Monday, July 21, 2014

Natalie Nakase's Road To Become NBA's First Female Coach

Natalie Nakase was an all-conference point guard at UCLA (1999-2003)

Aiming at Glass Ceiling, but Not With Her Jump Shot
Clippers’ Nakase Aspires to Be N.B.A.’s First Female Head Coach

Professional athletes will frequently do almost anything if they believe it will help them improve. That explained why Billy Knight, an overseas basketball player, was home one summer honing his jumper in a Manhattan Beach, Calif., gym with Natalie Nakase.

When another player — an acquaintance of Knight’s — walked in, he was incredulous. “What are you going to learn from her?” the player asked. 

Knight said Nakase was a better shooter. He said she could prove it unless the other player was scared. That was enough to set the mark. 

It went like this several times when Nakase and Knight, college acquaintances, worked out together: a wisecrack followed by a shooting contest. Nakase rarely talked, but sharks were not supposed to look like her: 5-foot-2, ponytailed and disarming — at least until she unleashed her jump shot. 

The Los Angeles Clippers named Natalie Nakase, center, an assistant coach for
the two-week N.B.A. Summer League in Las Vegas.
As they moved around the 3-point line, keeping track of shots made, the player who did this for a living swallowed harder. When the contest ended, he handed over $20, and a bit of his pride.

“At first, Billy was mad because I didn’t want to take the money,” said Nakase, who said even the loser insisted on it. But she came to like it enough that she started to hustle on her own, winning more than she lost. Now she even makes some money off her co-workers, the Los Angeles Clippers — though she won’t embarrass any players by naming names.

“I don’t want anyone mad at me,” she said. 

Nakase, the Clippers’ assistant video coordinator, is trying to earn credibility in the coaching profession the same way: by proving her worth. She landed a spot as an assistant coach on the Clippers’ bench during the two-week N.B.A. Summer League here, a first according to the Clippers and a step toward her goal of becoming an N.B.A. coach — something no woman has ever accomplished.

“I don’t want to just coach,” Nakase said. “I want to win championships.”

On that point, she is echoing the mantra of Doc Rivers, who joined the Clippers last summer as coach and chief executive of basketball operations, and who in the wake of the Donald Sterling scandal became an inspirational beacon for the organization. Rivers has said the Clippers do not just want championship players, but championship sales representatives, accountants and marketers.

So when Nakase, 34, sat on the bench recently on the staff of Brendan O’Connor, the summer league coach, it was an acknowledgment of the work she has put in over the last two seasons as a video intern.
“It’s where she wants to be someday,” Rivers said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s men or women — she wants to be a coach and she works her butt off at it. She’s in our film room all year, she’s terrific, and it’s a way of rewarding employees. She’s very loyal; she’s out on the floor with our guys, rebounding, and she’s a student of the game, and I thought it was important to reward her.”

As Nakase sat on the bench July 12, charting the Clippers’ success in defending screens, when their shots came relative to the shot clock, and any after-timeout plays that caught her fancy, Nancy Lieberman sat in the stands. She was beaming.

Lieberman, a Hall of Fame player who grew up in New York idolizing Walt Frazier and playing against boys, was the first woman to coach a men’s professional team when she coached the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ Development League team, in 2010-11. She is now the team’s assistant general manager.
Nakase started three seasons for U.C.L.A
“There’s going to be a woman at some point in the N.B.A.,” Lieberman said. “It’s going to happen — as a player development coach, as an assistant. I mean, that’s why I’m here. I want to coach in the N.B.A. I’m so proud of Natalie that she has this opportunity. I know how hard it is. The most important thing, and I’ll speak for her, is that we don’t want to be hired because we’re girls. We want to get hired because we’ve earned it and we have the qualifications for the job.”

Lieberman, 56, had a straightforward path into coaching thanks to her accomplishments. Nakase began coaching men because she could not coach women.

After she graduated from U.C.L.A., where she was a three-year starter, Nakase tore knee ligaments playing in Germany. She traveled to Japan with a friend, Darin Maki, who was playing for the former N.B.A. coach Bob Hill. When Nakase, who was looking for a job, was rebuffed by a women’s coach, Maki got permission from Hill to let Nakase observe practice. It was a revelation.

“It was so efficient,” Nakase said. “He was on point. He didn’t like to waste time. I was obsessed with that from then on.”

She spoke afterward with Hill, who gave her an assignment — a scouting report on his team’s next opponent. It took her two days to put together.

“It turned into a seven-page email on tendencies, thoughts and whatever she could get out on these guys,” said Casey Hill, Bob’s son, who is now coaching the Santa Cruz Warriors, the Golden State Warriors’ Development League affiliate. That helped lead to an assistant coaching position and then a head coaching job with the Saitama Broncos in a men’s professional league in Japan. But when Nakase returned home to Huntington Beach, Calif., her father asked her why she kept going back to Japan if her objective was to coach in the N.B.A.

“So the decision was made,” Nakase said. 

She sent emails to anyone she knew with an N.B.A. contact, and one day received a call asking if she wanted to work at a coaching clinic the next morning. She was ecstatic — until she found out it was a youth clinic, run by Dave Severns, the Clippers’ assistant player skills coach. Nakase’s ability to dribble landed her the role of Severns’s demonstrator, and she badgered him with questions, mostly about the N.B.A. When Severns talked about how hard Blake Griffin worked, Nakase asked if she could come the next day and watch. 

She did, and at the end of that session she asked if she could do video work.

Video interns are usually the first ones in the building, about 6:30 a.m., arriving before the coaches, and are among the last to leave, regularly well past dinnertime. It is an increasingly important duty, compiling useful clips for players and coaches. Video interns also might be on the court, rebounding or passing or even setting screens. 

It is grunt work. But it is also a foot in the door. 

After serving as head coach of the Saitama Broncos for one season, Natalie Nakase
decided to part ways with the team to pursue her NBA goal back home.
Coaches like Erik Spoelstra, Frank Vogel and Mike Brown started as video interns. For the first season, Nakase was unpaid. Last season, she made a little money, but she has relied on her savings and the generosity of an older sister, with whom she lives rent free. Nakase considers the experience, such as assembling a video clip for Chris Paul and having him explain how a 6-foot guard rarely has his shot blocked, priceless.

Coaching, she knows, is more than handing a clip to someone and explaining what to do. It is about building relationships. In this area, Nakase appears to have excelled. She has the support of the Hills, the respect of Rivers, who called her a grinder, and the admiration of Scott Brooks, the Oklahoma City Thunder coach, with whom she has corresponded via email after meeting him at a clinic.

In shuttling between the Thomas & Mack Center and the adjoining Cox Pavilion, where the summer league games are being played, Nakase cannot seem to pass another 30-something scout or coach without a hug or a handshake or a greeting. She said she sensed she was receiving a little more respect now that she was coaching.

When the Clippers finished their game July 12, the coaches huddled in the hallway outside the locker room. They made plans to head to a hotel for a meeting with Clippers’ season-ticket holders. Nakase asked if it would be O.K. if she missed the event so she could scout the Miami Heat and the Houston Rockets, their next two opponents.

“I’ve got you covered,” said Armond Hill, an assistant coach for the Clippers, but not before teasing her.
She smiled, thanked Hill and said goodbye to the rest of the coaches. Then she threw her backpack over her shoulders and went back to watching basketball, certain that it was right where she belonged. — Billy Witz | The New York Times

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