Every summer, the NBA’s Summer Leagues allow for various untested coaching types to move a few seats over on the bench, or run a team for the first time. Rookies, like Jason Kidd, Derek Fisher and Steve Kerr get their first run as leading men. Longtime assistants take over as head coaches. Tape operators and advance scouts get to actually sit on the bench and act as assistants. The experience for these hopeful coaches is as significant as the experienced gleaned by the various rookies, young prospects and fringe types that populate Summer League rosters.
Natalie Nakase is no coaching rookie. She was the assistant and then head coach of the Saitama Broncos, a men’s team that plays in the Japanese League. She’s also a “she” and, according to the Los Angeles Clippers, the current Clipper assistant video coordinator is the first female to serve as an assistant coach in any capacity in the NBA’s history. Nakase rounded off head coach Brendan O’Connor’s staff, as veteran Clippers coach Doc Rivers took a deserved summer off following a tumultuous 2013-14 season.
Nakase, a former three-year starter for the UCLA Bruins, left her gig with the Broncos in order to start from the ground floor in the NBA, initiating a career arc that she hopes will result in her becoming the first full-time female assistant and then head coach in NBA history.
On Monday, the New York Times profiled Nakase:
Coaches like Erik Spoelstra, Frank Vogel and Mike Brown started as video interns. For the first season, Nakase was unpaid. Last season, she made a little money, but she has relied on her savings and the generosity of an older sister, with whom she lives rent free. Nakase considers the experience, such as assembling a video clip for Chris Paul and having him explain how a 6-foot guard rarely has his shot blocked, priceless.
Coaching, she knows, is more than handing a clipboard to someone and explaining what to do. It is about building relationships. In this area, Nakase appears to have excelled. She has the support of the Hills, the respect of Rivers, who called her a grinder, and the admiration of Scott Brooks, the Oklahoma City Thunder coach, with whom she has corresponded via email after meeting him at a clinic. In shuttling between the Thomas & Mack Center and the adjoining Cox Pavilion, where the summer league games are being played, Nakase cannot seem to pass another 30-something scout or coach without a hug or a handshake or a greeting. She said she sensed she was receiving a little more respect now that she was coaching.
The great Nancy Lieberman-Cline has already served as the head coach for an American pro basketball team, running the D-League’s Texas Legends for two seasons, and she told the Times that a female head scout, assistant or head coach is just about an inevitability at this point, though it is worrisome that the current female prospects in the ranks are rather slim.
The Clippers are to be credited for making Nakase a member of their staff in the Summer League, but this is no punchy gimmick. The role of a video coordinator is intense and demands long hours of scouting with little payoff in the daylight’s glare. A jump to the end of the bench as a Summer League assistant from that particular role, for someone with Nakase’s background and age, is quite common. This is how coaches are made.
And, as the Times points out, several of the league’s coaches have made the same jump. Mike Brown has coached in the NBA Finals, after years of working his way up through the San Antonio ranks, Erik Spoelstra has two NBA titles, and he’s met Frank Vogel on his way to the Finals in consecutive Eastern Conference third-round pairings. There is precedent, here, in strict basketball terms.
There is no precedent for what Nakase has accomplished, though, as it’s not comparable to Lieberman-Cline’s path, or the similarly-sized route taken by Spoelstra. Working on the end of the bench in Summer League action broadcast on the league’s own station in the dead of July is hardly the showiest trip to The Show. Should Rivers (or any other team) eventually give her that call, she unfortunately will have to represent and answer for over 50 percent of the world’s population in an assistant’s role that doesn’t typically include interactions with the media. All while charting close-outs and deflections and “we have the Grizzlies in 20 hours what are their sets like now that Mike Conley is on the shelf with that hamstring injury?”
She’d also, along the way, get to act as a role model and inspiration for other young women looking to make a similar career path. In reading the Times feature, you get the sense that she’d brave all that unwelcome attention if it meant a shot at the lead job.
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