Kristi Toliver thought her second stint with the Sparks would be a reunion. Instead, she’s in a rebuild.
After opting out of the 2020 season, Toliver returned to a new-look Sparks team for training camp Sunday, joining a completely different roster than the one she signed on with as a free agent last year. The two-time WNBA champion is not suiting up next to Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray as she planned, but after the past year, Toliver is just happy to be suiting up at all.
“I’m more excited to play now than ever after a year absence,” Toliver said during a video conference.
In 2019, Toliver helped the Washington Mystics win the WNBA championship, averaging 13 points and a career-high six assists in the regular season. To follow the All-Star year with a season of just watching games at home was difficult for Toliver, who opted out along with Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike.
Ogwumike, who built up her media career while away from the court and started working on an ESPN documentary about the historic pandemic season, said she experienced “the FOMO of the century,” shorthand for fear of missing out, while watching the league from afar. Toliver shared that fear, although the break from the court gave the 11-year WNBA veteran a new perspective on the game, she said. She got to be a fan of the league and bask in the WNBA’s high quality of play.
But the 34-year-old is happier to be on the court rather than on the couch now. The Sparks wholeheartedly agree.
“She, even at this point in her career, really still has All-Star-level game,” Sparks coach Derek Fisher said. “She can make all the plays with the basketball. She’s the true definition of a combo guard. … I think her demeanor, her approach to her job, how serious she takes this, the commitment to excellence and being great, our players can feel that every day.”
Despite several big offseason changes, Toliver can find a familiar face in forward Nneka Ogwumike, who along with Parker, Gray and Toliver won the 2016 championship with the Sparks. Ogwumike, the 2016 WNBA MVP, is entering her 10th year in the league and is still the “foundation piece,” Toliver said. But Toliver’s veteran leadership will be another pillar of the franchise’s next era.
While introducing herself at the first training camp practice Sunday, Toliver told her teammates she was there to serve. It is a quality she wanted to develop when she left L.A. in 2017 to join a developing roster with Washington. After helping the Mystics win that franchise’s first WNBA championship, Toliver is ready to apply the lessons she learned to the Sparks’ new roster, on which she joins guards such as Erica Wheeler, who has played five WNBA seasons, and Te’a Cooper, a second-year player who was signed by the Sparks when Toliver opted out last year.
“Throughout the course of the season, we will continue to elevate each other’s games and we’ll make one another better, and that’s what I’m really looking forward to,” Toliver said. “Those two were high-energy, good vibes and really positive spirits, so it’s definitely gonna be fun.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.