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Sparks’ Kristi Toliver is happy to be back in familiar surroundings

Sparks guard Kristi Toliver brings the ball up the court during a game in 2016.
Sparks guard Kristi Toliver brings the ball up the court during a game in 2016, her last season before leaving for the Washington Mystics in free agency.
(Jessica Hill / Associated Press)

A reporter asks Kristi Toliver to enjoy the sunshine for him. The new Sparks point guard, back in sunny Southern California for her second stint, chuckles. She will, she assures him.

After signing a three-year contract as an unrestricted free agent Monday, the two-time WNBA champion is happy to return to familiar surroundings. Three years and one championship after leaving L.A., the 5-foot-7 point guard is ready for Round 2.

“When you’re working with great people, when you’re competing at a high level together, great things happen,” the former Washington Mystics guard said on a conference call Wednesday. “So I’m just really looking forward to the challenge, coming back there years later, three years more mature, three years more experienced, and seeing if we can do this thing again.”

The 33-year-old Toliver spent seven seasons with the Sparks, culminating in the 2016 WNBA championship, before playing the previous three seasons with the Mystics and helping the franchise to its first title. During last year’s championship season, Toliver averaged 13 points and a career-high 6.0 assists in 23 regular-season games while shooting 36% from three-point range.

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The Sparks re-signed wing Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who started 33 of the team’s 34 games last season and became one of their top defenders.

During her 11th year in the WNBA last season, Toliver was the veteran leader for a team that included league MVP Elena Delle Donne and Finals MVP Emma Meesseman. In 2017, Toliver and Delle Donne were in their first seasons with the Mystics. It was a young team, Toliver remembered, for a franchise that didn’t qualify for the playoffs the previous year.

Coming off a championship season with the Sparks in which she played with stars Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, leading an inexperienced team forced Toliver to “get outside of my comfort zone and use my voice a lot more,” she said.

“I’ve always led by example,” Toliver said, “so I’ve worked really, really hard taking care of myself and all that, but as far as still using my voice and sharing knowledge and experience, that’s where I was able to grow a lot more.”

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A native of nearby Harrisonburg, Va., Toliver said leaving the Mystics was an “extremely difficult decision.” She loved the city, the front office and her teammates. Those three years were “some of the best times of my life,” she said.

With the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, which increased the salary cap by 31% to $1.3 million and more than doubled the maximum annual salary for top players from just over $100,000 last season to $215,000, keeping Delle Donne, Meesseman and Toliver was untenable.

“At the end of the day, I know how hard I work, I know the hours that I put in in the gym and how I take care of myself and what I offer a team,” said Toliver, whose contract terms were not announced, “and I just wasn’t offered the money that I deserve.”

Kristi Toliver, a three-time WNBA All-Star who won a title with the Sparks in 2016, is back on the team.

L.A. was one of many suitors for the Maryland alumna. Toliver, who spends her WNBA offseasons as a Washington Wizards assistant coach, said she had discussions with the Phoenix Mercury — which made a big splash Wednesday by trading three first-round picks for four-time Dallas Wings All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith — the Minnesota Lynx, the Las Vegas Aces and the Connecticut Sun.

The Sparks still haven’t hired a general manager since Penny Toler was fired in October, but Toliver signed with the team after conversions with Parker, Ogwumike and coach Derek Fisher.

“He’s a smooth talker,” Toliver said of Fisher, “but just seems like a really genuine and authentic dude, someone that I can see having a great future with, certainly these next three years and hopefully beyond. He just knows the game of basketball and for me, that’s what I love.”


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