Kristi Toliver has long been willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the big picture.
In 2014, he made the excruciating decision to become a national Slovak town to promote his basketball career – most of which was spent playing abroad – and gave up the dream of playing for the US team. In 2016, the Virginia-born guard left Los Angeles months after winning a WNBA title with the Sparks powerhouse to come to Washington and help rebuild the Mystics series at its first WNBA finals.
The fall, at the height of becoming the first active WNBA player to serve as an NBA assistant coach, the nine-year-old professional was still thinking about the future when he agreed to join the Washington Wizards staff for a $ 10,000 salary – a fraction of the six figures that NBA coach assistants make regularly – due to a clause in the collective agreement between the WNBA and its players union.
"I had to think a lot about life – my mortgage is what it is," said Toliver, 31, in a telephone interview after landing in Miami on Thursday with the Wizards. "But without hesitation I told them yes, and in my mind I was just thinking about a big picture.The NBA was my first love … I wanted to be part of this, start this journey, the next chapter, since I'm still in another chapter of my player career. "
The unprecedented situation of Toliver has brought to light a thorny problem in the WNBA. Since the championship was launched in 1997, dreams of a professional career in the United States have clashed with the financial reality of its players, many of whom supplement their earnings in WNBA by spending the offseason playing abroad in more profitable leagues. The question raised by Toliver – not only of the pay gap, but of career advancement – could have significant consequences as the players' union and the league are preparing to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA, which was signed in March 2014, will expire in October, after players have opted for last year.
"Unequal pay, salary cap, equity problems and many other issues that did not serve our players' best interests are all reviewed and dealt with during these CBA negotiations," said Terri Jackson, executive director of WNBA Players & # 39; Association.
The problem posed Toliver and Wizards, who were willing to pay competitively, against the WNBA.
From the league's point of view, it's about securing a competitive balance under the salary cap, which is slightly less than $ 1 million per team for next season, according to a database run by HighPostHoops.com. Given that Toliver would be training for a team that falls under the same umbrella as the Mystics – Ted Leonsis owns both franchises – his salary as a coach needs to get out of a $ 50,000 pool allocated to each WNBA team to pay players for work out season. Since $ 40,000 had already been promised to three other Mystics players, Toliver accepted what was left.
The league claims that the offseason salary cap rule prevents WNBA teams from playing dirty. Five of the 12 league teams share an owner with an NBA franchise, and some others, such as Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun, share an owner with large companies. The concern is that affiliated teams can attract highly-publicized free agents with promises of a position in an NBA franchise or in another company.
Alternatively, the league is concerned that the affiliated teams may circumvent the salary limit by hiring elite players for profitable positions within their NBA franchise, but sign them for low-paying WNBA contracts.
"The rule that imposes a cap off-season that a WNBA team or a team member can pay to their players is necessary for competitive equity between the WNBA teams and to ensure the integrity of the CBA", said Mike Bass, who oversees public relations for the WNBA and NBA. "This rule does not apply to WNBA players who work for any of the 25 NBA teams that do not own WNBA franchises." The league and our teams remain committed to providing coaching opportunities in WNBA and NBA for current and former players. "
If Toliver had taken a coaching position with any of the NBA teams that were not affiliated with the WNBA, he would have been free to negotiate a more competitive salary. The Denver Nuggets were able to pay the Seattle Storm Guard, Sue Bird, whatever they thought appropriate when Bird assumed the front-office position with Denver off-season.
As he stood, Toliver saw his options when he was told that his pay with the wizards was threefold: he could take Wizards' work for the wage set by the WNBA; he could take Wizards's job at the rate the NBA team was willing to pay and ask his agent, Erin Kane, to force a transaction to another WNBA team; or he could return to play for his club abroad during the WNBA offseason, making a six-figure salary, but taxing his body and risking his longevity as a player by continuing to play practically all of the year.
Toliver played in Russia last year until the start of the WNBA season, because his club, UMMC Ekaterinburg, won two different championships. Resting during the offseason, Toliver imagined he could add years to his career in the United States, a move that would also benefit WNBA, who has long said that he wants his stars to stay home.
Toliver, whose WNBA has paid a salary of $ 115,000 in 2019 is the maximum of league rules, chose the first option.
She and Kane, who also represent one of the greatest stars of the championship in Elena Delle Donne of the mystics, believe that Toliver's situation has little to do with maintaining fair competition.
"Certainly, there is a work that needs to be done on CBA to properly address the current landscape of female basketball players, but I do not think the interpretation of the current CBA WBA is appropriate with regard to Kristi's coaching position, "Kane said. .
Toliver obtained his position with the Wizards without any help from the Mystics – he forged for the first time the professional relationship with a coaching "tryout" with the summer league of the Wizards last year in Las Vegas. Toliver also challenged the idea that his off-season work is an advantage that could be hung in front of free agents.
For one, there is little financial incentive for a player in Toliver's position. The guard, like many of WNBA's top players, gets a higher salary to play abroad than a first-year assistant paid at market value would do with Wizards. Toliver made more than $ 500,000 with UMMC Yekaterinburg last year.
More than that, says Toliver, not all players can do what he is doing as a coach.
"With the trip and the whole video, training the kids every day, the long, long hours that go into coaching, those things can wear on you," said Toliver. "There is no disadvantage for anyone, because honestly, you will not do it by doing what I am doing unless you love it and you are passionate about it, no one can buy you, pay you more money to stay, if you are not going to be completely invested, because this job is so challenging, it's really different from anything else I've ever experienced before, even as a player. "
The WNBA clarifies that it supports players who want to move into coaching or front-office positions, offering initiatives such as the NBA Basketball Operations Associate program, which offers participants a year of full employment in addition to basketball training, and the program NBA Assistant Coaches.
But Toliver, in trying to train as an active player, eventually felt unsupported by the WNBA.
"For me, it makes no sense, it's frustrating, it's disappointing," said Toliver. "I have invested most of my life in this league and have tried to promote this championship as a player, winning championships, bringing a team that has not been in a league for its first final, you should not choose to play to pursue another dream , especially if they can coexist.In the NBA and in the WNBA, it should coexist.
"But, I think when you're first in something, you're not going to be given it all in. It's just about trusting those people who make those decisions and hope they do the right thing … I think everyone knows what it is. It's a question of equal pay for work ".
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