Natalie Nakase's Big NBA Break
Natalie Nakase was the last to know.
Of course, in retrospect, she can see the signs. Around the Los Angeles Clippers' practice facility, everyone seemed to be smiling at her, co-conspirators in a secret that Nakase herself was not in on until the moment head coach Doc Rivers called her into his office for a quick chat.
Like most high achievers, she immediately wondered, Wait, have I done something wrong?
But it was nothing of the kind -- the opposite, in fact. Nakase sat across the desk from Rivers, who did not keep her guessing, asking right away, "Hey, do you want to coach summer league?"
The invitation came as a surprise to Nakase. Even after two seasons working as an assistant video coordinator for the Clippers, and hundreds of hours spent on the court rebounding and passing for the players, the 34-year-old UCLA grad thought a break like the one Rivers was offering was still years away.
Not that she wasn't ready. "Yes, I would love to," Nakase quickly replied, shaking Rivers' hand and thanking him for the opportunity.
And just like that, Nakase found herself blazing new territory: a female assistant coach in the NBA. No, it wasn't the regular season, but it was a huge step nonetheless, validation that she might just be able to make her dream come true, might someday sit on an NBA bench. "The moment when Doc asked me, that was probably the highlight of the whole experience," Nakase told espnW. "Everything happened so fast, I didn't have time to think about it -- just do it."
Two months ago, the Clippers were the most talked-about sports franchise in the world, for all the wrong reasons. Former team owner Donald Sterling was on tape disparaging the black community, a tirade laced with a fair bit of sexism, too. The simple fact that the Clippers could be home to both Sterling and Nakase -- regressive on one hand, progressive on the other -- might seem ironic to some people, a strange juxtaposition. Except that those on the ground floor, Nakase included, explain that one has nothing to do with the other. "We never even saw the guy," Nakase said, referring to Sterling. "Doc said, 'I'll take care of this; everyone else focus on winning.'"
In other words: Rivers is the one who sets the tone and culture, bottom line, and he saw fit to give Nakase a chance.
Chances have not come easily for Nakase, and moments of doubt have creeped in over the past two years: Is this a dream I can reach? How long will it take?
But bolstering her at every turn has been the belief and encouragement from the coaching staff around her. Before Rivers offered her a spot on the bench in Vegas, Nakase had spent the previous two years in front of a computer, staring at film, breaking down every NBA game, becoming proficient at spotting and cataloging the most important moments -- the images often whirring past in fast-forward. That's how skilled she'd become. "She's been phenomenal," Brendan O'Connor, coach of the summer league team, said. "She was the Miami scout and watched every game from the Orlando Summer League and had them nailed, so we were ready for them."
But while she certainly spent time immersed in the game, she hadn't done any legitimate coaching -- on the court, actually leading drills -- since returning from Japan in 2012, when she had been the first-ever female head coach in the country's men's professional league.
Then, right before the start of training camp for the Vegas league, O'Connor told Nakase she would be leading a drill during training camp. Just after the announcement, assistant coach Armond Hill called Nakase.
"You ready for this?" he asked.
Hill knew that timing, pace and voice are crucial in capturing the attention of players and efficiently conveying the needed information. He also knew that coaches, just like players, need repetitions to stay sharp. He urged Nakase to meet him on the practice court so they could drill her. (You got it: She needed practice on how to lead practice.) "Armond has this voice that carries," Nakase said. "I was sitting there, trying to memorize what he was saying. Then, he said, 'You try it.' But I'm stumbling over my words; my voice wasn't as loud as it had been. He was right to walk me through the whole thing."
When Hill left, Nakase stayed and continued practicing, actually timing the moment on her iPhone -- trying to keep it to 30 or 40 seconds. She went through it dozens of times. (The portion of practice she was introducing: a standard 3-on-2, 2-on-1 transition drill.) "This is the type of work I want to be doing, what I love doing," Nakase says of NBA coaching. "And I needed to focus so that I could get back into that on-court comfort zone again."
Added Nakase: "I can't repay what Armond did for me. If it wasn't for the guys on this staff -- and the support they've shown me -- I think I would be in a completely different mindset about if I could make this happen. Sometimes, it feels like they believe in me maybe even more than I believe in myself."
On the first day of Vegas training camp, O'Connor called everyone into a huddle. Rivers was sitting on the sideline, observing. O'Connor went around the circle and introduced the players to the staff. When he landed on Nakase, he said simply, "This is Natalie, she's an assistant coach," then moved on to the next person.
And that was that.