- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2018

Kristi Toliver was set to play a basketball game Sunday, but another topic was weighing on her mind.

A year ago, the Washington Mystics guard watched as deadly riots erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, about an hour away from her hometown of Harrisonburg. Shortly after the tragedy, Toliver delivered a pregame message on behalf of the Mystics to honor the three victims that were killed.

But a year later — with the news that white nationalists planned on descending upon the District — Toliver felt compelled to speak again.

So before Sunday’s 93-80 win against the Dallas Wings, she addressed the Capital One Arena crowd. It would be irresponsible, she said, to ignore what was happening “down the street in our city.”

“We feel shocked at the state of this country and believe hate should never be granted in this platform,” Toliver said in her speech. “We believe our purpose is to love and respect people of all backgrounds. We believe that bigotry is never justified. We believe in true equality and we believe in the courage to speak out.”

The Mystics won their sixth straight Sunday and are fighting to secure a playoff bye with the postseason less than 10 days away. But Toliver said afterward it was important for her to keep the game in perspective.

Toliver’s speech, which lasted just more than a minute, focused on inclusivity and equality. It was her idea to speak beforehand and Toliver approached her teammates to ask if they wanted to add anything. She said she took 45 minutes to craft the message on Saturday night.

In the address, Toliver alluded to — but didn’t mention — President Trump. Last year, Trump received criticism for saying that there were “very fine people” among white nationalists.

On Sunday, Toliver said “leadership” had failed to provide an inclusive environment and that people should live with compassion.

“There are bigger things going on,” said Toliver, who had 15 points and seven assists. “But that’s where I felt like saying something today even before the game was just for everyone to keep the mindfulness of there are real-world things going on.

“I know we’re here gathering for a basketball game and we can all enjoy ourselves, but then when you leave, carry that with you and keep thinking about it.”

On the court, the Mystics (20-11) controlled the majority of the contest. Washington used a 31-17 second quarter to distance themselves from the Wings, who have now lost eight straight. Rookie forward Ariel Atkins led with 26 points, while star Elena Delle Donne had 23.

The Mystics, too, have the third-best record in the WNBA. If the playoffs started today, Washington would have a first-round bye, but the team is hoping to land one of the top two seeds — which would give them a bye until the league’s semifinals.

The WNBA’s playoffs consist of a single elimination format for the first two rounds, so waiting to play until the third round would be very beneficial since the series then becomes a best-of-five. 

Coach Mike Thibault said the Mystics need to eliminate some of their mental lapses before the playoffs begin. The Wings cut Washington’s lead to six with 7:20left after Dallas trailed by as many as 24, though the Mystics regained control.

As for Toliver, Thibault didn’t have a problem with the pregame address. He said his players have always been outspoken and that she represented the organization well.

“For her, it’s so close to home,” Thibault said. “All of what happened last year in Charlottesville was not too far from her backyard in a sense. Our players, in general, have been outspoken and have a conscience.

“We have tried a little over the past couple of years to let them speak their mind, as they should, and [Toliver’s message] was well-said.”

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