WNBA player Kristi Toliver, 31, is already thinking ahead.
Toliver, a guard for the Washington Mystics, wants a job that will allow her to stay involved in the game. Coaching for the NBA, she says, “would be a dream.” She recently flew to Las Vegas to work as an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards’ Summer League team. Leading up to her coaching debut, Toliver faced double duty — she participated in 7 a.m. coaching meetings before Mystics practice, and she watched film and worked out with players in addition to managing her full-time job as a starting point guard.
It was a challenge, no doubt, but Toliver said she believes coaching has sharpened her game. The experience with the Wizards also gave her the opportunity to see the game from a different perspective and learn what Mystics Coach Mike Thibault likes to call the “daily grind of coaching.”
As a 10-year veteran with a WNBA title, an NCAA title and a EuroLeague championship, Toliver seemingly has a résumé that would make her more than qualified to coach. But in the not-so-distant past, a woman coaching in the NBA would seem like a long shot. Not anymore.
If Toliver becomes an NBA assistant coach, she will join the ranks of Nancy Lieberman, Becky Hammon and Stephanie Ready. To them, and others in the league, gender has no bearing on coaching ability. The advice they give Toliver is the same they would give to any player, male or female, who is trying to make the transition to the bench.
Hammon has worked for the San Antonio Spurs since 2014. Earlier this summer, she got promoted to become the top assistant to Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich. Toliver readily admits she would want Hammon to be a mentor.
“Be about figuring out ways to help your team win and help your guys get better,” Hammon advised. “At the end of the day, these guys are athletes. If they know you can help them, they will welcome you in and all the coaching you can give them.”
Ready became the first female coach of a male professional basketball team when she served as an assistant for the NBDL’s Greenville Groove starting in 2001. Things weren’t always easy.
People outside of the league challenged her position as a woman coaching professional men’s players. In response, Ready received strong support from her colleagues, including coaches, players and league officials.
“You have to work hard, you have to be passionate, you have to do your due diligence, you have to take the profession seriously,” Ready said. “If you’re an athlete, you’re an athlete. The ball goes through the hoop the same way.”
Lieberman, who played and coached in the WNBA and was an assistant coach with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, said that is how Toliver, and anyone else looking to make the jump, will get in the door.
“You have to be around the people that will hire you, and you have to create relationships,” said Lieberman, who became the first female head coach of a men’s professional team when she led the D-League’s Texas Legends starting in 2009. Toliver is “going to have to spend time, when she’s not in the WNBA, being around the NBA game. It is very sophisticated, it’s very intelligent, and you just have to learn the next level. The more she’s around it, the more she will learn that transition.”