Los Angeles Clippers player development coach Natalie Nakase has ambitions to climb the NBA coaching ladder.
Nakase was born in California to second-generation Japanese Americans. Her father’s family were placed in an internment camp in Arkansas during World War II.
Nakase told F.A.D about her family’s experience, “My dad was born in 1942. He doesn’t speak about it unless we ask. I remember, actually, when we drove to Tennessee for a basketball tournament, we drove through Rohwer, Arkansas [site of what had been the Rohwer War Relocation Center], where he was assigned at the time. From the small pieces that my dad did tell us, my grandfather had everything taken away from him and had to start over from scratch. That carried over to my dad in terms of how he has a family business with his brothers, who have carried on what my grandfather started. And my dad won’t let go of his work ethic and won’t retire, basically. Because that’s what he learned from my grandfather. The legacy is to continue to work every day and provide for your family, hoping to set the standard and create a better life for your kids. When I went to Japan, I visited my grandmother’s cousin, who barely spoke English. But what I had translated to me was, “Your grandfather was known as one of the hardest working people in our family.” And I was just like, no wonder my dad is how he is. He’s one of the hardest workers I know, and I think it’s really cool that my dad has continued to set an example for us.”
The work ethic of Natalie’s family may have had something to do with her success with the game of basketball.
Standing 5’2, Nakase was a walk-on for UCLA where she was a three-year captain and starting point guard. She graduated in 2003 averaging 4.9 points and 3.7 assists throughout her college career.
Nakase played professional basketball in the now-defunct National Women’s Basketball League (NWBL) in 2005 and 2006 for the San Jose Spiders and San Diego Siege. Nakase was the first Asian-American basketball player in the NWBL.
Nakase told F.A.D, “I heard people say, “Oh, there’s the ‘Asian girl’,” but I never took that to heart. I was so worried about winning and getting better and proving people wrong because of my height. When I play basketball, it’s just about killing the competition. When the ball goes up in the air, all I can think about is how I’m going to win and piss off the other team and their coach.”
In 2007, Nakase signed a training camp contract with the Phoenix Mercury hoping to play in the WNBA. However, the Mercury waived Nakase before she got the chance to play in a game.
She went overseas to continue her career in Germany for Herner before tearing her ACL for the second time in her career and retired from playing.
In 2010, Nakase began coaching in the men’s Japanese basketball league for the Tokyo Apache. Former Apache player Darin Satoshi Maki was a friend of Nakase’ and introduced her to Tokyo’s head coach Bob Hill.
Hill had spent time as head coach of the New York Knicks (1986-87), Indianapolis Pacers (1990-93), San Antonio Spurs (1994-97), and Seattle SuperSonics (2005-07).
Nakase observed the Apache’s practice and was given an assignment by Hill to scout Tokyo’s next opponent. She finished the assignment in two days and shortly after was hired to be an assistant coach for the Apache under Hill.
After spending the 2010-2011 season with the Apache, Nakase was hired to be the Saitama Broncos head coach. Nakase became the first woman head coach in Japan’s men’s professional basketball.
Now with head coaching experience in Japan, Nakase decided she wanted to coach in the NBA.
Nakase told the FemaleCoachingNetwork, “I was coaching overseas where I was an assistant for a former NBA head coach, Bob Hill. And just by the way he coached, I was instantly interested in his ways and what he brought to the table in terms of his knowledge. So as soon as I realized that this was what the NBA was like, I knew my next goal would be to coach in the NBA. So I moved back to the states, had no job and I was just constantly emailing, trying to make connections to the NBA. Nothing was biting I went to Summer League and volunteered with the Spurs which was a great opportunity for me. After that, I still didn’t have a job. One day, I showed up for a youth clinic with the Clippers and (Assistant Coach) Dave Severns was leading the clinic and he noticed that I could handle the ball, so I ended up being the demonstrator [for each drill]. From there, I just kept asking Dave questions and finally, I asked if I could come the next day and just watch Blake Griffin and Chris Paul work out because Dave was just talking about how hard they work. So that was my way into the gym and I just kept coming by each day for two weeks straight, just taking notes and observing the drills, and eventually, I asked to be a video intern.”
In 2012, Nakase joined the Clippers as an unpaid intern video coordinator and became an assistant coordinator a year later.
Nakase told the FemaleCoachingNetwork, “As an assistant video coordinator, we’re usually in between 5:30-6:00am, because mostly what we’re working on is opponent games. So for example, say we’re playing Boston in a couple of days, I’ll do their five games previously played and I’ll cut those games up and just prepare them for the coaches. That’s constant 82 games times 5, that’s how many games we’re cutting up. When practice comes around, usually around 11:00am, I’m down on the court with the players, usually about an hour before. Most of my job consists of the video part and recently I’ve been given the opportunity to help with player development, so I’ll work with a couple of players before practice. After practice, it’s more video edits and additional footage to help the coaches prepare for the upcoming games. Once the games come on at night between 4:00pm and 10:00pm, we’re logging them. So an average day usually starts around 5:30am and ends at 10:00pm.”
In 2014, after only two years in the Clippers video department, Nakase became the first female assistant coach ever at the summer league. No woman had ever sat on an NBA bench before.
She was promoted to assistant coach of their G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers of Ontario, in 2017.
After six years in the Clippers organization, Nakase was promoted in the summer of 2018 to an assistant coach on the player development staff. Nakase sits on the bench under head coach Doc Rivers, the only the fourth woman ever hired to coach in the NBA (at the time).
Rivers told the New York Times, “It’s where she wants to be someday. It doesn’t matter if it’s men or women — she wants to be a coach and she works her butt off at it. She’s in our film room all year, she’s terrific, and it’s a way of rewarding employees. She’s very loyal; she’s out on the floor with our guys, rebounding, and she’s a student of the game, and I thought it was important to reward her.”
Nakase has ambitions to climb the NBA coaching ladder.
Nakase told NPR, “I mentioned to some of the coaches … that my goal eventually is to be a head coach in the NBA,”
Given that many head coaches in the NBA started out as video coordinators, Nakase definitely has a chance one day of landing an NBA head coaching job.
Nakase told SB Nation, “The coaches that I look up to most are Erik Spoelstra and Mike Brown. They both started in video and their transition up the ladder, for me, was a great example of ‘I can do that too.’ Erik has also given me great advice about staying the course, working extremely hard and trusting that everything will fall into place.”
Including Nakase, fourteen women have now held NBA coaching positions.
Nakase told the Los Angeles Times, “We’re all supporting each other. It’s grown since I’ve started till now. It is incredible to see these women take on these positions, but the main thing is that they are ready to take on these positions. It’s not just ‘let’s hire a woman.’ These women are ready; that’s what’s important.”
Here’s a fun nugget that Nakase told SB Nation, “My favorite NBA player and WNBA player of all time are Michael Jordan and Diana Taurasi, respectively. To me, from watching them both on TV and seeing Diana play live in-person, they’re the greatest of all time. GOAT(s)! They’re hard-wired as the most competitive players that I’ve ever seen. That’s why I think they’re at the top, they never want to lose at anything.”
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(Photo Source: twitter @natalienakase)