For Kristi Toliver, walking onto the court at the Staples Center in Los Angeles earlier this season was both a familiar and entirely new experience.
Certainly, Toliver knew the terrain well. She spent seven seasons in Los Angeles as a point guard with the W.N.B.A.’s Sparks, leading them to the 2016 title before signing with the Washington Mystics as a free agent.
But in her current role, as an assistant coach with the N.B.A.’s Wizards, the hardwood felt different as she strode toward the bench.
“To be back in that building sitting on the bench in a suit, instead of a uniform, that was one of the moments that really hit me,” Toliver said in a recent phone interview. “Because I could see the floor and can remember all the moments that I have there, and now to be on the men’s side — that really hit me.”
It was not an easy transition for Toliver, for reasons having nothing to do with basketball aptitude, or even lack of desire for her services. After leading the Mystics to the W.N.B.A. finals in 2018, Toliver faced a decision many of her peers grapple with: Go overseas to make significant money, while forgoing an off-season, or rest her body, which could extend her career.
Then the Wizards approached her with an intriguing offer: Would she like to be an assistant on Scott Brooks’s staff? The basketball part was easy enough to figure out — the role would be no different than the others. She’d be part of the group.