The Check-In: Sparks’ Kristi Toliver continues her balancing act

Kristi Toliver warms up for Game 4 of the 2019 WNBA Finals while playing for the Washington Mystics.
(Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

Kristi Toliver kept her balance with one foot on a WNBA court and another on an NBA bench, and although the COVID-19 pandemic has upended most of the sports world, the Sparks guard won’t let it knock her off kilter.

If the NBA returns this summer after suspending its season because of the pandemic, it could present an unworkable conflict for Toliver, a second-year assistant player development coach for the Washington Wizards. Her summers are already accounted for — this one is for chasing her third WNBA championship.

As she walks her dog down the Washington streets on a Wednesday afternoon, Toliver isn’t sure of how she will rectify both ambitions, but knows she can, if necessary, when the pandemic clears.

“I’ve said this since Day 1 that I started doing this: When you’re passionate about something, you definitely make it work,” Toliver said in a phone interview. “I’m definitely not a person who makes excuses, I’m about finding solutions, and I know whatever happens moving forward, we’ll figure something out.”

A potential overlap might have been more feasible for Toliver last year, when she helped the Washington Mystics to a WNBA championship. But even signing a three-year deal with the Sparks in February was not expected to affect Toliver’s role with the Wizards. The Wizards’ staff recognizes that summers are reserved for Toliver’s playing career, she said.

For a league always trying to carve out space in a crowded sports landscape, the WNBA says the global health crisis will test but not slow their progress.


Before the coronavirus outbreak postponed the WNBA season, the Sparks were scheduled to begin training camp on April 26, when the NBA would have been nearing the beginning of the conference semifinals. The Wizards were ninth in the Eastern Conference when the NBA suspended its season on March 11.

Instead of coaching in the playoffs or beginning training camp in L.A. on Sunday, Toliver convened with her Sparks teammates over Zoom. All 14 players participated in the first meeting.

“We want to be able to stay as ready as we can be,” the point guard said. “If we do end up playing this summer, you never want to have to play catch-up.”

No matter the league, Toliver remains dedicated to improvement. She pores over film with Wizards’ staff and players. The coaches regularly meet with players online.

Having already used the technology to coach under current stay-at-home conditions, Toliver could have alternative methods to coach on one coast and play on another if the leagues overlap. She said she will be “100% dedicated” to finishing the season with the Wizards in whatever capacity possible, but acknowledged she didn’t want to let her Sparks teammates and coaches down as the franchise tries to bounce back from getting swept by the Connecticut Sun in the semifinals last year.

Toliver is the first active WNBA player to coach for an NBA team, and as much as the former Maryland star and NCAA champion is supposed to be helping NBA stars like John Wall and Bradley Beal improve, she feels like they’re helping her in equal measure.

“The greatest coaches are developed by great players,” Toliver said, “and I have the opportunity to be around some of the greatest players in the NBA game.”

With the unexpected time at home, Toliver participates in virtual coaching clinics, which she typically misses during busy WNBA summers. She marvels at being on conference calls with the likes of Stan Van Gundy and Tom Crean. While virtually brushing elbows with notable names in coaching, Toliver hesitates to put goals on her own coaching career.

Just as she tackles life while quarantined, Toliver approaches her future with measured steps.

“I’m not necessarily shooting for the moon at this point, I just want to find something that I’m comfortable in and I can strive [in] and whatever way I can best serve these players,” Toliver said. “For me, it’s just taking it one day at a time.”