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Kristi Toliver has big goals as a Black woman in the NBA coaching ranks

The Los Angeles Sparks guard has delayed her start to the WNBA season as she works as an assistant for the Dallas Mavericks

SAN FRANCISCO – Kristi Toliver was tempted to take the short flight from SFO to LAX to watch her WNBA Los Angeles Sparks play in their home opener on Tuesday night. But with the Dallas Mavericks still alive in the NBA playoffs with title aspirations, she stayed in the Bay Area and watched the Sparks online.

“I thought about it. But I think it’s important to stay in the moment, stay present because of these guys. There is a balance,” Toliver told Andscape before the Mavericks’ practice on Tuesday at Chase Center.

In August 2021, the Mavericks hired Toliver as an assistant under head coach Jason Kidd. She spent parts of the previous two seasons on the Washington Wizards’ coaching staff. The two-time WNBA champion has also made three All-Star appearances. The Golden State Warriors enter Game 2 of the Western Conference finals with a 1-0 lead over Toliver’s Mavericks.

The daughter of former NBA referee George Toliver was previously a teammate of seven-time WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner in Russia. Griner has been detained since Feb. 17 on charges that she attempted to smuggle vape cartridges containing hashish oil into Russia. The U.S. government announced recently that it now considers Griner wrongfully detained, a shift that means the U.S. will not wait for the outcome of her case and will work to negotiate her return.

Toliver also starred on the 2006 NCAA champion University of Maryland women’s basketball team.

Toliver averaged 9.4 points in 2021 with the Sparks and will rejoin the WNBA franchise when the Mavericks’ season is over. The 35-year-old told Andscape that she is working out twice a day with Mavericks player development coach and former NBA player God Shammgod to keep herself ready for the WNBA.

Kidd says that Toliver, who often plays in pickup games with Mavs’ players, was a strong addition to his coaching staff.

“They miss her at work right now, but she is doing great for us,” Kidd told Andscape. “She’s had a big impact. She plays the point guard position. She’s a worker. She is knowledgeable. She wants to learn. She’s been great.”

The following is a Q&A with Toliver in which she talks about coaching the Mavericks in the Western Conference finals while her Sparks play, how she got into coaching, her favorite childhood NBA moments that came courtesy of her father, Griner’s situation in Russia, her long-term coaching aspirations in the NBA, her pride in being a Black woman in coaching and more.

As an assistant coach on the Dallas Mavericks, Kristi Toliver (left) has been able to work closely with star players such as Luka Dončić (right).

Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

“I loved it right away. This was what I wanted to do.”

Is it a little bittersweet right now with the Mavs in the West finals while the Sparks began their season recently?

A little bit. I’m just very mindful about the home opener [Tuesday], and I’m not there. But I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything right now. So, I’m just in the moment. I’m enjoying these guys. I’m enjoying seeing their growth throughout the course of the year. It’s special, and it reminds me of some teams I’ve played on. So, I’m really excited to get this opportunity.

Did you have coaching aspirations before getting the opportunity with the Wizards under then-head coach Scott Brooks?

When I went to Vegas to help coach the Wizards’ summer league team, me and Scottie Brooks had a conversation, hit it off and it went well. He asked me if I wanted to coach with the Wizards and I said, ‘Of course.’ I had no agenda. I didn’t know if this was the path I was going to take. It all started from a buddy [Wizards assistant coach Ryan Richman] asking me if I wanted to coach summer league.

As a woman playing overseas and stuff, I thought, ‘What are you going to do after basketball?’ I wanted to do something. I’m just a basketball person. I didn’t know what route that would be. So, when this opportunity presented itself, I was like, ‘Cool, let’s do it.’ And then, even that opportunity I had in summer league being there with the guys the two days I was able to go there, I loved it. I loved it right away. This was what I wanted to do.

How did the job under Kidd with the Mavericks come about?

So, after the first year with the Wizards, the next offseason I was rehabbing my knee in Phoenix. I knew I wanted to get back into it. I didn’t like a season away [in the 2020 WNBA bubble] and that was also when COVID was at its peak. I wanted to go into coaching basketball, so I started to do some interviews with a handful of teams. And then, when I got on the phone with Jason, [Mavericks assistant general manager] Michael Finley and [Mavericks president] Nico [Harrison], everything happened really, really fast.

How weird is it to be in the NBA where you are now seeing things through the eyes of a coach?

It’s different. Obviously, when you’re in between the lines versus being outside of the lines, your vantage point is really different. For me, I recognized that I had to kind of relinquish some control. When you’re a point guard, you’re running things. Outside here it’s like, I try to prepare them as much as you can and stay connected. I feel like I’m doing the right thing. Then it is up to the players. I understand that more than anybody as a player.

How did your dad feel about it?

He’s proud. He gives me advice here and there. He doesn’t want to get too hands-on with it just knowing he is still involved with helping the refs a little bit. There are definitely boundaries, but he is definitely a proud dad.

As a longtime NBA referee, did your dad have you around NBA a lot as a kid?

A ton. So, growing up in Virginia we went to a lot of Washington Bullets games when I was growing up. I went to [Philadelphia] 76ers games. I had the opportunity to go to the 1993 NBA All-Star Game when I was about 8 years old. And I sat right behind Michael Jordan’s mom and dad at the All-Star Game. And I was a huge MJ fan. My mom and Jordan’s mom connected, and they somehow exchanged addresses. I was 8, so I don’t remember how. But I wanted his autograph.

