Kristi And Dad
The Bulls, according to the elder Toliver, weren’t playing very well, and Kristi, barely old enough for kindergarten, apparently knew why: Their point guard, then B.J. Armstrong, needed to get it together. Not Michael Jordan. Not Scottie Pippen. B.J. Armstrong.
“Kristi’s sitting on my lap and she said to me, she said, ‘Dad, B.J.’s got to get this team under control,’” George Toliver said. “This is 5 years old. She didn’t say Michael had to do it or Scottie Pippen had to do it. She said B.J. It was that moment I knew I had somebody special.”
Twenty-one years later, Toliver, now 26, is averaging 14.4 points and 3.0 assists in 31.6 minutes through five games this season for the Los Angeles Sparks (3-2) after starring at Harrisonburg High School and the University of Maryland, where she helped the Terrapins win the 2006 national championship.
But all that started with her father, a 62-year-old former James Madison University basketball player and NBA referee who has spent the past eight years as the associate vice president for referee development for the NBA and WNBA, working primarily with the D-League.
George Toliver’s career gave his daughter, a 2005 HHS graduate, a basketball advantage. It exposed her to hoops culture on a professional level. Kristi and her sister, future sharpshooting Lehigh guard Carli, traveled with their father to games, including the 1993 NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City. They even once played a game of H-O-R-S-E with former Phoenix Suns guard Kevin Johnson.
“I was able to have an experience no other middle school, high school or college kid has been able to have,” Kristi Toliver said by phone from Phoenix, where the Sparks were preparing to play the Mercury last week. “I think when you have an opportunity to be around the best players in the world — to ever play the game — you take that to your advantage like I did. I watched a lot, learning a lot. I interacted with them as much as I could, and I was able to have a different kind of outlook and upbringing as a kid.”
It started with watching film.
Part of being an NBA referee is self-evaluation. George Toliver said, after road trips, he would watch film of games he officiated. Starting, he said, at age 4, Kristi would watch the tapes with him.
At first, he pointed out simple things — “See how he dribbles with his left hand” or “See how he made that move to the basket” — but as Kristi got older, the tips got more advanced.
George Toliver said Kristi “just absorbed it.” He also advised her on what she needed to do to become a basketball player in the future.
“Back then, there was no WNBA,” said George Toliver of the women’s pro league that started play in 1997. “She wanted to go to college and play in the NBA. I didn’t discount that fact because you don’t want to take away a dream, but [I said], ‘If you want to be really, really good, here’s a list of things you need to do every day.’ So I wrote it up.”
Of course, there was natural ability, too.
“I knew early on she was going to be very good,” said George Toliver, who now lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C., but has an NBA office in New York. “She was a gifted kid.”
He said he supplemented his daughter’s skills by pointing out things that NBA players did, notably former Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller and his ability to move without the ball and get open.
Still one of Kristi Toliver’s favorite players, Miller could seemingly get open anytime he wanted. Toliver said she tried to assimilate Miller’s style, including his penchant for taking and making clutch shots, into her own game.
“He tried to get into people’s head. He played the game within the game,” Toliver said. “He was very good with the ball, without it. … But just guts and wanting to make those and take those big shots, that’s definitely something I took away from him.”
Clearly. While a freshman at Maryland, Toliver hit a 3-pointer to force overtime against Duke in the 2006 national title game. She later made two free throws late in overtime to give the Terps the lead for good.
After a slow start in the WNBA, Toliver is breaking out after a trade from the Chicago Sky — the team that drafted her third overall in 2009 — to the Sparks in 2010.
After averaging 7.6 points and 1.9 assists per game in 14.3 minutes during her one season with the Sky, Toliver’s numbers have climbed. In 2010, she averaged 8.6 points and 1.3 assists. In 2011, it was 11.2 and 2.9. Last season was Toliver’s best yet. The 5-foot-7, 130-pounder averaged 17.4 points and 4.9 assists in 31.5 minutes.
Sparks coach Carol Ross was not available for comment.
But while the refereeing influenced her career, Toliver has no plans to officiate when she’s done playing.
“I’ll always be around the game after I stop playing,” she said. “That’s just what my passion is. But I kind of like the teaching aspect, so I think coaching is kind of the route I’ll go in after basketball.”