Six years ago, Sparks General Manager Penny Toler flew to Oregon to watch her WNBA team play the Portland Fire. Before the game, though, she had a stop to make.
Her college coach Michael Abraham was nearby, off Highway 18 on Ballston Road. He had been an assistant coach at Long Beach State, where she starred 20 years ago. His last job, she knew only too well, was head coach at Cal State Northridge.
When Toler arrived, she walked along the deep green lawn toward a low-slung building. Then the barbed wire came into view.
Abraham was in the minimum-security facility in Sheridan because of a drug trafficking offense. By then, the grim details of his crack cocaine addiction while at Northridge were well known. Yet, it was during this prison visit that Toler talked to him about what it’s like coaching in the WNBA.
Late last month, days before training camp opened, it came full circle. The Sparks quietly announced they had hired Abraham as an assistant coach.
The decision is not supported by everyone.
When asked about it, Toler said Sparks management is willing to take risks “even right down to my job.” That hasn’t changed.
Abraham, 46, was hired without meeting team President Johnny Buss or Coach Joe Bryant. It didn’t matter, because no one disputed Abraham’s expertise with women’s basketball.
“People tell me this guy did a bad thing,” Toler said. “But there is a difference. It’s a difference when you have someone who is bad and does a bad thing, or a good person who does a dumb thing.”
Yet, the past is not so easily put aside.
Abraham’s fall was precipitous and unexpected.
From his stint at Long Beach he had jumped to Oregon State to become an assistant coach. But then allegations -- never proved -- of improper recruiting led him to resign.
Soon Northridge came calling and in 1995 hired him as head coach. A kind of magic seemed to take over. In three seasons, he turned a 1-26 women’s team into a 14-14 squad that was getting better every game. And he was attracting national attention.
Then it all stopped.
On Oct. 28, 1998, as the Matadors’ practice ended, Abraham was taken away in handcuffs in connection with a trafficking case that peripherally involved a former recruit. He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute crack cocaine and was sentenced to 18 months.
Several administrators were forced to resign when it became clear that rumors were true about Abraham’s addiction -- a habit he said he kicked in 1996 by going “cold turkey.”
The Sparks, per team policy, would not discuss his contract. But Abraham -- a man who smiles often, even when talking about his past -- said the contract has no drug stipulations.
“There’s no drug testing,” Abraham said.
Toler is unwavering.
“We’ve had vacancies before, and over the years I’ve always mentioned him to Johnny. But I didn’t think the timing was right. But even though Johnny had never met Michael, he had a feel for him from me.”
Toler also wanted to be there for Abraham, just as he’d been there for her, although she said it did not figure in his hiring.
“I came [to Long Beach] at a time when my life was in total chaos,” Toler said. “I had just lost my parents, so at the drop of a dime -- it could be anything -- I’m ready to go home. And he was always there.”
The prison visit was a simple act of faith.
“As soon as he came out he kind of chuckled,” Toler recalled. “The biggest surprise was his hair was turning gray, and that was a huge indication that this was no picnic for him.”
When they talked basketball, Toler remembers telling him how perfect the WNBA would be for someone with his ability.
“ ‘You’d love it,’ I told him,” Toler said. “ ‘You don’t have to worry about kids going to school. At the pro level, coaches coach.’ ”
Abraham said a letter from Toler to the judge in the case helped to hasten a move to a halfway house toward the end of his sentence. That allowed him more time with his wife, Trisonya, and their children before he was released in November 2000.
Toler stayed in touch, and then a few months ago made the job offer. Abraham by then was teaching kids basketball in his backyard in Portland.
“It took her awhile to convince me she was serious, that she was willing to stick her neck out,” he said.
Bryant, who was coaching a men’s team in Japan when the hire was made, has no reservations about Abraham.
“I did talk to him on the phone,” Bryant said after a recent practice as the Sparks prepared for their opener Sunday against Seattle.
“Of course, Penny endorsed him, but at the same time she left it up to me. I just wanted people that were qualified. I understand the history, the whole story. But it doesn’t matter to me. I think sometimes, the experience of life helps you grow as a person.”
Beth Bass, chief executive of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Assn., agrees.
“I don’t know if it’s been done before,” she said of hiring a drug felon as a coach. “But I think he deserves a second chance. And I will applaud Penny for hiring him with his women’s basketball background.”
Donna Lopiano, chief executive of the Women’s Sports Foundation and former women’s athletics director at the University of Texas, has a different view.
“In my experience there is nothing more important than a coach hire,” she said. “It shows how you express your philosophies on teaching kids, being an example for others.
“I understand giving someone a second chance. But when you’re in the public eye, you have to ask yourself what kind of people you want to lead.”
When contacted by The Times, coaches, general managers and front-office officials in the WNBA, NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball said teams have great leeway in hiring. Drug policies, they said, are for players and are negotiated in collective bargaining.
The WNBA did subject Abraham to a background check.
As Abraham remembers it, WNBA general counsel Jamin Dershowitz called him in March and said the league would sign off on the hire -- but made clear there would be no third chance.
Dershowitz declined to discuss the case. The WNBA instead issued a statement:
“Since making some unfortunate choices during the 1990s Coach Abraham has done wonderful work in the community, improving himself while positively impacting others. The WNBA believes in inspiring individuals, and Coach Abraham’s dedicated efforts to get his life back on track serve as a source of inspiration for countless others.”
Abraham is confident of having kicked his addiction, even though studies suggest “cold turkey” is a difficult way to end cocaine dependency.
“Generally speaking, [cold turkey] is not usually the way people get clean and stay clean,” said Warren Daniels, president of the California Assn. of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors, a Sacramento-based group that trains drug counselors. Addicts most often achieve success, he said, by going through treatment and extended counseling.
Abraham’s father, Phil, a senior state judge in Oregon, believed his son would coach again.
“It’s in his blood,” he said. “Besides, Penny is somebody he knows and she trusts him.”
Abraham understands trust can be broken.
“I hurt a lot of people making the mistakes I made,” Abraham said. “All my administrators [at Northridge] ended up losing their jobs. It was a really ugly situation.
“And part of me feels there’s still a price to pay, that too many good things are not a good thing for me.”
Paul Bubb was one of those administrators. He had been the athletics director.
“It doesn’t surprise me he’d get a job in the professional ranks. It’s what people find as acceptable in who they choose to hire,” said Bubb, now athletics director at Idaho State. “He has never attempted to contact me to [offer] remorse, and the words [now] ring a little hollow.
“He blatantly lied and misled people. I’d have a difficult time forgiving him for the lies.”
Yet Sparks guard Edneisha Curry, who played for him at Northridge, does trust Abraham and said many of her Matadors teammates do too.
“I’m not surprised he’s back,” Curry added. “He’s still the same high-spirited guy he was in college, and I think the Sparks will accept him with open arms.”