Q & A with Penny Toler
The Sparks GM reflects on her participation in the WNBA's inaugural game 15 years ago
Sparks general manager Penny Toler doesn't just remember the first WNBA game between the Sparks and the New York Liberty 15 years ago at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood; she lived it.
Toler scored the first points in WNBA history in a 67-57 loss to the New York Liberty on June 21, 1997.
"What's funny is that I had no clue I made the first basket until all the reporters came up to me after the game," Toler said. "I was more caught up in the league starting, like, 'My God, this is really happening,' than who scored the last basket. It was kind of like the last thing on my mind. But obviously 15 years later, it's one of the first things on my mind."
Toler sat down with ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne on Tuesday before the Sparks played the Liberty at Staples Center to discuss how the game has grown, how she has changed and why the Sparks started having to keep a closer eye on the fans outside their practice facility once Candace Parker joined the team.
Ramona Shelburne: Does it feel like 15 years have gone by since you made that first basket?
Penny Toler: The only thing that made me believe it has really been 15 years was a couple years ago when all the names on the jerseys started changing. In 2001, the first year we won a championship, I had played with like 90 percent of the team. Then all of a sudden, one by one, they either retired or left the Sparks and left.
When Lisa [Leslie] retired, it really hit me. We had started the league together. I played three years with her. So when she retired, that was the big one that made me realize, "Wow, nothing stays the same forever."
RS: What did it mean to you to be able to play at home after spending so much of your career overseas?
PT: When I joined the Sparks, I was going on my ninth year playing overseas. I was gone at least eight or nine months a year. There were years where I didn't spend more than 25 days in the States. It was tough. I don't remember holidays. I don't remember birthdays. Because I was always gone, out of the country. You miss all the family functions. I come from a big family with a lot of nieces and nephews, and none of them really knew their aunt Penny.
It's so much better playing at home because you get to lead a normal life. That was the biggest thing for all of us.
The players today still go overseas, but they don't understand how much better this is. They come up to me like, "Oh, I miss America." I'm like, "What are you talking about? You have the Internet. You have Skype. BBM, texts. When I was over there, we each had like $5,000 phone bills. You'd get that written into your contract so the team would pay for it."
RS: I know you've done a lot in basketball, but did you realize what a big deal it was going to be to score the first basket in the WNBA?
PT: Everyone always asks me about it. I appreciate it more now, though. Anything you do, you hope to leave your mark, and this will be my mark in the WNBA, along with hopefully some more titles added to my résumé as GM of the Sparks.
RS: What did you expect from the WNBA coming into that first game? Did you think it would last this long?
PT: I didn't really know, but once the NBA got behind it, there was just so much enthusiasm. The anticipation was beyond belief.
RS: When did that initial enthusiasm wear off? In other words, when did it become a league and not just a novelty to have women's basketball in the United States?
PT: I think we're getting there. It's taken us a while, but actually we're pretty fortunate. It took the men 30 years to get there. But we're in Year 15; we're on the verge of arrival if not there already. I mean, if you just ask people what the WNBA is, I'm sure 85-90 people know who we are even if they can't name the teams or players. That's a good thing because it means we're established and accepted. We're still trying to gain fan support, but we do have a lot of fans already.
We went through some tough times, like everybody else did with the economy, but I think we weathered that storm and I think we're here to stay now. We've had such amazing backing from the NBA, from our sponsors, from ESPN, from adidas now, but once upon a time, Nike was a big sponsor.
I mean, just look at the money Farmers Insurance paid to have their name on the Sparks jersey. Fifteen years ago, people wouldn't have believed that would happen.
I think the best part about it is the trickle-down effect all this exposure has had. At one point, you'd see maybe 10 women's college games on TV. Now you get 100, and that's just during the tournament. People watch it and see how talented these players are in college and then follow them right on into the pros.
When I played, (A) you'd be lucky to see us once when we were in college and (B) you wouldn't see us in the pros because it wasn't there.
RS: What other changes have you noticed?
PT: This is funny, but it hit me one day when I was coming out of practice and there were guys standing outside. Back in the day, it wasn't really feminine for women to play sports. Men didn't watch women play sports. But now, men have grown up watching women play sports and it's really accepted.
Anyway, a couple years ago when Candace Parker first signed with the Sparks, I'm coming out of practice and this guy says to me, "Miss, miss, excuse me, can you hold that door, my wife's in there?" I knew he was lying, but I was like, "Well, who is your wife?" and he's like, "Candace Parker -- I've been watching her forever."
I mean, here's this guy breaking his neck just to get a glimpse of Candace Parker, and I'm thinking, "Would any of this happen 15 years ago, if he hadn't gotten a chance to watch her play in college?"
RS: Is the game the same?
PT: The game is just as exciting as it's always been. The difference is the speed and the athleticism. Look at all our 6-foot-2 women who can play anywhere from the 1 to the 5. In the past, if you were tall, your coach would tell you to stand in the paint, rebound and play with your back to the basket. Now they teach them to handle the ball and shoot 3-pointers. The game has evolved because players are capable of doing more things.
RS: What was it like to work for Johnny Buss?
PT: Johnny was a great owner. He was a huge supporter of women's basketball no matter what was said. He always loved the Sparks. They were his baby, and he was going to do whatever it took to make us successful.
I'm always going to be grateful to Johnny. I don't know if another owner would've taken a chance on making a player his new GM like Johnny did. He did in spite of everybody telling him he was crazy to hire me. I'm never going to forget that.
RS: How is it different under Kathy Goodman, Carla Christofferson and Paula Madison?
PT: First of all, as a woman, I couldn't find three better role models. These women are incredibly successful.
They were really the first independent owners in the league. After they came in, a lot of teams were bought by independent owners. I think it's been good for the league because if you only have one car to look after, you're going to really take care of that car. Versus if you have two or thee cars, are all of them going to get the same attention.
That's not to say anything bad about the Buss family. They were great owners for us. But I think they truly believed they took us to one level, and Kathy, Carla and Paula would take us to the next level. I think overall they've done a great job.
Like anyone, they're going to have their trials and tribulations. I mean, the first year they bought the team, Lisa Leslie gets pregnant, Chamique Holdsclaw quits and we were coming off a coaching change. But they hung in there. They never waivered.
That's what motivates me every day when I come in here. I want to do whatever I can to help them win their first championship and make all this pay off for them.
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.