This marks the 30th anniversary of USA TODAY recognizing the nation's top high school athletes. As we prepare to unveil the 2013 American Family Insurance ALL-USA Girls Basketball Team at the end of the season, we'll dig into the archives and check in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades. Today, we catch up with 1984 ALL-USA player Penny Toler.
Penny Toler was the first girl in her family to play high school basketball instead of being a cheerleader, the first player to score a point in a WNBA game, the first, and only WNBA player to become a general manager and the first player-turned-GM to win a WNBA title.
Now, she's the first female in our American Family Insurance ALL-USA Where They Are Now series.
Toler was an ALL-USA selection in 1984 while averaging 28.9 points a game at St. Anthony (Washington, D.C.). One of eight children in her family, her given first name was Virginia but she picked up the nickname Penny as a little girl and it stuck.
"I used to love to jump Double Dutch," Toler says. "In Washington, D.C., you didn't want to leave your money with just anybody or you would never see it again, so I would put change in my mouth. A couple of times, I would get a penny stuck in my throat, so my grandmother started calling me Penny to remind me of how stupid that was."
Toler learned to play basketball from her brothers, who, charged with watching her, made her the fourth player in two-on-two games.
"It was always me and my oldest brother versus my second-oldest brother and third-oldest brother," she says. "I truly have to thank my brothers. Because of them, something that started as a hobby became my profession."
After one season at San Diego State, she transferred to Long Beach State, where she was a two-time All-American in 1988 and 1989, finishing her career with a school-record 513 assists. While averaging 21.7 points a game, she often was taunted by opposing fans because she would go behind her back or do a crossover dribble.
"I got called a hot dog a lot," Toler says. "Where I was from, in D.C., everybody is like that. You had to have good ballhandling skills. Now, if a player does that, they're just called a spectacular player, not a hot dog. It's amazing how time changes things. When they called me a hot dog, I'd make a big steal or a shot and then say, 'There's your mustard!'"
The WNBA didn't exist when she graduated from Long Beach State, so she played eight seasons in Europe before landing with the Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA's first season in 1997. She retired after the 1999 season and became the team's general manager. The Sparks won their first WNBA title in 2001, Toler's second season at the helm.
"When I won my first championship, I saw Mitch Kupchak (the Lakers' general manager) in the hall," Toler says. "He said, 'Penny, congratulations on your championship. How do you win your next one?' I told him I felt we were in good shape, that we had everybody back and he said again, 'No, I asked you how you win your next championship. I'm going to tell you. You take everything that you got away with last year that could have caused you to lose and you get rid of those things and that's the first thing you have to do next year.'"
Toler listened and the Sparks repeated as champion the next season and have been to the playoffs in all but two of her seasons. Toler said she would like to see other former WNBA players get a chance to be general managers.
"That's one of the motivations on why I have to do a good job," she says. "Every day I work, I have to say I have to do my best. You look at the men's league and a lot of general managers are former players in the NBA. Good players are disciplined and to be a GM you have to be disciplined in knowing what you want from a team."
Her years overseas helped her understand that patience is required with foreign players, who may need at least a season to adjust.
"Playing overseas helped me to be perceptive to foreign players' needs," Toler says. "To be a good basketball player, the other parts of your life have to work too."
Toler says the physical gifts of current players are evident, though not all of them have the toughness of earlier players.
"Obviously, today's players are faster and a lot more of them can dunk," Toler said. "Older players have a lot more stamina, a toughness to succeed. As an analogy, back in the day, to eat, we had to hunt, cook the food and set the table. For this generation, the table is already set, so they haven't been challenged as much. The ones that do challenge themselves can be really special."
Follow Jim Halley on Twitter @jimhalley.