pride, for playoff positioning, for the chance at a postseason bonus, yes. But also because the Sparks’ coach said she might give the team the rest of the day off in Los Angeles when they arrived the following morning — following another 5 a.m. bus to the airport.
“It’s the life they have to live. They really have very little choice in it,” said the coach, Carol Ross, giving a tepid endorsement to Toliver’s international schedule. “I think it was emotionally torturing for her [to leave the Sparks for weeks at a time]. She’s a player who always wants to do her part. She doesn’t want to let anyone down. [But] she wasn’t very good before she left, because she was so worried about leaving, and of course, we’re not nearly as good without her. But from my standpoint, that’s a decision that’s been made, and I’m going to support the journey. There’s nothing I can really do to change it.”
It’s an ephemeral thing, a job in professional sports. Four days after the Sparks made it back to Los Angeles, Ross was fired. The new coach started the next day — for Toliver, charged with executing the coach’s vision on the court, it would be her fourth coach, in three countries, in a span of three months.
The American players stick together overseas, taking turns cooking dinners, sharing rides to and from practice and watching American television shows on Internet streaming sites. They also sometimes play a game: If you were a men’s player, who would you be? For Toliver, the answer was always easy: “Steph Curry,” she said, “of course.”
People have been comparing Toliver to Stephen Curry, the star point guard for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, for years. They share everything from their physical appearances to their NBA pedigrees (Toliver’s father is a former NBA referee, Curry’s a former NBA guard) to their games (both are natural scorers and pinpoint shooters despite playing point guard). They both turned pro in the same year, 2009.
But the comparison stops when it comes to money. Curry, like Toliver an all-American as a collegian and a one-time all-star as a pro, signed a four-year $12.7 million contract with the Warriors after the draft and another four-year $44 million deal last year.
Toliver, meanwhile, made less than $50,000 her first season in the WNBA, and in this, her sixth season, is making the WNBA maximum of $107,500. In other words, Curry makes more in one game (roughly $130,000) than Toliver — or any WNBA player, for that matter — makes for a full WNBA season.
“You think about it sometimes — how much these guys are making and just the lifestyles they get to have. They get to stay in the States. Yeah, obviously if we could switch places, I’m sure all of us would do it,” Toliver said. “But that’s not the reality that we live in.”
This imbalance is what sends most of the top women’s players overseas every October once the WNBA season ends. There are a handful — including Skylar Diggins and Elena Della Donne — who make enough in endorsement money at home to turn down overseas opportunities. But almost everyone else who can get a job goes overseas — for example, Brittney Griner and Maya Moore to China, Angel McCoughtry and Crystal Langhorne to Turkey and Toliver and Candace Parker to Russia.
Far from being mercenaries, they are simply realists — or, at worst, opportunists. If an athlete is lucky, she might squeeze 10 or 15 productive years out of an elite athletic career, a small window in which to bank a decent nest egg. What sane person wouldn’t seek to maximize that window?
“Financially,” Toliver said, “it’s a no-brainer.”
Playing for Dynamo Moscow this past season, Toliver made roughly $350,000. (Others make more overseas. Griner, for example, reportedly made $600,000 last season in China.) It’s not Steph Curry money, but it’s about triple Toliver’s WNBA salary. She handed it all over to her financial adviser, making herself live on her income from the Sparks. The top European teams also provide players with luxury apartments and drivers.
The WNBA’s stance on the double-dipping can best be described as uneasy. This spring, the league negotiated into the new collective bargaining agreement with its players’ association a provision allowing teams — or the league itself — to fine players, beyond the salary they automatically forfeit, for missing games because of overseas obligations. The league also gave each team a $50,000 “time-off” fund that the team can distribute to players who choose not to go overseas or who limit overseas play to fewer than 90 days.
“The notion of trying to find a way to both recognize the overseas play but offer an incentive to limit their overseas play was very important to our ownership group,” WNBA President Laurel Richie said after the new labor agreement was reached.
But agent Boris Lelchitski, who represents Toliver and dozens of other WNBA clients, called the fine system “ridiculous,” adding, “Fining the player for this matter is wrong. It’s just denying the player the right to make a living.”
Next year, the European championships — for which Toliver just helped Slovakia qualify — take place in June, which means Toliver and as many as 10 other WNBA players holding European citizenship will miss up to a month’s worth of games, costing each of them up to a third of their WNBA salaries, plus up to another $25,000 in fines.
Lindsay Kagawa Colas, another prominent WNBA agent whose clients include Griner and Diana Taurasi, said the fine system is “out of touch with the sacrifices players make to play in the WNBA” and warned that “any application of those fines only reinforces the very harsh reality that top-level WNBA players would make more money over their careers by only playing overseas.”
