LIKE MANY CHILDREN, PENNY Toler used to feel unrelated to the
image she saw in the mirror. But she didn't try to get comfortable
with her reflection by slyly sneaking up on it. Instead, she squared
up and tried to give her mirror image a case of whiplash. ''I got a
basketball and threw down every crazy dribble and move a
seven-year-old could think of,'' says Toler, Long Beach State's
All-America guard. ''I wanted to see if I could fake my reflection
out, because then I knew I would be able to fake out anybody.''
These days Toler can lose any woman in college basketball in the
open court. That includes 49er coach Joan Bonvicini, a former star
guard at Southern Connecticut State who challenged Toler to a game of
one-on-one in 1986, soon after Toler enrolled at Long Beach after
transferring from San Diego State. The outcome was never in doubt.
When Toler, now a 5 ft. 8 in. senior, is whirling coast-to-coast,
smoothly taking the ball between her legs and behind her back,
defenders go limp and spectators go wild. The only question is
whether Toler will go straight to the hole or settle for the easiest
eight- footer this side of Michael Jordan. ''Penny is the most
explosive guard in women's basketball, just awesome in the transition
game,'' says Leon Barmore, coach of perennial women's power Louisiana
Tech. ''There just isn't anyone else in our game with her skills.''
In her two seasons since coming to Long Beach, Toler has led the
49ers to a 61-9 record and two trips to the Final Four. Last season
she averaged 22.5 points and 5.3 assists a game while shooting better
than 50%. More important, Toler's star quality will draw attention to
the neglected women's game. Her gap-toothed smile projects a joyful
toughness, and her natural playfulness makes her a crowd favorite.
Last season during a game against San Diego State in which the Aztec
bench was taunting her with chants of ''Hot Dog,'' Toler answered by
turning a steal into a flashy layup and yelling, ''There's your
''The only way to guard me is to ignore the fakes,'' says Toler
with typical cockiness. ''Of course, if you are only human, you'll
look at all of them.''
More and more humans are taking notice. At an awards banquet at
the end of last season, none other than Danny Manning told Bonvicini
that Toler was his favorite player. For her part, Toler would like to
follow Manning's example and lead her team to the national
championship this season.
With Toler showing the way, the 49ers' relentless style produced
an average winning margin of nearly 23 points last season. As if that
record weren't intimidating enough, Long Beach regularly brought its
own bass-blasting boom box to layup drills and broke the pre-tip-off
huddle with the chant, ''One, two, three, kick ass!'' More often than
not, the 49ers did just that. ''Sometimes when we are way ahead, a
player on the other team will come up all out of breath and say,
'Come on, stop playing so hard,' '' says Toler. ''I'd just tell her,
'Hey, no mercy for you. Save that stuff for Mother Teresa.' ''
Bonvicini denies that she has any intent to run up the score,
contending that her only goal is to produce 40 minutes of quality,
up-tempo basketball. ''I've heard people say that watching women's
basketball is like watching midgets wrestle,'' she says. ''I don't
want that said about my teams.''
Bonvicini needn't worry about hearing such barbs, at least not as
long as Toler is around. Toler, who was born and reared in
Washington, D.C., learned the game on the same playgrounds that
spawned such recent stars as Len Bias, Johnny Dawkins and Tommy
Amaker. Her nickname (her real name is Virginia) was given to her by
her paternal grandmother because of Toler's childhood habit of
carrying pennies in her mouth. ''I stopped after I got a few stuck in
my throat,'' she says. As her liking for pennies diminished, her
passion for basketball grew stronger, and soon her daily routine
included practicing her dribbling in front of a mirror in the
basement of her family's house and following her three older brothers
to the playground.
''Each of my brothers added to my game,'' says Toler. ''Butch
taught me ball handling, and Calvin would help me analyze opponents.
As for William, his attitude when we played against each other was
basically, 'I'm going to kill you.' That might have been the best
lesson of all.''
By early adolescence Toler had become the First Lady of D.C.
hoops. ''Everyone was watching me, so I knew I must be good,'' she
says. ''They'd see me dribble and yell, 'Ooohh, home girl can
Plenty of playground remains in Toler's game. When she's feeling
particularly confident while putting a move on an opponent, she'll
emit a husky exhalation -- huhh -- with each dribble. Then, when she
shoots her jumper, she will accompany the follow-through with an
audible sshooo, in anticipation of hearing leather against nylon. If
a defender lunges for a steal while Toler is dribbling in practice,
she will frequently pull the ball away and declare, ''You reach, I
Toler says her style isn't meant to demean an opponent but to
mentally and physically dominate her. ''That's just the way people
play where I come from,'' she says. ''Besides, our game should have
the newest moves. This is the 20th century.''
Says 49er assistant coach Michael Abraham, ''People assume from
Penny's style that she's selfish or undisciplined or has an attitude.
But you only have to be around her a day or two to know otherwise.
She does what she does because she loves to play.''
/ In fact, Toler is obsessed with improvement. After Long Beach
State's losses to Tennessee and Auburn in her two trips to the Final
Four, she hit the weight room religiously to counteract the
physically punishing defenses she faces from the nation's elite
teams. In less than two years Toler has gone from a skinny 115 pounds
to a muscular 135. She is also given to solitary midnight workouts in
which she concentrates on making her release quicker and her left
hand more adept. ''If I had Penny's work ethic, I might still be in
the NBA,'' says another 49er assistant coach, Glenn McDonald, a
former star at Long Beach who played with the Boston Celtics for two
seasons in the mid-'70s.
Toler's strength of mind was nurtured in part by a personal
tragedy that nearly caused her to quit basketball. In the spring of
1986, Toler's father, James, died after a lengthy battle with
leukemia. Then, just five weeks later, her mother, Virginia, died
suddenly of a heart attack. ''Nothing mattered to me at that time,''
says Toler. ''I hated everything. And I never thought I'd like
anything ever again.''
It took several months, but Toler rededicated herself to her sport
and her studies to honor the memory of her parents. ''My mother
always told me that things are never as bad as they seem, so I just
went on,'' says Toler. ''Now I know that any downfall I ever have
will never be as bad as what happened, so I know I can handle
That philosophy helped Toler accept getting cut from the U.S.
Olympic team three months before the Games began. ''Making the team
was one of my dreams, and I still feel I had the ability to play,''
she says. ''I may not have a medal, but I still have my integrity and
my desire to win a championship.''
Perhaps it will happen. But if it doesn't, Toler will still crack
her memorable grin. She plans to play professionally in Europe or
Japan after graduating in May in her major of psychology. ''I haven't
decided if I want to become a psychiatrist or a lawyer,'' she says.
''I know I'd be good at either one, because if there's one thing I
can do, it's talk.'' She releases her throaty laugh and adds, ''I
hate to say it like this, but it's true: Ain't nobody can stop me but
It's a lesson she learned looking in the mirror.
BOX: WOMEN'S TOP 20
1 Long Beach State
4 Ohio State
10 Louisiana Tech
15 Southern Cal
16 Western Ky.
17 St. Joseph's (Pa.)
18 Texas A & M
19 Wake Forest
20 N.C. State