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Penny Toler: A symbol of adversity — and success

For Black History Month, Swish Appeal is honoring African-American women who have made an indelible mark on the game of basketball. And Penny Toler, executive vice president/GM of the Los Angeles Sparks, has left a lasting impression on the game.

LA Sparks 2016 WNBA Championship Celebration Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images

It is said that the best stories are those crafted with hard work, struggle and eventually, success.

If that is the case, then Los Angeles Sparks executive vice president and general manager Virginia “Penny” Toler’s story is up there with some of the best.

Toler, who has been the GM of the Sparks since her retirement in 1999, has put in a lot of hard work, dealt with adversity, and has found success in her professional journey. And it is with great honor that Swish Appeal gets to share her story.

PART ONE: BUILDING THE FOUNDATION

Penny Toler was born and raised in Washington, D.C., the second youngest of eight siblings. While you could imagine the drama that potentially comes with having a large family, Toler’s parents used it as a learning tool and taught Penny a very valuable skill: teamwork.

“We had a large family, and from that I learned how to care,” Toler said. “My mom told me, ‘Don’t be afraid to ask for help, because you never know when you’re gonna need it.’”

Another thing she learned really quickly was the value of sharing, especially as a younger sibling.

“When you next to the bottom, you got to share or they’re gonna take it.”

However, of all the skills she learned, the most valuable of them all was communication. Anytime the mom or dad needed the kids to step up, there was always someone there to make sure the daily errands got handled; and they took care of each other.

“You learned how to communicate,” Toler said. “I always had someone to play with.”

In Penny’s case, her three older brothers were her primary inspiration. They needed a fourth person to play basketball with, so they would always bring her along. Just because she was a girl, though, didn’t mean they took it easy on her. The lessons that Penny learned made her one of the best players in St. Anthony High School history, and earned her a scholarship to San Diego State University.

In her freshman season (1984-85), Toler led the Aztecs in scoring with 14.1 points per game, and led them to a 21-9 record and a second-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament, where they lost to Louisiana Tech. However, SDSU didn’t end up being the right fit for Toler, and transferred to Long Beach State (now CSU Long Beach) a couple of hours up the I-5. After sitting out the 1985-86 season, Toler was ready to set the court on fire.

From 1986-87 to 1988-89, Toler was one of the guiding forces behind the 49ers’ excellence. In three seasons with the team, Toler helped guide them to two Final Four appearances (1987, 1988), earned Kodak All-American and Pacific Coast Athletic Association (now Big West) Co-Player of the Year honors in the 1987-88 and 1988-89 seasons, and placed herself in the record books. Among the records Toler ranks in are:

  1. Points: 2,193 (3rd)
  2. Scoring Average: 21.7 (2nd)
  3. Free Throw Percentage: 79.5 (1st)
  4. Assists: 513 (3rd; graduated as the all-time leader)
  5. One of only two players in CSULB history with 1,000+ points and 500+ assists

Toler was inducted into the Long Beach State Athletics Department Hall of Fame in 1995, with her #4 jersey being retired in 2007.

PART TWO: LAYING DOWN THE PARQUET

After her college career ended in 1989, Toler was recruited heavily to play overseas, as there was no viable professional women’s league in America at the time. Unlike now, where you see a majority of America’s best players playing there in the offseason, it was a major deal back in the 1980’s. Fortunately for Toler, her first team (Montecchio and Pescara) took good care of her while there.

“When I look at it now, it was huge,” Toler said. “When I was overseas, you could be one of many teams that didn’t have Americans. I had an Italian roommate and interpreter. Back then, there was no Internet, no FaceTime.”

In Toler’s eight seasons overseas, she played in Italy, Greece and Israel, proving herself as one of the best American players Europe had ever seen. While in Italy, she won a scoring title, two assists titles and was MVP of the Italian All-Star game. In her seventh season, Toler was the fifth-leading scorer in the EuroCup (22 ppg).

The positive experience that Toler had overseas has helped her as a general manager, as she has maintained contact with multiple clubs around Europe. The clubs also keep her in close contact, as she is seen as a positive influence on their players. This is a big reason why a lot of international players look at the Sparks as their first choice.

“The foreigners are very loyal,” Toler said. “Anytime I go overseas to do scouting, they remember who I am and treat me very kindly. This is why when I get foreign players, I go out of my way to make sure they have what they need.”

