Photo: Jennifer Pottheiser / NBAE via Getty Images

Dribbling The District: Mystics’ Kristi Toliver Goes In-Depth On Coaching Wizards

The NBA has included famous females on coaching staffs such as Becky Hammon (San Antonio Spurs), Jenny Boucek (Dallas Mavericks) and now Lindsey Harding (Philadelphia 76ers). Women assistant coaches are slowly gaining residence in men’s sports, including Washington Mystics point guard Kristi Toliver, who is now the first active WNBA player on an NBA coaching staff as an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards.

“I think it’s cool, special and important,” Toliver says. “I’d like to see more options or openings if women want to coach college basketball. Just the idea of them being open to the idea – we should be past that. It’s just about who can do that job the best. It’s good men are finally realizing that women can bring a whole lot to the table, including a new perspective and mentality they haven’t been exposed to before.”

Fresh off the Mystics’ championship loss to the Seattle Storm in the 2018 WNBA finals and hungry for more basketball, Toliver (a former champion herself) spent her summer assisting the Wizards’ coaching staff during summer league and training camp. Toliver was drafted to the WNBA in 2009 by Chicago, enjoyed a stint in Los Angeles and finally joined the Mystics in 2017 during free agency. Continuing her storied basketball journey, her coaching role with the District’s men’s team while active carries great significance.

At first, I didn’t think a whole lot of it because from my perspective, I was just pursuing two things that I’m passionate about and love to do,” she says. 

It wasn’t until head coaches started approaching her and telling her about the impact she was making, especially on their daughters, that it dawned on her this was something big.

“It gave me a new perspective. I’m proud of what I’m doing, but I’m also a person pursuing what I love and that’s the biggest message for other people: there are no limits. I don’t believe in limits. I think you’re capable of anything as long as you’re passionate and care about it and put in the work.”

Toliver’s 10-year career in the WNBA has prepared her for how to handle the highs and lows. Though no one truly gets over a championship loss, Toliver stayed open to learning and growing from the 2018 WNBA finals in the offseason.

“I think that playing overseas and for a championship helps [to get over it], but for me being on the sidelines in an assistant coach position, all I could think about every day was getting back to the finals and wishing we had those three games back against Seattle,” she says. “It’s been my motivation throughout: preparing and getting myself better in different ways because I know you have to be better than you were the year before [to succeed].”

Coaching is something that’s always been in the back of Toliver’s mind – it’s her way of staying in the sport even after her playing career ends.

“Basketball is my passion. I enjoy teaching. I love talking about the game and preparing for games, game planning and other things like that. It kind of just naturally happened and I was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I wanted to see if I enjoyed it and wanted to get my feet wet.”

Last summer, a familiar face that Toliver knew from her four-year college career at the University of Maryland, Ryan Richman, asked her to be his assistant for the NBA G League Capital City Go-Go. It was a perfect fit for Toliver because she knew she was taking a year off from playing overseas.

However, inside the Wizards organization, assistant coaching positions became available, vaulting Richman to a position at the front of the bench. Toliver was able to talk with head coach Scott Brooks and nab an assistant spot with the Wizards after prepping the team for summer league and joining them in Vegas.

“We had a nice conversation and things just kind of developed from there,” she says. “He asked what I wanted, what my vision was, if I could have anything, what would it be? I went through my checklist and [we] talked through it. Timing is everything; it’s wild how it all turned out.”

During Wizards training camp in September 2018, Toliver was addressed more and more as “Coach,” replacing the normal “Panda,” which is what her Mystics teammates call her.

“It’s funny. All I’ve head for the past eight, nine months was ‘Coach.’ It was different, but I embraced it. [Panda] is the nickname I had from my team in L.A. and here [in DC], we already had a KT on the team, so I just brought Panda over from the West Coast to the East Coast.”

Though she’s known some of the Wizards’ players for a long time, Toliver has embraced the guys on the team and vice versa. She’s been able to learn and gain experience in ways she might not have without this coaching opportunity.

“I don’t know if I’m lucky, but I’ve just been around a great group of guys from top to bottom – guys we still have, guys that were traded away. And [my] relationships with John Wall and Brad Beal, those are two of the guys I’ve been around that my position. All these guys have taught me a whole lot just about the game itself. They’re not only extremely talented in what they do, but also in how they prepare and [in] their leadership qualities – things that I can do better for my team this summer.”

Something new Toliver was charged with as an assistant coach was presenting the scouting report to the team and coaching staff, which turned out to be one of her most memorable moments from the season because it’s a big responsibility.

“That’s what I knew I was going to love the most about coaching – just the preparation aspect and getting the guys ready and presenting to them with my voice and them engaging with me. It’s a little nerve-wracking and the way they responded made me feel comfortable. They gave me positive feedback, and it just shows the kind of guys that they are.”

Coming off her 2018 season averaging 13.9 points and 4.4 assists, Toliver plans to stay linked with her Wizards’ players during the Mystics’ season so you’ll probably see Beal and Wall cheer her on from the stands at  the Entertainment and Sports Arena at St. Elizabeths East.

“It’s going to be cool. They’re going to watch us play and stay connected with what we’re doing because they’ve been around me for so many months now, so we do have that connection and that relationship.”

As for the upcoming WNBA season, you can expect Toliver and the Mystics to keep the same mentality they displayed last year with new faces and even stronger team comraderies.

“Our team will look different in our make-up, but we’ll continue to get better every single day and grow with one another and build on that team chemistry that we had last year. We’re looking forward to getting back to the finals, just getting over that hump. It’s not easy and we understand the challenges that are ahead of us.”

Coaching instead of playing this past offseason hasn’t hindered Toliver’s mindset and game plan for her third season with the Mystics – it’s only made her more focused and hungrier.

“I didn’t know before I did this whether I’d actually enjoy it or if it was something I’d be passionate about. It clicked right away, and I’m really thankful that I was given that opportunity.”

The Washington Mystics will tip off for the 2019 WNBA season on Saturday, May 25, opening the season on the road versus the Connecticut Sun. Their first game in DC is on Saturday, June 1 versus the Atlanta Dream. For more information about their upcoming season, visit https://mystics.wnba.com.

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Kayla Marsh

Kayla grew up in Falls Church and graduated from JMU in 2016 with a major in media arts and design. She was an editor for two student-produced publications in addition to studying Spanish, Italian and American Sign Language. She has Harrisonburg's incredible dining scene to thank for her beer and food obsessions. You can find her singing in traffic, at a sports bar watching baseball, eating tacos or live tweeting The Bachelor.