His mom wrote me a letter. I still have it. And he sent me an autograph picture that I still have that is black and white. That was one of my most prized possessions. It was super, super cool. From that, I got to be involved with [USA Basketball] Dream Team II. My dad was involved with that. My older sister and I played 2-on-1 against Kevin Johnson, and after that, that was my guy. He sent me Phoenix Suns Starter gear back in the day. I grew up heavy [into the] NBA, so for me to be here on this stage, I couldn’t want anything more.

Kristi Toliver, who plays for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, said: “I think it’d be great if I have the ability to be a head coach one day.”

Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

“To be a leader of a championship team, I’ve done it as a player, and I think it’d be really fun to do it as a coach. And that’s something I will aspire to.”

What are your coaching aspirations now? Do you aspire for more?

I’m still paving my own way. I’m just all about the journey. I don’t know what the endgame is going to be. I know I’m extremely thankful and blessed that I’m around Jason Kidd, I’m around this opportunity with the same team. These guys are really, really smart. So, I’m just a sponge soaking all of this up. And I think it’d be great if I have the ability to be a head coach one day. I’m not saying that I have that right now.

But to be a leader of a championship team, I’ve done it as a player, and I think it’d be really fun to do it as a coach. And that’s something I will aspire to. But we need one step at a time. So, I’m never going to act like I’m the smartest one in the room. I’m just taking this all in stride.

As a Black woman, what does it mean to be having this opportunity?

To me, it’s really special. And I think it’s really important, and I take a lot of ownership and responsibility in doing my best. So, it’s important to see a Black woman working behind an NBA bench, and hopefully in front of the bench. Just that visibility. Not just for young girls, but for young boys, too, and understanding the respect level, the knowledge is really, really important. So, I don’t take it lightly at all.

Have you had any instances where somebody sent you a message that was really meaningful to you about you coaching in the NBA?

No doubt about it. I get that a lot. But one I would say that I remember very clearly was my first year with the Wizards when [then-]Sacramento head coach Dave Joerger came up to me. He said that he has a young daughter. And he came up to me and was like, ‘My daughter has seen me coaching forever. But I just wanted you to know that it is really, really cool that there is someone special that my daughter can see that looks like you on the sidelines.’ When I hear chirps like that, it keeps me mindful of what I am doing. I just love what I’m doing and what it represents. So, it’s not just about me and my experience, but it’s about the bigger picture.

How much longer do you want to play?

I get asked that a lot. I’ve always said, ‘As long as I’m healthy enough and I’m enjoying it.’ When the joy of playing and the excitement kind of goes away, fizzles out, that’s when I’ll transition. But right now, it’s hard because I’m still locked in and invested in this. But I’m still a player. It’s fun. I’ll be shooting with [the Mavs players] all the time. For [the Mavs players] to say, ‘I can’t wait to go watch you play in Brooklyn. … I can’t wait to see you play in Atlanta.’

So, that has shifted my motivation to continue to play for a little bit. It’s important for those guys to see that.

What do you have to do to stay in shape for the WNBA during this elongated Mavericks season?

I work out in the morning. I work out in the evening. I know there are only 24 hours in a day. I take the ‘Mamba Mentality’ to heart. [The late Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant] was a guy that was going to work out three times a day. There is always time. It helps that I am engaged with these guys and get to shoot with them. I’m competitive with them.

But it’s more of that maintaining shape. I sacrifice 25 minutes on the treadmill doing wind sprints. I get my workouts in. I do it with Shammgod. I worked out [Tuesday] morning in the hotel, and hopefully I can get some shooting in after these guys are done working out. For me at 35, I don’t have to fine-tune anything. It’s staying sharp in the skill set that I have. I’ve also noticed the balance of being away from the game. I am used to playing year-round. But I’m even more excited because I haven’t been able to play.

Do you know all the Sparks plays and know everything you need to know?

Technology at its best. I get everything. I’ve written everything down because I know once I get there, it’s not just about my position. I need to know where everybody is going to be on the floor. There’s no reinventing the wheel. Basketball is basketball. I know the game. There’s no play that’s going to surprise me. More so than anything, we have a new team. So, it’s just about learning the new tendencies on my team.

“There is so much that a woman can bring to this game. … I hope that happens sooner than later, and I hope I’m one of the ones in the cards.”

— Kristi Toliver on the prospects for a woman becoming an NBA head coach

How are you taking the Griner situation?

Heavy heart. That’s my buddy. We played together on that team in Russia for four years. So, I’m very familiar with the area. Scary, scary situation. I feel hopeful that she will be released soon as we all are. But I just hope that she’s OK, just mentally, physically, spiritually, whatever. She’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever been around. She’s a big kid. She has a great heart. It’s very unfortunate that she’s in that situation. Very scary situation.

When she comes back, she’s going to be ready to be around the team and be ready to play. She’s going to need that. Whatever support she is going to need, we’re going to do it. That’s the homey right there.

I assume you can’t communicate with her.

No. I think you can write her letters. She has no technology over there. I’ve talked to ‘D’ [Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi] who is really, really close with her. She’s written letters and was written back. I was able to read one of her letters, so that was really, really special. It seemed like [Griner] was in pretty good spirits, but I’m sure after 89 days it’s wearing thin. I just want her back.

Do you foresee a day soon when a woman will be a head coach in the NBA?

I hope so, whoever it is. I’m just a big believer in doing the work. Having the experience. There is so much that a woman can bring to this game. No matter what men, women, high school, Western Conference finals, there are a lot, a lot of intelligent women out there. So, I hope that happens sooner than later, and I hope I’m one of the ones in the cards.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.