Penny Toler

It wasn’t until 1997 that Toler was finally able to bring her game back to the States, as the WNBA came into existence. On January 22, Toler was the eighth player chosen in the league’s initial allocation draft by the Los Angeles Sparks...right after future teammate and Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer Lisa Leslie. Toler’s inaugural WNBA season is also monumental for another reason: on June 21 against the New York Liberty in the first-ever WNBA game, she recorded the first basket in league history.

Toler would end up playing three seasons with the Sparks, retiring as a player after the 1999 season. In November, she was named the general manager of the Sparks.

At first, the hire was met with widespread criticism from other franchises, primarily because at the time most organizational positions were dominated by business-minded white men. Most didn’t believe that Toler, a former player, was cut out for the job; but the Buss family (who owned both the Lakers and Sparks at the time) were undeterred.

“The first thing that Dr. Jerry Buss told me was, ‘You’re not always gonna be great, but all we ask is that you try hard’,” Toler said. “I knew I had to do a great job for two reasons: one, because I’m black, and two, I was a former player turning into a GM. I wanted them to see the same discipline on the court - teamwork, sharing, etc. - can work in the business world.”

“I wanted other players to know they can step into the front office and do just as good, if not better.”

The Buss family had the utmost faith in Toler, and soon enough, that faith was rewarded.

PART THREE: UNDER THE BRIGHT LIGHTS

Toler wasted no time in building a championship-caliber squad, bringing in a new head coach in former Laker legend Michael Cooper. With a steady foundation headed by the trio of DeLisha Milton-Jones, Lisa Leslie and Tamecka Dixon, the Sparks finished the 2000 season with the best record in league history (28-4, a record that still stands).

However, even the best record in the league was enough to stop the juggernaut that was the Houston Comets, as the Sparks were swept in the conference finals en route to Houston’s fourth straight championship.

The next season, however, proved to be the season that the Sparks put it all together. Lisa Leslie played the best basketball of her life, winning the 2001 WNBA MVP and the Finals MVP. Tying their 28-4 record from last season, the Sparks toppled the Houston Comets in the Western Conference Semifinals, effectively ending their dynasty.

And ultimately, the Sparks swept the Charlotte Sting two games to none to win their first-ever WNBA championship, vindicating not only the Buss family belief in Toler, but Toler’s ability to build a franchise.

“When I got the job, nobody wanted me to have it,” Toler said. “When I won that first championship, I may have broken my teeth from cheesing so much.”

President and coaching staff Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/WNBAE via Getty Images

The next season (2002), Toler and the Sparks became the first team not named the Comets to win back-to-back championships. And in 2003, the Sparks came within one game of winning three straight, but lost to the Detroit Shock.

In 2016, the Sparks returned to the championship fray, winning their third title against the Minnesota Lynx. The 2017 season almost saw the Sparks become the first team since their 2001-2002 teams to repeat. In Toler’s 18 seasons as GM, the Sparks have failed to reach the playoffs only twice, the only team to accomplish that feat in that time-frame; something that Toler definitely uses when it comes to recruiting.

“As far as recruiting players, I let them know, ‘We may not have won a championship, but we always have a horse in the race’”, Toler said. “As players get older, they get smarter. They appreciate stability.”

2016 WNBA Finals - Game Five Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

PART FOUR: HOLDING THE TROPHY

Being the longest-running general manager in the WNBA, Toler has seen a lot of things, and she has dealt with hardship throughout her career. It is because of that hardship that she has been able to counsel players and serve as a role model.

“When I was 20, I lost both my parents,” Toler said. “I felt that in order to validate my parents’ life, I had to become something.”

Toler recalled a sitdown she had with Chamique Holdsclaw, when she was a member of the Sparks in the mid-2000’s. Holdsclaw was going through her own problems, and Toler sat her down and told her about her story.

“You know, being a GM, I’ve taken a lot of chances on a lot of risky players,” Toler said. “One thing I always tell those players is that we don’t choose how we start, but we can choose how we finish.”

One thing Toler passes on to all her players, and to anyone who will listen, is that as an individual, all things are possible if you’re willing to work for it.

“I remember as early as high school, I read this quote that stuck with me. If my mind can perceive it, my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it.”

Penny Toler, in her collegiate and professional career and beyond, is living proof that if you can dream it, then you can manifest that dream into reality through hard work and belief.