Six years ago Natalie Nakase told former NBA point guard and Phoenix Suns coach Earl Watson that she wanted to coach in the NBA. Through hard work and steely determination, she has finally reached that goal. In 2018-19, Nakase will be just the fourth woman to coach during a regular NBA season, and the first in Los Angeles, joining veteran coach Doc Rivers on the Clippers’ bench.
Nakase was promoted to the Clippers’ Player Development staff earlier this summer after completing her sixth season within the Clippers organization and her first in the role of assistant coach with the Agua Caliente Clippers. Nakase started off as an assistant video coordinator with the franchise, a position she held for three seasons.
Nakase has an impressive basketball resume, full of bold moves and coaching firsts. Indulge me as I fangirl …
Nakase, a Southern California native, turned down a full scholarship at UC Irvine to attend UCLA. She earned a spot on the Bruins roster as a walk-on and went on to be a three-year captain and starting point guard. She finished her career in 2003 ranked eighth all-time in assists, 10th all-time in steals and having received an honorable mention nod as an all-conference player in the Pacific-10 Conference.
The diminutive (5’2”) baller went on to play two years in the now defunct National Women’s Basketball League, suiting up for the for the San Jose Spiders and San Diego Siege. She was the first Asian American to play in the league. Nakase also spent time playing overseas in Germany.
Knee injuries forced Nakase into early retirement from playing basketball and ushered her into her current coaching career. The 38-year-old boasts two seasons as the head coach of the Wolfenbüttel Wildcats in Germany’s professional women’s league (2008–09 and 2009–10), and one season (2010-11) as the assistant coach for the Tokyo Apache in Japan under former NBA head coach Bob Hill. Nakase also served as the head coach of the Saitama Broncos during the 2011-12 season; the first female head coach in Japan’s men’s pro basketball history.
Nakase is one of only five women who have coached in the NBA, the others being Becky Hammon (San Antonio Spurs), Big3 Coach of the Year Nancy Lieberman (Sacramento Kings), Jenny Boucek (Sacramento Kings / Dallas Mavericks), and Nicki Gross (Toronto Raptors), Nakase was the first female coach to sit on an NBA team’s bench, when she served as an assistant coach for the Clippers’ 2014 NBA Summer League team. She is the fourth woman, joining Hammon, Lieberman and Boucek, to coach during the regular NBA season.
We caught up with Natalie recently to talk about the upcoming season, among other things. Here is what she had to say.
CN: Now that you’re on the Clippers’ player development staff, what is your typical day like, and what do you do to help the team and players get better and win more games?
NN: Right now, in the off-season, it’s all about the players and what they want to work on ahead of the upcoming season. For the veterans, they’re usually traveling and spending time with their families. Doc encourages our coaching staff to go visit the players in their hometowns and continue to build strong relationships. If our schedules work out, I’ll be visiting Luc in Cameroon in a few weeks. There I will be putting him through skill workouts and observing him playing pickup games with local players. Our younger players are already back in LA and working out. As player development coaches, it’s our job to constantly manage their daily schedule and make sure they understand how to work as a pro. Not only are they working on their basketball skills, they’re working on their bodies in the weight room, receiving therapy and doing anything and everything they can to improve themselves to ensure they’re ready for the upcoming season.
CN: Team success aside, do you have any personal goals for the 2018-19 season?
NN: It’s more of just an everyday life goal of mine. My objective is to always learn something new and improve every day. I’m obsessed with learning, so whether it’s something on or off the court I’m constantly striving to expand my knowledge.
CN: What advice do you give to other women who want to pursue a career as an NBA coach?
NN: I once saw a quote by Harold B. Lee that said, “Stay true in the dark and humble in the spotlight,” which I interpret as staying true to who you are when no one is watching and to be modest when everyone is watching you. Your work at the end of the day will always reflect who you are.
CN: How would you describe your basketball philosophy?
NN: My philosophy has always been based off my mentors and basketball experiences. Assistant coach Armond Hill, has been my mentor for the past five years. I am very grateful for him because he takes the time to teach me about the game and his experiences as an NBA player. I think my main point, from his teachings and through my basketball experiences, is that you can’t cheat the game of basketball. Meaning that all of your work, including off-season training, pre-game preparation, studying film, studying your opponent, pre-game meals, rest, and post-game recovery in taking care of your body, all of it is important. If you cheat the preparation, then it will be exposed on the court. Great players live their lives with purpose and train their mind and body for the toughest moments.
CN: What coaches do you look up to or model your coaching style off of?
NN: The coaches that I look up to most are Erik Spoelstra and Mike Brown. They both started in video and their transition up the ladder, for me, was a great example of ‘I can do that too.’ Erik has also given me great advice about staying the course, working extremely hard and trusting that everything will fall into place.
And of course, working with Doc Rivers has been a tremendous experience. He told me, ‘Obviously, you have certain role models, and you want to be very similar to them in terms of their philosophy and their style, but you want to coach through your own personality and not mimic or try to be someone else. Players can smell the B.S. so if you try to be someone else, that’s not going to work. You should always coach from your heart and be yourself.’
CN: Who is your favorite NBA or WNBA player of all time, and what about their game stands out to you as a coach?
NN: My favorite NBA player and WNBA player of all time are Michael Jordan and Diana Taurasi, respectively. To me, from watching them both on TV and seeing Diana play live in-person, they’re the greatest of all time. GOAT(s)! They’re hard-wired as the most competitive players that I’ve ever seen. That’s why I think they’re at the top, they never want to lose at anything.