Women on NBA sidelines are no longer abnormal. So it’s easy to mistake Natalie Nakase for an assistant trainer or perhaps a strength coach.
That wasn’t the case at the Las Vegas Summer League. The 34-year-old Clippers’ assistant video coordinator got bumped up to assistant coach for the team’s summer league entry, a major step in her quest to become the NBA’s first female head coach.
That’s not a misprint. The 5-foot-2-inch former UCLA standout wants to stroll the sidelines for her own team, becoming the latest figure to challenge a sports society that has been slow to embrace change, be it based on race, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
Women have coached men’s teams before, such as Charlotte Bobcats sideline reporter Stephanie Ready, who was an assistant coach for a NBADL team in the early 2000s while Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman coached the NBADL’s Texas Legends in 2009. But Nakase is going after the big carrot, one of 30 NBA jobs, fully understanding she will have to overcome several stereotypes and barriers in her quest.
She worked as video coordinator for the Clippers the past three years and two current NBA coaches — Indiana’s Frank Vogel and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra — began their careers as video coordinators. So there is a blueprint for her success.
But she has to be taken seriously as a coach, and the experience last week in Las Vegas added to her legitimacy. Nakase has her mind focused on one goal, and she knows that skipping steps is not an option.
“It was great to get back into it,” Nakase said this week. “Coaching is my comfort zone. So it’s almost like home for me to get back out there and coach. But it wouldn’t have happened if all the other [Clippers] coaches on our staff weren’t supportive. They were basically like mentoring me.”
Nakase is no newcomer to professional basketball, or just some former player who decided to coach on a whim. She has been prepared for these moments by a basketball-crazed father who encouraged his youngest daughter to pursue the sport.
Following a successful career at UCLA, Nakase tried out for the Phoenix Mercury and then pursued coaching, serving two seasons as an assistant for former NBA coach Bob Hill for the Saitama Broncos of the Basketball Japan League. She joined the Clippers basically as an intern for the final season of the Vinny Del Negro tenure and Doc Rivers retained her when he took over last June.
Working with Hill, who coached the Knicks, Pacers, Spurs, and Sonics, acclimated Nakase to an NBA style. When Rivers became Clippers coach, he sat Nakase down and asked her eventual goal. She bluntly said to become an NBA head coach.
Rivers didn’t giggle or shake his head in amazement; he offered her the opportunity to join Brendan O’Connor’s staff during Summer League. For those who are considered long shots to reach unprecedented heights, there generally has to be someone in a position of power to take interest in their success.
Rivers won’t exactly anoint himself Nakase’s mentor, but he will allow her the chance and provide the vehicle to make an impression.
“She’s been great,” Rivers said. “You know it’s funny, when guys during the season, when they want someone to help them out on the floor, they go to Natalie. I’m very happy for her.”
When asked if Nakase could coach in the NBA, Rivers said: “I don’t know. Give her a chance. Could Pat Summit coach in this league? Yes.”
Of course she’s heard the remarks. “Why don’t you coach in the WNBA?” “Do you really think you’ll be a head coach?” “Is this a publicity stunt by a maligned franchise looking for good PR?” But those misguided questions have nothing to do with Nakase’s quest.
She fully understood she needed to be rigid when she entered a man’s game that includes some players only accustomed to dealing with women in certain roles. Authority figure is not one of them. But that door has to be forced open. Male professional athletes will eventually have to realize that there are women who know their games as well or better than they do.
Nakase said the doubters used to come in droves, but it subsided when Hill allowed her to address the Broncos during halftime of a game, and they were silenced by her knowledge.
“The first thing that stands out to me is being patient. I understand there’s going to be a process,” she said. “Whether you are a man or a woman, it’s going to be a process to move up in the NBA. Don’t expect instant gratification, even if you do know your stuff. I’m going to get criticized, I think, and you just have to stay positive and understand your goal is going to have to be bigger than all the struggles and challenges.”
She’s been told countless times to temper her goals, even from her father Gary, who advised Natalie to be “realistic” about her ceiling. “I don’t really like that word,” she said. “You can create whatever you want to create. My mom asks me, ‘Do you want to do this?’ and I say, ‘100 percent yes, I do.’ ”
Is the NBA ready for a female coach? We’ll find out in coming years, but it’s refreshing to watch someone such as Nakase chase her dream and slowly dissolve the walls of sexism. She should be judged on her merits, nothing more.
Isn’t that the way it should be for all of us?Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.