She may be relatively short (although most people look that way when surrounded by basketball players) but Natalie Nakase has big ambitions. She wants to be the first female coach in the NBA.
The third generation Japanese-American, is getting all the experience she needs as the first (and only) female coach in Japan’s professional men’s basketball league.
The Los Angeles native took over at Saitama Broncos in November 2011. She had been the assistant at the club for just 12 games when the coach was fired, and the owners apparently had no qualms about putting the 32 year-old in the hot seat.
She is accustomed to blazing trails. After becoming a point guard at UCLA in 1999, she made her name as the first Asian American player in the professional National Women’s Basketball League in the United States when she played for San Jose and San Diego.
Not only is she a rarity in Japan, she also has to adapt to a new country and language. A passion that shows itself on the sidelines and has been present throughout her career has certainly helped.
“I had to find ways to steal the ball. I had to definitely find ways to be more scrappy and physically compete against taller and stronger girls,” she says of her time as a player in the United States.
She also noted that her style and characteristics as a player have become part of her philosophy as a coach.
“So with coaching, I just still have that. My personality is very aggressive. Defensively, again that’s why I’ve been trying to promote with my team, ‘defense, defense, defense.’”
The attention on Nakase helps her to show other women, especially in traditionally male-dominated countries like Japan, that they can do anything that they put their mind to.
“I get a lot of attention for being the first woman in coaching,'” she said. “I’m starting to realize the responsibility I have of giving women a chance not only in basketball but in the corporate world as well.”
While Saitama Broncos aren’t exactly setting the court alight at the moment – the team is bottom of the BJ League Eastern Conference with a record of 16-36 – Nakase knows that it is all vital experience that she needs to achieve her long-term goal.
“I’d like to coach in the NBA,” she said earlier this year. “Not necessarily as a head coach, but as part of a coaching team. I think everyone wants to reach the highest level of their sport and, for me, that would be the NBA.”