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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 teach."
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 re-dedicated 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 anything."
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 me."
It's a lesson she learned looking in the mirror.