The NBA is made up of 30 teams, so there are 30 head coaches in the league — and right now, all of them are men. But Natalie Nakase hopes to change that.
Nakase is the assistant video coordinator for the Los Angeles Clippers, but her sights are set on the Clippers' bench — a goal she revealed to her co-workers.
"I mentioned to some of the coaches ... that my goal eventually is to be a head coach in the NBA," Nakase tells NPR's Eric Westervelt.
Then Doc Rivers, the head coach of the Clippers, called Nakase into his office. She thought she was in trouble.
Instead, she was getting a job offer.
"He just pulled me in and he said, 'Would you want to coach summer league?' ... My first response was shock," she says. "And then I said yes right away."
It may not be the NBA's regular season, but coaching the summer league is a huge deal: Nakase is the first female assistant coach in NBA history.
The 5-foot-2 UCLA grad says she isn't intimidated by the Clippers players who tower above her, though the height difference does have a logistical implication.
"When they sit down is probably the best time where I can really get into their ear because they're sitting and they're level to me," she says. "If I say the right things, and things that can help them, then they'll listen, no matter how tall I am or if I'm a female."
Nakase is comfortable on the court. She was a starter for the UCLA Bruins women's basketball team and she became the first Asian-American to play in the National Women's Basketball League, or NWBL. But becoming a coach was never part of the plan.
"I always told myself that I wanted to just keep playing because that's the best job, I think, in the world ... to play basketball and get paid for it," she says.
But after a serious knee injury ended her playing career, Nakase took on a different role. In 2011, she was appointed head coach of the Saitama Broncos in Japan, making her the first female head coach in Japanese men's professional basketball.
During the NBA's regular season, Nakase will continue working as assistant video coordinator for the Clippers. But if she's called down to the court, she says she'll be ready.
"Whatever Doc [Rivers] needs, I'm going to do. ... If he wants to put me in a different situation on the bench or on the floor, then I'm just going to be prepared to do it," she says.
ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
The National Basketball Association's made up of 30 teams. That's 30 head coaches, and all of them men. But Natalie Nakase hopes to change that. The 34-year-old Nakase is currently the assistant video coordinator for the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers. Before that, she played women's basketball professionally and even coached a men's team in Japan. But a few weeks ago, just before the start of the NBA Summer League, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers called Nakase into his office and changed her life.
NATALIE NAKASE: He just said, OK, I'm going to make this quick. And I was like, all right - thinking, like, I did something wrong because I usually don't go into his office that much. He just pulled me in, and he just said, would you want to coach Summer League? And I said, what? Like, I just - you know, my first response was, like, a shock, and then I said yes right away.
WESTERVELT: Your goal is to be a head coach in the NBA. One commentator said there won't be a female NBA a coach until there's a lawsuit. Do you worry you're going to run into glass ceiling that will only be broken through litigation?
NAKASE: No. I actually don't worry because I think if I did worry it would kind of distract me from my goal. You know, your mind is so strong that if, you know, you have one, like, negative thought about what you want to do, it's going to kind of put you in a reverse, you know, reverse direction. So I continue to believe every day that I could do it. And then I just stay focused on what I want to do.
WESTERVELT: You're one of the first Asian-Americans to play in professional basketball. I mean, what inspired you to want to become a coach?
NAKASE: It just - it actually just happened. I didn't want to become a coach at the young age that I was. I wanted to keep playing as long as I could. I always told myself that - that I wanted to just keep playing because that's the best job, I think, in the world is to play basketball and get paid for it. So I did that. And then I hurt my knee a second time. And so when I hurt my knee the second time, I didn't want to go through the rehab again. So it was kind of like a blessing in disguise.
WESTERVELT: And what's it like being on the bench? You know, you're 5' 2'' with these - these are giant basketball players, these giant men.
NAKASE: When they sit down is probably the best time where I can, you know, really get into their ear because they're sitting and they're, like, level to me. But you know, they don't ever say anything in terms of, like, my height or - they don't say anything. As long as, you know, they trust me. And again, I bring value to help them winning and then helping them to make them play better. You know, if I say the right things and things that can help them, then they'll listen no matter how tall I am or, you know, if I'm a female.
WESTERVELT: Obviously, the L.A. Clippers have been through one heck of a year, Natalie, with the ouster of team owner Donald Sterling after these recordings of him making the racist and sexist remarks. Has that added a natural layer of stress and distraction to this job? It must have.
NAKASE: For me, no. He was never around. So I really had no connection with him. And so for me, I just - I was so focused on coaching the Summer League. I didn't have any chance to think.
WESTERVELT: So you're coaching the Summer League. I mean, will you be on the Clippers' bench this October, this fall when the NBA season begins?
NAKASE: Not that I know of. Doc, you know, assigned me as being assistant video coordinator this year. And, you know, whatever Doc needs, I'm going to do. So if he wants me to be the best at that job, then I'm going to do that and help him win the championship. If he, you know, wants to put me in a different situation like on the bench or on the floor then, you know, I'm just going to be prepared to do it. So I'm more, like, given an opportunity, OK, do the best you can with that position. And that kind of, you know, go forward unless given the opportunity.
WESTERVELT: That's Natalie Nakase. She's the assistant coach for the L.A. Clippers Summer League and the team's assistant video coordinator. Natalie, good luck, and thanks for coming on the show.
NAKASE: Thank you. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.