The first player to score a point in WNBA history isn’t merely the answer to a trivia question, or a “what ever happened to?” segment on some pregame show.
Penny Toler is the Los Angeles Sparks General Manager, a position she has held since she retired as a player from the WNBA in 1999. For a long time, she was the only female athlete to have her jersey hanging in Staples Center, before her Sparks teammate Lisa Leslie rightfully joined her in 2010.
For the past 18 years, Toler has been the guiding hand for a franchise that is tied to the first days of the WNBA, and now to its history book in the only way that truly counts – winning. Toler is both the longest-tenured and winningest general manager in the history of the league.
“To be able to do this with one team, that may be even better,” Toler said. “I’m lucky enough to get it more right than wrong.”
The Sparks have a chance to win their fourth WNBA title on Wednesday night in Minnesota, after falling 80-69 in Game 4 in Los Angeles on Sunday night. The Sparks will need to win on the road again in Game 5 to become the first team since the Houston Comets to win four WNBA titles.
Toler was a player in the league when the Comets kicked off WNBA history with a run of four straight titles. It was a remarkable accomplishment, and what the Sparks have done since in a league that is measurably deeper and more talented than it was back in 1997 is equally remarkable.
In the first two years of Toler’s tenure as general manager, she constructed a roster – led by Leslie in the prime of her legendary career – that led to back-to-back WNBA titles.
Fifteen years later, the Sparks became the first team in the league since then to repeat.
Toler took a team that was considered a perennial underachiever, a team whose recent history was marred by early, painful postseason exits and she built them into an elite group characterized by strong veteran leadership, depth, balance and one of the best coaches in the history of women’s professional basketball.
“The beauty of sports is that even sometimes when you have a great team, you don’t win,” Toler said. “But I hope that the body of work speaks for itself. We’ve always had a horse in the race. In L.A., it has to be a front horse. We’ve lost a chance at a three-peat (in 2002), who can say that? The next year we lost on a buzzer-beater. We’ve had trials and tribulations, but we have always grown.”
Toler stepped in as interim head coach late in the 2014 season after firing coach Carol Ross. But she knew she wasn’t meant to coach this team. She got them through the final stretch of the season and then set about making what was clearly a franchise-changing move. She lured Brian Agler, who won championships in both the American Basketball League and the WNBA (with the Seattle Storm), from Seattle to Los Angeles.
Agler’s presence settled a franchise that saw its ownership pull out in the winter of 2013 before Magic Johnson stepped in to save the team from a move out of Los Angeles, and he gained the trust of star Candace Parker, the player around whom the franchise has been built since she arrived in 2008.
“Penny always finds a way to get things done and in this league that’s hard to do,” Agler said. “She has a great eye for talent. She has a great feel for what it takes to put a team together, probably as good as anybody in the league. And she has a great relationship with the players.”
Alana Beard said that Toler “resurrected” her career after a series of injuries.
“After my injury, she simply knew what I was about, she signed me and trusted I would be ready to go and you don’t find that often,” Beard said. “She cares about this team. It is her lift. It makes a difference. We’ve had many conversations. She was a player here, she understands what it means to have success in Los Angeles.
“I remember watching her as a player. She was a fireball and she still is.”
Candace Parker said her relationship with Toler has grown since she started playing in L.A.
“Knowing her story going from a player, and going right into the GM position, it’s pretty special,” Parker said. “Everybody has their different paths, but if you are at the same job for 20 years, you are doing something right. She is the constant of our organizations.”
Toler credits the help she got early in her career from Lakers owners, Jerry and Johnny Buss, and Lakers executives Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak.
“The goal is always to win a championship,” Toler said. “When I write my memoir someday, it’s going to be like having a live encyclopedia. I didn’t have to Google things, I could just walk into people’s offices and talk to them.”
Toler said she always understood, from her days as a player, that players need to have a stock in the team.
“They aren’t just a commodity. This team is ours and it doesn’t work without their help,” Toler said. “The only thing I was ever asked was to do my best, and I’ve lived by those words. I think that’s why I’ve survived so many owners.”
And a shot at four WNBA titles.
“It’s been a great ride. I couldn’t dream of anything better,” Toler said. “If I die tomorrow, I’ll be able to thank God for a better life and a career than I could have imagined.”