Toliver considering ‘big picture’
Assistant coach wants equal pay, but WNBA clause causes hangup
Kristi Toliver has long been willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the big picture.
In 2014, she made the wrenching decision to become a naturalized Slovakian citizen to further her basketball career — the majority of which has been spent playing overseas — and gave up the dream of playing for Team USA. In 2016, the Virginia-born guard left Los Angeles months after winning a WNBA title with the powerhouse Sparks to come to Washington and help take a rebuilding Mystics franchise to its first WNBA finals.
The fall, on the cusp of becoming the first active WNBA player to serve as an NBA assistant coach, the nine-year pro was again thinking of the future when she agreed to join the Washington Wizards’ staff for a salary of $10,000 — a fraction of the six figures NBA assistant coaches regularly make — because of a stipulation in the collective bargaining agreement between the WNBA and its players’ union.
“I had to think about a lot as far as living — my mortgage is what it is,” Toliver, 31, said in a phone interview after she landed in Miami on Thursday with the Wizards. “But with no hesitation I told them yes, and in my mind I was just thinking big picture. The NBA was my first love … I wanted to be a part of this, start this journey, this next chapter, as I’m still in another chapter of my playing career.”
Toliver’s unprecedented situation has brought to light a thorny issue in the WNBA. Since the league launched in 1997, dreams of a pro basketball career in the United States have collided with financial reality for its players, many of whom supplement their WNBA incomes by spending the offseason playing overseas in more lucrative leagues. The matter raised by Toliver — not only of pay disparity but career advancement — could have significant ramifications as the players’ union and the league gear up for negotiations of a new collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA, which was signed in March 2014, will expire in October after players opted out last year.
“Pay disparity, salary cap, equity concerns and many other issues that have not served the best interests of our players are all being examined and addressed during these CBA negotiations,” said Terri Jackson, the executive director of the WNBA Players’ Association.
The issue pits Toliver and Wizards, who were prepared to pay competitively, against the WNBA.
From the league’s point of view, it is a matter of ensuring competitive balance under the salary cap, which is slightly less than $1 million per team for the coming season, according to a database maintained by HighPostHoops.com. Because Toliver would be coaching for a team that falls under the same corporate umbrella as the Mystics — Ted Leonsis owns both franchises — her coaching salary must come out of a $50,000 pool allotted each WNBA team to pay players for offseason work. Because $40,000 had already been promised to three other Mystics players, Toliver accepted what was left.
The league argues that the offseason salary-cap rule keeps WNBA teams from playing dirty. Five of the league’s 12 teams share an owner with an NBA franchise, and some others, such as the Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun, share an owner with large corporations. The worry is that affiliated teams could lure highly touted free agents with promises of a position in an NBA franchise or another company.
Alternately, the league frets that affiliated teams could circumvent the salary cap by hiring elite players for lucrative positions within their NBA franchise but sign them to low-paying WNBA contracts.
“The rule placing a cap on offseason compensation that a WNBA team or team affiliate can pay its players is necessary for competitive fairness among WNBA teams and to ensure the integrity of the CBA,” said Mike Bass, who oversees public relations for both the WNBA and NBA. “This rule does not affect WNBA players working for any of the 25 NBA teams that do not own WNBA franchises. The league and our teams remain committed to providing coaching opportunities in the WNBA and NBA for current and former players.”
Were Toliver to have taken a coaching position with any of the NBA teams who aren’t affiliated with the WNBA, she would have been free to negotiate a more competitive salary. The Denver Nuggets were able to pay the Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird whatever they deemed appropriate when Bird took a front-office position with Denver this offseason.
As it stood, Toliver saw her options when she was told about her compensation with the Wizards as threefold: She could take the Wizards job for the WNBA-mandated salary; she could take the Wizards job at the rate the NBA team was willing to pay and ask her agent, Erin Kane, to force a trade to another WNBA team; or she could go back to playing for her overseas club during the WNBA offseason, making a six-figure salary there but taxing her body and risking her career longevity as a player by continuing to play virtually year-round.
Toliver played in Russia last year right up until the start of the WNBA season because her club, UMMC Ekaterinburg, won two different league championships. By resting during the offseason, Toliver figured she could add years to her playing career in the United States — a move that would also benefit the WNBA, which has long stated it wants its stars to be able to stay at home.
Toliver, whose WNBA playing salary of $115,000 in 2019 is the maximum under league rules, chose the first option.