Speaking about her own situation, Toliver — whose three-year contract with the Sparks runs through 2015 — fired her own unintentional warning shot at the WNBA, saying players talk frequently about leaving the league behind and playing only overseas, where the money is.
“Right now, it’s just a lot of talk,” she said. “[But] ultimately, if I had to [choose one or the other] today? Yeah, it would be overseas before it would be the WNBA. Hopefully at some point, I’ll find it within myself to play both and enjoy both. But right now, I wouldn’t play in the WNBA. The WNBA is a great league, especially for younger players. . . . But once you get older, that’s where you have to make decisions: What’s best for you. What’s best for your family, your state of mind.
“That’s what I have to figure out.”
Here is how the Slovak passport deal worked: A top Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, expressed interest in Toliver but couldn’t take her as an American since it already had Parker and Taurasi and European rules limit teams to two Americans apiece. To make it work, Toliver would have to be a European. And to be a European, she needed to find a country that would agree to naturalize her, perhaps one that was seeking to advance in the sport’s international hierarchy and was in need of a top point guard.
“It’s like, ‘Okay, the team wants her. She needs a passport. What country can get it done?’ ” Toliver said. “It’s weird.”
It took Lelchitski, a successful coach in Russia before coming to the United States and founding Sports International Group, over a year to put the deal together, with the Slovak basketball federation helping expedite the citizenship process with the government. No citizenship test, no language-proficiency exam, no permanent residence.
The team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, got the player it wanted. (The contract with Toliver isn’t done, according to Lelchitski, but all indications are it could happen soon.)
The country, Slovakia, got a seasoned floor general for its national team, just in time to hopefully qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
And the player, Toliver, by virtue of being a European and thus not subject to limitations on American players, will earn a salary somewhere in the neighborhood of $600,000 for the 2014-15 season in Russia — almost double her salary with Dynamo last season and nearly six times what she makes in the WNBA.
“It was a win,” Toliver said, “for everyone.”
The right of an athlete to switch nationalities is a widespread and time-honored tradition, not only in women’s basketball but in virtually every sport with a vast international presence. (“I almost became Polish five years ago,” Toliver said with a tired smile.) Within the game, at least, there is very little stigma attached anymore to the notion of an American player suiting up for another country for the sake of her career.
“Give me that passport,” said Sparks guard Lindsey Harding, a close friend of Toliver’s and a member of Team USA, “and I’ll tell you what I’d do.”
But as in other international sports, FIBA, basketball’s governing body, has cracked down on the practice by ruling that once you have represented one country’s national federation, you can’t play for another country.
And so Toliver’s “win,” made possible because she had never made a U.S. national team despite a handful of tryouts, was tempered by the reality that now she never will. Toliver says it is “mind-blowing” to contemplate the possibility of playing against the United States in the Olympics, adding, “I’m not sure how I feel about that.”
“On some level, she had to let go of that [U.S.] Olympic dream, and yet it still tugs at her heartstrings,” Peggy Toliver said. “She would love to play in the Olympics representing the United States. But I think she can stay in the bigger picture of it and be glad to be helping a small country try to also qualify — and to keep in mind that, for her, it’s a career decision.”
And so the summer wears on, closing in on the Sparks’ Aug. 16 regular season finale, with the possibility of another month of playoffs. UMMC Ekaterinburg starts its training camp in September. Assuming her contract gets done, Toliver, like most WNBA veterans, would typically get a pass to show up in October.
But Toliver isn’t sure that’s enough time off.
“I’m going to ask for some time off,” she said. “I told them, ‘Look, I’m not going to be any good if I just go [to Russia] right away. More than my body, my mind just needs a break. It’s kind of all sneaking up on me.”
At her lowest, such as when she broke down in tears on the plane, she has wondered to herself: “Do I want to play basketball? Do I want to do something else?”
“I couldn’t see myself [playing] into my upper 30s,” she said. “I just don’t think that’s going to be me — unless I did the one season, just go [overseas] for five or six months. Year-round? That’s probably not going to last very much longer.”
But that night in Indianapolis, Toliver tapped into some hidden reserve of energy. With her mom in the stands, having driven down from Michigan, she scored 22 points, including some of the game’s biggest buckets, and dished out four assists, leading the Sparks to a critical road win.
When it was over, she jumped on the shoulders of one teammate, hugged a few others and jogged off the court, a wide, boundless smile on her face, as if she wanted nothing more than to play this game forever.