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Former 49er finds career in WNBA front office

Penny Toler runs day-to-day operations for Los Angeles Sparks

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Former 49er finds career in WNBA front office

Former Long Beach State stand Penny Toler is currently in her ninth year as Los Angeles Sparks general manager. Toler was hired to the position after retiring from the Sparks in November 1999.

Former Long Beach State stand Penny Toler is currently in her ninth year as Los Angeles Sparks general manager. Toler was hired to the position after retiring from the Sparks in November 1999.

Courtesy of the Los Angeles Sparks

Former Long Beach State stand Penny Toler is currently in her ninth year as Los Angeles Sparks general manager. Toler was hired to the position after retiring from the Sparks in November 1999.

Courtesy of the Los Angeles Sparks

Courtesy of the Los Angeles Sparks

Former Long Beach State stand Penny Toler is currently in her ninth year as Los Angeles Sparks general manager. Toler was hired to the position after retiring from the Sparks in November 1999.

Jeff Hensiek, Staff Writer

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Images of WNBA legends hang outside Long Beach State alum Virginia “Penny” Toler’s office in Downtown Los Angeles.

Toler, who works as General Manager and Vice President of the Los Angeles Sparks, is most widely known for being the player who scored the first basket in WNBA history, but she had a very successful college career as well.

She played three seasons for the 49ers, going to the final four during her first two seasons. In 1988 and 1989, she earned Kodak All-America honors, Pacific Coast Athletic Association Player of the Year, Co-Player of the Year, and Big West recognition.
She currently holds the school record for career assists with 513 and free-throw percentage at .795.

“It means a lot to me, it means that not only could I score but I could pass the ball… you look at the great athletes that come through there, phenomenal,” Toler said.

Although the records mean a lot to her, she knows that records are made to be broken and if her records are surpassed, it means that her alma mater is having success.

“Scoring the first basket in the WNBA won’t ever change,” Toler said, “but all records are meant to be broken.”

When Toler graduated in 1989, there was no professional women’s basketball league in the United States. She moved overseas to continue her basketball career in Europe.

In her 10 years playing overseas, she won a scoring title, two assist titles, and was the MVP of the Italian all-star game. She has a lot of respect for the European style of game play.

“As Americans we usually rely on our athleticism, over there, they are amazing passers without the ball.”

Her success in Europe made her a prime target for teams when the WNBA made its start in 1997. It was an easy choice for her to come back to the US.

Before the first season began, Toler was allocated to the Sparks along with superstar Lisa Leslie during the player initiation round in the 1997 WNBA Draft.

In her first game on June 21, 1997 at 8:01 pm, Toler scored the first basket in WNBA history at the Great Western Forum. She went on to make the first free throw in the league’s history as well.

“When I was doing it, I didn’t even think about it because we lost the game,” Toler said. “I didn’t even really realize until the reporters came running up to me afterward. I feel like I appreciate it more now that I’m the GM.”

In 1999, just two years after joining the league, Toler retired to become GM of the Sparks. For the second time in her career, she had her jersey retired; this time by the Sparks. Toler’s jersey was the first retired by the team.

“The first thing I said when they first told me they wanted to make me a marquee player, was ‘wouldn’t that be amazing to be a player and then be the GM of the same team.'”

Toler joined the team toward the end of her career and she believes that the mind lasts longer than the body. She took the opportunity to take over the team when it opened up.

The Buss Family, who has since sold the team to Carla Christofferson and Kathy Goodman, thought Toler would be the perfect choice for the team.

“I was fortunate enough to be with an organization that gives its players their shots.” Toler said.

Buss chose the right person for the job. Toler became the fastest person in modern sports history to move from player to GM and win the championship.

The Sparks were the champions of the WNBA in 2001, just two years after Toler’s retirement.

“A lot of people want to be on the court and be seen; you really have to have your ego in check to be a GM because most of your work is done behind the scenes.” Toler said.

She took advantage of the organization she has been part of by getting advice from some of the biggest names in the history of basketball.

“I am the luckiest person in the world; I get to see people like Jerry West on a daily basis.” Toler said, “It’s like an encyclopedia; like watching basketball history.”

After her first championship she received a call from Mitch Kupchak, the GM for the Los Angeles Lakers, who wanted to offer his advice.

“Penny, now that you won your first championship, what are you going to do to win your second?” He asked, “Everything you swept under the rug to win your first one, you start there. Then you will win consistently.”

A typical day for a GM is filled with meetings, phone calls, and video. DVDs piled on her desk consisted of hundreds of players the team was scouting during the off-season.

As the team’s GM and Vice President, Toler, who has more wins than any other GM in league history, is responsible for free-agent signings, trades, team travel, merchandise and other important tasks.

“It can be hectic,” Toler said, “you don’t want to get scooped on a player. You really need to love what you do.”

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