To­liver con­sid­er­ing ‘big pic­ture’

As­sis­tant coach wants equal pay, but WNBA clause causes hangup

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

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 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.

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