Portland Trail Blazers forward Anthony Tolliver took the road less traveled to the NBA
The Blazers signed Tolliver to a short-term contract back in December 2009 when he was still trying to break into the NBA. One of the few thing he recalls from his three weeks in Portland is sitting in a car for three hours during a snow storm as he tried to get to a movie theater a mile away from his home. He played just four minutes for the Blazers over two games before being released.
But that was Tolliver’s life back then.
After going undrafted out of Creighton University, Tolliver had to scrap and claw his way into the NBA. By the time he signed with the Blazers in 2009, he had already gone through a brief stint with the San Antonio Spurs, bounced around the NBA’s Development League and gone abroad to both Germany and Turkey to continue his career.
“My journey is unique,” Tolliver said. “It’s not the road that most people take in the NBA. My perspective, my appreciation for every day is on a different level than most people just because of my background and the things I’ve had to go through to get here.”
A native of Springfield, Missouri, Tolliver dreamed of playing professional basketball from a young age. But his mother, Donna Lewis, a high school special education teacher, encouraged him to get an education and keep his options open. He chose Creighton as much for its academic reputation as for its basketball program. He initially wanted to be pre-med, but switched his major to finance as he went from role player to star on the court and realized that his hopes of playing professionally were more than a pipe dream.
Despite going undrafted after graduating from Creighton, Tolliver made the opening day roster with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007. But he never appeared in a game. Over the next two and a half years, he would play for eight different teams before finally breaking in with the Golden State Warriors in 2010.
“I’ve been around the league, I’ve been around the world, all over the place, so I definitely have a unique perspective on this game, seeing pretty much everything,” Tolliver said. “For me, it’s really just about bringing those experiences to these young guys and showing them all the little things that can help them become great players.”
As he sat on a bench at the Blazers practice facility in Tualatin last week, Tolliver surveyed the pristine court in front of him. Several teammates took shots while coaches shagged balls and gave directions. Compare that to the 6-foot-8 forward’s days in the Development League where his team would sometimes borrow a church bus to shuttle players to the local Boys & Girls Club for practice. On other days, he remembers having to bundle up for winter sessions inside gyms without central heating.
Never being quite sure how long he’d be in one city or where his next paycheck would come from, Tolliver put his finance degree to use, forming real estate company, Say You Can, with a friend. Later on, he helped launch children’s fishing merchandise company, Kid Casters, and athletic apparel company, Active Faith, among other ventures.
But along the way, he never gave up on his dream of making it to the NBA.
“The daily grind, it can really wear you down mentally,” Tolliver said. “But for me, making it to the NBA was definitely Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, as far as my mindset. Every opportunity that I got, I made sure that I maximized it to the best of my ability.”
Now a seasoned NBA veteran, Tolliver has made 664 appearances (92 starts) for 10 different NBA teams over a long career. The 34-year-old journeyman has carved out a nice role for himself in the league with his consistency on defense, ability to space the floor and success from three-point range, where he has shot a career 38 percent. When free agency opened this summer, Tolliver didn’t have to wait for an opportunity. He signed a one-year, $2.6 million deal with the Blazers on July 3 before he, his wife, Jessica Svoboda, and four children quickly settled in to their new city.
But even at this point in his career, Tolliver is still focused on maximizing every opportunity and every day in practice. Whenever he feels tired or sore, he just reminds himself of the work and dedication that it took to get to this point.
“He’s just a guy that’s doing everything right,” Blazers guard Damian Lillard said. “He’s going to talk, he’s going to be in the right spot, he’s going to do the right things to help your team and have a positive impact on the game. That’s from the ability that he has — being a good shooter, a good screener, a versatile defender — but also because he’s an experienced vet. His communication is coming from a different place because he understands it.”
Over the last two weeks, Tolliver has tried to use his experience to support the younger players in Blazers training camp. On the court, he leads by example with his work ethic, but he also isn’t afraid to pull younger players aside and give them directions when needed. That hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates and coaches.
“He sets a great example with his work ethic,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “He’s a very smart player at both ends. He knows where his shots are going to come. He knows where to be on the court defensively. He’s seen everything. He’s been great with the young guys as well. Having guys like him and Pau (Gasol), especially, who have that experience, makes it easier to teach and have our young guys learn whatever they need to learn.”
While Stotts tested Tolliver in the starting lineup in a preseason loss to the Phoenix Suns last Saturday, the veteran forward is more likely to feature as a role player off the bench for the Blazers this season as Stotts likely begins the year with a 10-man rotation.
Whatever role he is asked to play, Tolliver will be ready.
He has come a long way since his days grinding for every paycheck in the Development League and in Europe, but his mindset hasn’t changed. He’s ready to work, just as he has at every stop along the way.
“I just try to play the right way and be solid for my team,” Tolliver said. “Whatever this ends up looking like, I’m down for it. I’m just going to be down for the ride and do whatever I can to help this team win.”
— Jamie Goldberg | firstname.lastname@example.org
503-853-3761 | @jamiebgoldberg