First female coach in Japan eyes NBA

Just 157 centimetres tall, Natalie Nakase has never let her size stand in the way of her big dreams on the basketball court.

Updated: February 23, 2012 16:52 IST
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Tokyo: Just 157 centimetres tall, Natalie Nakase has never let her size stand in the way of her big dreams on the basketball court.

And now the 31-year-old American and first female head coach in Japan's professional men's league, has her sights set firmly on the NBA.

If her dream comes true, it would be another breakthrough for women in sport as the National Basketball Association, the sport's premier league based in North America, has never had a female head coach or assistant coach.

There have only been some women in such positions in the NBA's minor league.

"I'm starting to realise that I have the responsibility of giving women hopefully a chance to see that they can do it too, even not in basketball," the five foot two Nakase said. "It could be in a working field."

"Being a part of a programme in the NBA, reaching the highest level in your sport, I think, that's definitely a goal of mine," said the former point guard from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Nakase has been piloting the Saitama Broncos of the Japanese league since November when she was promoted from assistant coach to replace Dean Murray when he was fired.

But things are not going all that well at the moment.

The Broncos lost 94-84 to powerhouse Osaka Evessa at home on Sunday to leave them languishing second from bottom in the league's 10-team eastern conference with nine wins and 23 defeats in the October-April season.

They have never finished above fourth place in the seven years the league has been going in a country where baseball, sumo and football tend to push others out of the limelight.

But Nakase remains hopeful. "Our confidence is growing as we're playing close to some of these high ranking teams," she said. "It's still a long way ahead."

Her life as a coach began in the women's top league in Germany in 2008 after a knee injury cut short her playing career.

A three-year captain at UCLA, she also played for two seasons for San Diego and San Jose in the now defunct National Women's Basketball League.

She coached a women's team in Germany for two seasons before coming to Japan -- where her grandparents were born -- in 2010 to visit her friend Darin Maki and his wife.

Maki was playing for the Tokyo Apache and he introduced her to their coach, American Bob Hill, who has previously coached four NBA teams.

Nakase served as an assistant coach under Hill for one season before the Apache folded. She joined the Broncos for the current season.

"I think it's all about being able to connect with players and learning about how to manage different personalities -- more than men versus women," she said, comparing her experiences with women's and men's teams.

"Men are just more competitive and outspoken, which is a good thing."

Her former coach at UCLA, Kathy Olivier, has told the Los Angeles Times that Nakase has the persistence to survive in the men's game.

"Only Natalie can do that," said Olivier, who now coaches at Nevada Las Vegas. "She's tiny but her heart's as big as a six- (foot) eight (inch) (203 cm) kid."

Nakase said she remained in close contact with Hill, who now works in China, through emails "once or twice a week."

"I wouldn't bet against her," Hill told the daily about Nakase's NBA dreams. "She's beaten the odds her entire life."

Like many other teams in the Japanese league, the Broncos are coached by a foreigner and led by American players such as former NBA point guard Kenny Satterfield and one-time West Virginia standout John Flowers.

Of the 13 players on the Broncos roster, eight of them speak Japanese only. Nakase does not speak the language.

"When I get so intense I say a lot of bad words," she laughed. "My translator gets really into it. When I'm fired up, he's fired up."

"Japanese players are sincerely raised in their culture. Whatever the coach says, they'll do. I like this," she said. "I haven't had any problem with them."

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