Kristi Rising: Toliver’s Move from Controversial to UnstoppableSeptember 20, 2012
LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Her tweets haven’t insulted season ticket holders or nearly caused international incidents. She’s never refused to be subbed out of a game or been the catalyst in the firing of her head coach.
But somehow LA Sparks guard Kristi Toliver has managed to remain a controversial and divisive figure in the world of women’s basketball.
The criticisms are mostly basketball related – that she’s the perfect embodiment of the shoot-first, don’t ask questions later, long and short range gunner, no matter who or how talented her teammates are.
But the Toliver-bashing can also venture into the personal as well when detractors go beyond questioning her decision making and repeatedly level the charge against her that she's not merely a selfish player but an arrogant ego-driven personality who cares only about padding her own numbers.
Predictions of Toliver’s failure to ever make good in the WNBA, as well as the failure of any team cursed to have her on its roster, have been heard over and over again for years in places where people who know women’s basketball gather to talk about it.
And it is from that roiling negativity that Kristi Toliver’s reputation and stature in women’s basketball arrives this summer intact and finds her on the WNBA.com’s own list of league MVP candidates.
It’s from all of that controversy that Toliver will most likely walk away with the league’s Most Improved Player award for 2012, as she’s easily having her best season ever and is the leading scorer on a 23-10 playoff bound Sparks team that’s having its best season in years.
Toliver’s offense – her ability to hit shots, off-balance, without her feet set, squeezing in between double-teams, jacking what seem to be low-percentage Hail Marys from 30 feet while falling backwards – has, at times this season, been breathtaking.
And whether you call it ego or just part of the necessary psychological make-up of a confident winner, one thing is for certain: Toliver knows she’s got it.
“There really are only a handful of players who can do that,” Toliver said about her ability to hit shots without regard for fundamentals like having her feet set. “Cappie (Pondexter) is another one.”
She goes on. “It’s a rare thing in this league. It’s fun for me to be able to score in different ways that other people can’t do. I’ve always been a good scorer and a lot of it is just God-given ability, it’s natural.”
Okay, that’s confidence. But how does Toliver deal with the challenges of the last few difficult seasons in LA?
She says she just doesn’t think about it. The past, the pressures that were on her the last two seasons, her first with the Sparks, the losing and what the doubters have said about her throughout her career? “I don’t think about it unless someone brings it up.”
“This year we have a completely different team,” she says. “Different mindset, mentality, attitude, toughness, etc. So that team is in the past, this team is right now and we’re just about playing really well and staying focused and doing what we should be doing.”
But what about the selfish shoot-first guard? Is that even still a valid criticism of a player who’s leading her team in scoring going into the playoffs as the second seed in the west?
“Toliver wants to win,” says Sparks head coach Carol Ross. “If we need her to get 30, then she’ll do that. But if we also need her to distribute, she’ll do that.”
“My coaches want me to shoot more than what I’m doing,” says Toliver.
“They’re asking me to shoot more, shoot more, shoot more. But I’m going to take stuff when I can get it. I’m not going to force anything and we don’t need to. Not on a team that has so many offensive threats.”
In a recent home win against the east-leading Connecticut Sun, the visitors had pulled close near the end of the contest and every bucket was crucial.
Toliver darted inside the foul line and appeared ready to hit the 12-foot dagger that would put the game away. Instead she found a cutting Nneka Ogwumike and hit the Sparks rookie sensation deep in the paint for an easy bucket.
Was that further proof that the shoot-first guard charge has no merit or that if it ever had been true that Toliver’s game has simply now matured?
“No,” the former Maryland Terrapin laughed at the question. “I easily could have shot it and I probably would have made it. Either way, it probably would have worked out.”
Call it a winner’s confidence or pure ego that’s driving her rise to the elite level of WNBA players, but whatever it is, in 2012, it's all finally working out for Kristi Toliver.