For Kristi Toliver, walking onto the court at the Staples Center in Los Angeles earlier this season was both a familiar and entirely new experience.
Certainly, Toliver knew the terrain well. She spent seven seasons in Los Angeles as a point guard with the W.N.B.A.’s Sparks, leading them to the 2016 title before signing with the Washington Mystics as a free agent.
But in her current role, as an assistant coach with the N.B.A.’s Wizards, the hardwood felt different as she strode toward the bench.
“To be back in that building sitting on the bench in a suit, instead of a uniform, that was one of the moments that really hit me,” Toliver said in a recent phone interview. “Because I could see the floor and can remember all the moments that I have there, and now to be on the men’s side — that really hit me.”
It was not an easy transition for Toliver, for reasons having nothing to do with basketball aptitude, or even lack of desire for her services. After leading the Mystics to the W.N.B.A. finals in 2018, Toliver faced a decision many of her peers grapple with: Go overseas to make significant money, while forgoing an off-season, or rest her body, which could extend her career.
Then the Wizards approached her with an intriguing offer: Would she like to be an assistant on Scott Brooks’s staff? The basketball part was easy enough to figure out — the role would be no different than the others. She’d be part of the group.
Then came the pay question, and suddenly it all turned complicated.
Because Toliver is a player with the Mystics, owned by Ted Leonsis, under the same corporate umbrella as the Wizards, the league determined that any pay Toliver was to get from the gig would have to come out of the $50,000 total each team has allocated to pay W.N.B.A. players for off-season work. Moreover, much of that had already been promised to Toliver’s teammate, Elena Delle Donne, who typically stays home in the off-season and promotes the Mystics.
N.B.A. assistants routinely make $100,000 or more, with some earning over $1 million, so how much would the job pay Toliver?
The answer was $10,000. Or, to put it in perspective, $5,000 less than the fine the N.B.A. recently handed down to Coach Nick Nurse of the Toronto Raptors for “public criticism of the officiating.”
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Toliver said. “For me, I looked at the pros and the cons, the pros obviously being I get to rest my body, it being my first time in 10 years of not playing year-round, not going overseas. Obviously there are financial burdens that come with that, but this is also a very exciting opportunity that I want to take advantage of, being home, still being around the game, around the best players in the world, around the best coaches in the world.”
A battle ensued, with Toliver and the Wizards on one side, the league on the other, but ultimately Toliver lost, and decided to go forward with what amounts to a high-profile internship financially. The trade-off is it is offering a chance to do what she’s wanted to do on the N.B.A. side since the moment she came to terms with the idea she wouldn’t be replacing B.J. Armstrong as the point guard for the Chicago Bulls.
Her interest in coaching dates back to her collegiate days, when she starred at the University of Maryland — she won a championship there as well — and her success in the role comes as no surprise to her Terrapin coach, Brenda Frese, who began breaking down video with Toliver when the precocious point guard was a freshman. Even Toliver’s famous shot to beat Duke and win the 2006 N.C.A.A. championship reflects the way she sees the floor like a coach, Frese said.
“We were down three late. We had a play, but Kristi and Crystal Langhorne improvised,” Frese said. “Kristi kept the ball, and Crystal Langhorne saw that and went and set a second screen on her own. It led to Kristi burying one of the most clutch shots in women’s history.”
Toliver has settled in on the basketball side, earning raves from Wizards players and Brooks alike, but there is the matter of how to square the pipeline of talent that’s now opened up from the W.N.B.A. — famously, Becky Hammon, and now Sue Bird and Toliver as well — with the desired goals of both the players and the league.
The $50,000 cap reflects the time it was negotiated, a previous collective bargaining agreement that did not take into account W.N.B.A. players coaching in the off-season because that situation simply didn’t happen. The players opted out of that C.B.A. this past November, setting the stage for a new understanding on the issue.
Terri Jackson, the executive director of the W.N.B.A.’s players’ association, expressed concern over the gap between Toliver’s pay and that of other N.B.A. assistants, saying in an email: “In opting out of the current C.B.A., there were a number of issues we flagged that did not serve the best interests of our players, this was one of them. We look forward to examining this issue, which highlights ongoing equity concerns, in our negotiations.”
From the league’s standpoint, anything that can keep more of the W.N.B.A.’s players here in the United States is helpful from the standpoints of rest, marketing, an influx of coaching talent and even corporate synergy when it dovetails with the N.B.A. season, and it is expected that the league will be open to changes in the new C.B.A. that allow for W.N.B.A. players to receive more than they currently do for N.B.A. work.
“I am not able to comment on any specific W.N.B.A. player’s compensation, but there is a cap on both the in-season and off-season salary that a W.N.B.A. team or team affiliate can pay to its players,” said Mike Bass, who oversees public relations for both leagues. “While it’s necessary for competitive fairness to ensure the integrity of the W.N.B.A. salary cap, the league is committed to providing robust career development opportunities to both current and former players.”
In the meantime, Toliver is one of those players whose career is developing — she described an eye-opening experience of exchanging business cards in every city, the doors of networking swung open, Toliver striding through it and into a future where women, as well as men, can draw on personal experiences to drive their work possibilities.
And for N.B.A. teams looking for a voice the players will respond to, it’s hard to beat a champion on the floor at every level she’s played.
“I think that’s been a powerful part of this whole situation, too,” Toliver said. “It can’t just be any woman. You can’t just pull anybody off the streets to do this, just like you can’t pull any guy off the streets to do this. It’s not about that. If they know that you can make them better, make them more successful, they’ll listen.”