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George Toliver had his night planned out. He would return home, turn on the TV, and watch the videotaped college basketball game that he missed because he was on an NBA road trip, working as a referee.
Maybe he’d take some notes to pass on to his two star athlete children. He enjoys analyzing the game, and his youngest daughter was already flashing her potential on the basketball court. When Toliver opened the door to his house in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and walked into the kitchen, he noticed a pile of paper on the dining room table. Each sheet had hand-written plays from the game, with details of what worked and what didn’t.
Never mind having to review the game himself. His teenage daughter, Kristi, had already done it, and just as well as he could have.
“I was blown away,” George says. “I pulled up the game and watched it, and they were right on point. …She had it written down—who’s making this cut, broken down the play sets. She was probably in ninth grade.”
George tells this story as way to illustrate his daughter’s personality. She’s passionate, he says, but controlled. She commits to her passions, and is a leader by example. She does things her own way, and takes initiative to do the small things that make a person successful. Toliver describes herself as an introvert and a leader. “People know when I say something, it’s going to speak volumes because I don’t say a whole lot all the time,” she says.
This season, the Washington Mystics have relied on all of those traits. Elena Delle Donne may be the team’s leading scorer, undisputed leader, and one of the most prominent faces of the WNBA, but Kristi Toliver has been a steadying veteran force that has helped the Mystics to a 22-12 record, their best mark since 2010, and the number three seed in the WNBA playoffs, which begin this week.
Toliver, a former University of Maryland star in her second season in D.C., is the only player to have played and started in every game for the Mystics this year and is averaging 13.9 points per game.
“Oh my God, she just brings so much,” Delle Donne says. “I feel like I don’t even need to talk about her basketball skills—that’s something you turn on the TV and see it. But her intelligence, her basketball IQ, and her leadership is so big. I feel like at any big point of the game, we’re always looking to her for the answers and she has them. She’s going to be a great coach someday. Right now, I’m glad she’s our player-coach.”
Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese says she knew early on that she had a special player. They first met when Toliver was dominating high school basketball games, shooting and making long-range shots that other players wouldn’t even have dared to take. “I think the thing that made me fall in love with her is that she never missed,” Frese says. “You’re actually shocked when she misses.”
She’s also a “cold-blooded, stone cold,” player, as Frese puts it. The type of player that thrives on the big stage, with thousands of eyes on her and opposing fans trying to tear her down. The player that Frese witnessed even before The Shot against Duke in the 2006 national championship game made Toliver a household women’s basketball name.
In her first ever collegiate game, in November 2005, the crowd inside Siena College’s arena grew hostile, booing each time the small but confident freshman guard scored. With just under a minute to go in the first half, Toliver made another jumper on her way to 16 points in Maryland’s blowout victory. But before she left the court, she put her index finger on her lips and shushed the fans.
“In the end, I was like, ‘This kid has it,’” Frese says.
Toliver, 31, remembers that moment clearly. “Everybody is like yelling, booing, so I wanted to silence them,” she recalls. “I think I was just in another world, because that’s really not my personality, not who I am, and not who I want to be. …I don’t do that anymore.”
Several months later she made her famous shot, stunning another crowd into silence in the biggest game of her college career. With 18.8 seconds left in the 2006 national championship game and the Terps down by three, Toliver dribbled to the right of the key before swishing an arching three-point shot over Duke’s 6-foot-7 center, Alison Bales. Maryland won in overtime for its first and only NCAA women’s basketball title.
“Man or woman, I think she’s definitely up there as far as hitting clutch shots,” says Marissa Coleman, Toliver’s close friend and one of the best players to suit up at Maryland. “She has that clutch gene that a lot of people don’t have. If I’m the opposing crowd, I wouldn’t want to trash talk, that just fuels her. If you get her going, it’s over.”
Search online for the words “clutch” and “Kristi Toliver,” and you’ll find several results from over the years, including one from earlier this month against the Dallas Wings, where Toliver hit a fade-away final buzzer-beating jumper. These types of shots and pressure situations have been a constant throughout her career. The trick, she’ll tell you, is to never have doubts when you take those shots. Plus, she adds, “I like to make history.”
“You got to trust your training,” Toliver says. “And I say that, and I mean like when I was 8, I’ve been doing that. It’s just a matter of the work I’ve put in and trusting the process and also wanting it. I live for moments like that. That’s when I’m at my absolute best, that’s when I have my 100 percent focus. If there’s a game on the line, I want the ball.”
Toliver worked on her shooting mechanics from a young age with her father and older sister, Carli, who played collegiate basketball at Lehigh University. First they started with tennis balls, then eventually worked up to a regulation size basketball. During practices, George would count down from five seconds. Kristi would have a few seconds to find the right shot and make it, whether it was a game of HORSE, a competitive pick-up game, or a practice situation.
“So that you have that situational sense,” George says. “It’s not just the shot, not just the moment when you release the ball. It’s what leads up to the moment, some things that must go into play, mentally and physically, and eventually it becomes natural.”
In other words, being clutch can be learned from repetition and practice, or so Toliver’s father believes. Toliver, her teammates, and coaches aren’t so sure.
“If you could [teach that], you would have a lot of more players like that,” Frese says, laughing.
“I think you can observe it,” Toliver says. “But I think it takes guts and heart to want to be in those moments.”
Mystics coach Mike Thibault is even more direct: “I don’t think that’s teachable. I think you can help encourage it. …Every player has their own insecurities, but she’s learned what her strengths are.”
Part of what makes this year’s Mystics team successful is the dynamic between the team’s two best players, Delle Donne and Toliver, both of whom joined the team last year. Delle Donne is a former MVP with the Chicago Sky, while Toliver won the WNBA championship with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016.
Throughout her career, Toliver, the third overall pick in the 2009 WNBA draft, has been paired with some of the best players in the history of the sport like Delle Donne, Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi, and Maya Moore. In college, she was in the same recruiting class as Coleman, who got drafted second overall in 2009 and now plays for the New York Liberty.
Frese called her duo Batman and Robin, while Coleman says it was more of a “Batman and Batman” situation.
“I think I’ve always done a good job of knowing—it might sound weird—that I had the potential of being the Batman, but accepting the Robin,” Toliver says. “Being the Robin to the great Batman. …I like my role. I embrace it. And I know if I’m a Robin, I’m a killer Robin.”
But joining the Mystics after six seasons with the Sparks was not an easy move for Toliver. She admits that she was “a little depressed in ways” afterward. “It was an end of a chapter for me, a huge chapter in my life as a professional,” she says.
The move also required Toliver to become a more vocal leader. In Los Angeles, Toliver could rely on Parker and Nneka Ogwumike to play that role, but in D.C., she’s been encouraged to be that person, Thibault says.
She joined the Wizards’ Summer League coaching staff and says her career goal is to be a coach in the NBA, which she calls her “first love.” She recently sat next to someone on a plane and saw him sending a racially offensive text message about the Mystics: “All black team, of course.” She changed seats and posted a photo of the text on her Instagram.
On the day of the recent Unite the Right 2 white supremacist rally in D.C., she gave a speech on the court prior to a game. In her speech, she called for respect for people of all backgrounds and denounced bigotry. “As our leadership fails to provide this inclusive environment, it is all the more important that we together use our power for good,” she said.
Her father was watching at home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. That moment feels just as important to him as any trophy or game-winning shot.
“The message was necessary, the message was relevant, and it was delivered in the manner that was required for that situation,” George says. “I fully support Kristi’s message given my personal feelings about the current political climate and leadership. …That may have moved me as much as any particular play she has made. It holds a very high place in my heart.”
Second photo by Keith Allison on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.