September 4, 2023 

Kristi Toliver hurts knee, Mystics ‘not expecting good news’ on diagnosis

Toliver had played just 10 minutes since returning from plantar fasciitis

The Washington Mystics have been tormented by injuries all season long, and they took another hit on Sunday. Veteran guard Kristi Toliver injured her right knee against the Los Angeles Sparks and was taken for an MRI. While the team wasn’t prepared to announce the results on Monday, the fear and expectation is that it’s a major injury.

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Head coach Eric Thibault didn’t have a diagnosis immediately after the 72-64 loss, but he had a gut feeling. “It’s not great, I don’t think,” he said. “I’m not expecting good news.”

After the Sparks turned the ball over with 4.7 seconds remaining in the first quarter, Toliver received an inbounds pass in the backcourt. As she crossed the ball over near the logo at center court, her knee appeared to buckle and she crumpled to the floor. Point guard Natasha Cloud sprinted to her, and the rest of the team soon circled her.

Toliver remained on the ground through the quarter break and was eventually carried off with a towel over her head. Her teammates wrapped their arms around each other and rubbed each other’s backs as the medical staff tended to Toliver on the court. The players huddled up to pray for her after she exited, but they struggled to complete the prayer, guard Brittney Sykes told reporters postgame. They cried as the clock ticked down toward the start of the second quarter, and Sykes had to run to the back rather than sit on the bench as play resumed.

“Emotionally, I was shot,” forward Elena Delle Donne said postgame. “You can try to do the whole thing where you want to rally for her, but we were sick.”

“We all broke down,” Sykes said. “The shit broke our hearts.”

Toliver’s injury is the 28th of the season for the Mystics, the most in the WNBA. In total, they have lost a league-high 8.7 win shares to injury this season, nearly two full win shares above the next-closest team. They signed four replacement players for a total of 110 days this season, and they’ve played with eight healthy players at times, including for the final three quarters on Sunday.

When they briefly had everyone available for a game on Aug. 29 for the first time since June 9, Cloud said, “We’ve been through fucking hell … It’s like the sweetest moment of the season for me right now.”

But during the team’s next game on Aug. 31, center Shakira Austin and guard Ariel Atkins left with hip and nose injuries, respectively. Then Toliver went down on Sunday, and center Queen Egbo had a brief scare when she twisted the same ankle that had bothered her earlier in the season.

“The next person who fucking trips over their foot, we’re about to cry,” Sykes said postgame. “So we’re just trying to make it through these last three games and get to playoffs.”

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The Mystics’ visible distress on Sunday — from their tears on the court to Thibault, Sykes and Delle Donne struggling for words in the postgame press conference — was not only because Toliver’s injury looked devastating or because it was the latest of many for the team. It was also because of what Toliver has meant to the franchise in her career, how she had just returned from another injury, and how she leads this year’s team on and off the court.

Toliver first played in Washington for the 2017-19 seasons and helped the franchise win its first championship in 2019. Her and Delle Donne’s arrival in the same offseason elevated the Mystics, then a young team that had just missed the playoffs, to a team that had the star power to contend. Toliver made two All-Star appearances with the Mystics, and the team’s winning percentages in her three seasons are three of the top six marks in franchise history.

“Our team changed the year we brought her and Elena here,” Thibault said. “We don’t have a championship without Kristi.”

Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver shoots a deep jump shot as Connecticut Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa leaps toward her and contests with her left hand.
Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver shoots the ball during a game against the Connecticut Sun at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

In 2020, Toliver rejoined the Sparks, with whom she’d won a title in 2016. But the now-36-year-old came back to the Mystics this offseason for another run with many of the same players from 2019. The team had its eyes on another title, and it had even added Sykes, Toliver’s Sparks teammate and a current candidate for WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, in the offseason.

However, Toliver has played in only 11 games this season, missing two for rest and 24 with plantar fasciitis in her right foot. As she rehabbed her foot, she was also dealing with “other areas of my leg that [were] having issues, probably going back from a couple years ago,” she told reporters on Aug. 31. (She missed 11 games in 2019 with a knee injury and the last seven games of 2022 with a calf injury.)

Toliver returned from injury to play four minutes against the Minnesota Lynx on Aug. 29, recording a rebound and an assist. “I’m excited about it. It’s where I want to be; it’s the happy place,” she said. “… I got to set a good hard screen for Delle [Donne] and got her a layup. Just the little things. [I] didn’t even shoot the ball. I don’t even care. It’s just a matter of being out there and contributing to winning.”

She knew she would have to be patient as the team slowly ramped up her minutes and she regained her conditioning. She had played five-on-five only twice before the game against the Lynx, whereas her opponents were in late-season form. But she was still confident in what she could do.

“I got it, you know? I’m not afraid of it,” she said. “I’m not afraid of the moment. I’m not afraid of whatever’s gonna come. … I’m looking forward to the challenge … I feel strong. I feel ready.”

Toliver played another few minutes on Aug. 31 against the Las Vegas Aces, making the only shot she attempted and grabbing two rebounds. On Sunday, she checked in for the first time with 1:56 remaining in the first quarter and hit a 3-pointer 44 seconds later.

Just over a minute after that shot, Toliver’s knee buckled. She had played a total of 10 minutes and 14 seconds since returning from plantar fasciitis.

“You saw the [players’] reaction partly for the injury and partly because they’ve all watched her work so hard to get back,” Thibault said. “… She’d been trying to work through her own stuff physically, but she’s been such a good steady voice for the team. They have a lot of trust in her; they listen to her. When she kind of finally gets to get back playing and be an active player as well as a good voice, [she] makes a three and then that happens. And it’s just pretty devastating.”

As Thibault alluded to, Toliver is a leader on the team and a de facto additional coach, as she is an assistant for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks in the offseason. In training camp, guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough even brought Toliver a whiteboard and asked for help understanding plays.

“We don’t win some of those games [this season] without KT getting us straight in the huddles,” Sykes said on Sunday. “We don’t win some of them games without KT texting us at halftime like, ‘Hey, this is what’s happening. This is what we need to fix. We got this.’ … She knows how to get to us when maybe necessarily we can’t get to each other.”

Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver is shown just after high-fiving guard Natasha Cloud in the out-of-bounds area under the basket.
Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver (right) comes off the bench to celebrate with guard Natasha Cloud (9) and forward Cyesha Goree (left) during a game against the Phoenix Mercury at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on July 23, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Now, Toliver will have to start a new rehab process, length undetermined. Delle Donne said Toliver had been talking about the 2024 season as her foot felt progressively better. But Sunday’s injury threw those plans into question.

Days before her knee injury, Toliver had reflected on the mental challenges of rehabbing her foot and not being able to play basketball or golf — two things she loves — or even go for walks.

“It’s not the place that you want to be,” she said. “It can get really dark, especially as you get older, because you know the opportunities to be on the floor as you get older become less and less.”

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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