Women have served in government positions and the military. They have won Nobel Peace Prizes and led major corporations. But no woman has ever coached an NBA team. Natalie Nakase wants to be the first.
“I was turned onto her story last year while she was coaching over in Japan for the top-tier men’s league,” said Kate Fagan of ESPN, who wrote an article about Nakase. “I flew out to LA during the off season. I was really struck by the level of workouts she was doing. It’s not necessary for a coach to do that type of thing.”Nakase played point guard for UCLA and after that as a pro in Japan. Nakase trains with Earl Watson and Billy Knight, two other former Bruins who play professionally, Watson in the NBA and Knight abroad. She recently found a job as an intern for the video coordinator for the L.A. Clippers—a foot in the NBA door.
“She had pinpointed all the ways she would be might be held back from this dream of coaching in the NBA, and she was just knocking them down one by one,” Fagan said. “It wasn’t just a pipe dream for her. She was going to go about doing the little things to make this a reality.”
Miami Heat Head Coach Erik Spoelstra began his career with the defending champions as a video intern. Few women have held the position, and only one woman has served as an NBA video coordinator.
“It’s a big deal because although it is not a high-ranking job within the NBA circles, very few women have ever done it. You learn every team in the NBA, you know their roster, you know what guys like to do what. Although for her, it’s just grunt work, I think she realized one year doing it and she knows so much more than she would have in any other job.”
Fagan, a former beat writer for the 76ers, felt the NBA could be open to the idea of a female coach.
“In getting to know a lot of those NBA players I started realizing that the talk about how guys in the NBA wouldn’t respect a female coach came not from guys in the NBA, but from fans outside and people who assumed that’s how they would feel.”
Fagan talked with Andre Iguodala of the Denver Nuggets, who welcomed the idea.
“Pretty much what he said was, ‘We don’t care. If somebody knows the game then we don’t care if you’re a man or a woman, we want you as our coach.’ And I think that for veteran players in the NBA I think that would be their mindset.”
Fagan believes it will take a seasoned NBA coach to offer Nakase a coaching post.“He would have to be really established, so that no one would question his motivation for making that hire. I don’t know if there are any specific coaches I think are ready to do that yet. But, I think you have to look at guys like George Karl, that have been in the league 10+ years and maybe they see it as kind of a legacy issue where they believe that women should be given a chance and they know they’re in a position to make that happen.”
Nakase knows it will take time to reach the point where she’s on the bench during games, but she’s willing to make that investment.
“Every NBA team has opportunities that aren’t the head coach or the three primary assistants,” Fagan said. “She would understand that it would take that long not only for people in the NBA to come around the idea, but also for her to build up such a tremendous level of respect within the organization that nobody would see it as a marketing ploy.”
Still, that moment may not be far off.
“To say that I think she’s going to be an NBA head coach is a little bit far-reaching. I do believe that we will see in the next few years some coach giving her an opportunity on the court. I don’t think it’s going to be in a decision-making role, I think it’s going to be behind the scenes. But she would be on the bench and I do think the NBA is willing to take that step.”