Natalie Nakase Rumors
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.”
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.
Knight, who counts many NBA players as friends, is confident Nakase will get her chance to coach in the league. He is also quite sure a lot of guys won’t take her seriously at first — “because they’re like that with all coaches,” he says. Eventually, though, “once she passes all of their tests, they’ll see she’s really just a basketball person, and they’ll respect her.” Denver Nuggets forward Andre Iguodala, who has been in the league since 2004, offers a similar take. “If a female coach knows the game, veteran players would respond well,” he says. “All we want is someone who knows the game.” And that’s exactly what Nakase had to prove to the Clippers.
At the beginning of September, Nakase attended a coaching clinic at the team’s practice site. She almost didn’t go, thinking it sounded too basic for someone with her experience. But Bob Hill was in her head again. Never turn down an invitation to step foot inside an NBA facility. So Nakase went to the clinic, convincing herself that good things happen when you least expect it. The clinic was pretty much Coaching 101. The man running it, however, was Dave Severns, the Clippers’ director of player personnel. He quickly noticed Nakase’s aptitude and made her his partner in demonstrating drills. She, in turn, chatted him up during every break in the action. By night’s end, Nakase had Severns’ email address and an open invitation to drop him a line. In years past, Nakase might have waited a few days to reach out to someone like Severns, being careful not to seem too eager. But when she got home from the clinic, she sent him a note and boldly requested to watch Clippers star Blake Griffin work out the next day. Severns responded immediately: Come on over.
Del Negro didn’t know a thing about Nakase. Who was she? Where had she come from? How serious was she about the game? Del Negro played for Hill in San Antonio, which helped, but he wanted more firsthand proof that Nakase knew her stuff. Instead of getting the job, Nakase was given an open invitation to observe the Clippers’ summer workouts. She did, arriving early and leaving late. She settled into a corner of the gym and filled pages in her notebook: assessing each player’s footwork, diagramming the angles the coaches taught, counting the number of repetitions required before moving on. Nakase’s scribbling included words, phrases, numbers and arrows, like a cross between an NFL playbook and graduate-level lecture notes. After a few days, Del Negro walked over to Nakase, intrigued to discover just what, exactly, she had been so thoroughly detailing. He asked whether he could see her notes. She handed them over. Del Negro looked down, absorbing it all for a few moments. Then he looked at Nakase. “You’ve got the job,” he said.
The pushups, the sprints, the crawls, the slides — they fortify Nakase and will help her to destroy one of the excuses NBA people will use to dismiss her. General managers and coaches won’t say, “We don’t hire women.” They’ll have other reasons and arguments, such as, “We need someone who challenges our guys.” They’ll have justifications, an endless supply, for upholding the status quo. Natalie Nakase wants to be the first female coach in the NBA. And when you’re trying to do something never before done, you must first understand all of the reasons you might not succeed.