A Sparks icon is on her way out.
A day after reports surfaced in an ESPN story about Los Angeles Sparks GM Penny Toler using racial epithets and foul language towards players in a postgame tirade, and the WNBA initiating an investigation into the matter, the Sparks have parted ways with Toler. Ramona Shelburne of ESPN, who penned the initial story, was the first to break the news. Los Angeles PR confirmed with a press release a few minutes later.
As Shelburne went on to report, Toler’s firing was not solely related to this incident. The team was contemplating front-office changes before Toler’s outburst after Game 2 of the WNBA semifinals, but this was the tipping point.
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This league does not condone an environment for executives who belittle their players in the manner that Toler was reported to do. Even in the heat of the moment after a playoff loss, there have to be repercussions. It still comes as a surprise to see the Sparks act this harshly, and this swiftly, for someone who name has become synonymous with this franchise.
Toler has been a member of the Sparks organization since the league’s inception. She scored the first points in WNBA history in a Los Angeles uniform and became the general manager upon retiring from her playing career. During her 20-year tenure as GM, the Sparks won three WNBA titles and had 18 playoff appearances.
This was the team’s first season under new head coach Derek Fisher, who Toler hired after a coaching search that only included him. Fisher guided Los Angeles to a 22-12 record despite numerous injuries and other absences due to suspension and international basketball.
The Sparks were on an upward trajectory heading into the playoffs, but the season ended on a sour note. Candace Parker played only 11 minutes in the elimination game and nearly every starter was benched in the fourth quarter while Connecticut extended a double-digit lead. The ESPN bombshell came out 11 days later, and now Los Angeles faces the first season in franchise history without Toler involved in some capacity.
The team won a WNBA title just three seasons ago, and Toler’s greatest fault likely lies in her inability to retain Brian Agler last year. Agler is one of the winningest coaches in league history who willingly chose to relocate to a rebuilding situation a year after making two consecutive Finals with the Sparks. Agler’s departure was sudden and unexpected, and the hiring of Fisher without a comprehensive search also raised eyebrows.
Fisher was criticized for his lack of familiarity with the WNBA game and his inability to adjust tactically. Those issues formed the basis of the ESPN report. However, throughout the season, multiple Sparks had given their full support of Fisher unprompted and on the record.
According to Shelburne’s report, Fisher will remain while the team searches for its lead basketball executive. Nevertheless, general managers usually like to pick their own coaches, so Fisher’s position could be tenuous.
Toler also never addressed the signing of Riquna Williams after the guard was arrested for domestic violence during the offseason. The team signed her after media day, presumably to avoid the subject, and when Williams was suspended by the league, only Fisher and Chiney Ogwumike were made available to discuss the situation. Toler’s silence at the end of the season was also curious, though it makes much more sense in light of recent information.
The Sparks had difficulty competing with the best of the best over the last two seasons after their WNBA Finals loss in 2017. Toler assuredly built a deeper roster than in previous years, but one that still felt far short of its ultimate goal. How the Sparks pivot in her absence is one of the defining questions of the league’s offseason.
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