Isn’t it funny how likes and dislikes can shape one’s future when you least expect it?
Like any ordinary 10-year-old growing up in Southern California, Natalie Nakase preferred fun and games to studying a foreign language.
A third-generation Japanese-American, Nakase briefly took Japanese lessons after attending Sunday church service. She didn’t enjoy this experience.
Reminiscing about those lessons, Nakase said, “I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this, dad, because this lady is talking all fast and I don’t know what she’s saying.’ “
Gary Nakase, Natalie’s father, had a simple solution.
“Then, Dad said, ‘Well, then you are going to go to basketball practice,’ ” she recalled.
“And I was like, ‘OK, I’ll take basketball practice over Japanese.’ “
Two decades later, Nakase is the first female head coach in Japan’s men’s pro basketball history. She was named the Saitama Broncos sideline supervisor after Dean Murray was relieved of his coaching duties on Nov. 24.
Now she wants to begin taking Japanese lessons in order to become an effective communicator on and off the court.
“Eight of the players speak Japanese only, and I don’t speak Japanese at all,” the 31-year-old admitted during a Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan meeting on Monday. Despite having a translator available during games, “I instantly want to talk to one of the players immediately, making a switch or something in the game.”
When she replaced Murray, Nakase, a native of Huntington Beach, California, experienced a night that many first-time parents can relate to.
“There wasn’t any sleep,” Nakase said, describing her life-changing job opportunity. “The first person I called was my dad and I’m like, ‘Dad, guess what’s happening?’ And he was just as shocked as I was. And I’m like, ‘What do you think.’ His best advice to me was, ‘Natalie, just don’t be afraid to fail.’ “
His other advice: “Don’t stress yourself, don’t overthink everything. … Just make sure you do your best. Make sure your team tries as hard as they can, and then at the end of the day that’s all you can do at this point.”
The Broncos hosted the 2011-12 All-Star Game before a crowd of 14,011 at Saitama Super Arena on Jan. 15, a day that put Nakase in the national spotlight as the game was televised on BS Fuji.
As is customary, the host team’s head coach leads one team in the annual midseason showcase, and Nakase directed the Eastern Conference All-Star squad.
“It was a lot fun to be in a crowd like that and in an arena with so much energy was great,” Nakase said with a smile. “What was really nice was my players were very professional. You really don’t know what to expect when you have All-Stars around, you don’t know what will happen. But I was very fortunate to get a great group of guys that were on the same page.”
The Broncos are struggling, entering this weekend’s series against the host Kyoto Hannaryz with a 9-23 record, including 5-16 with Nakase on the bench. But Nakase, a UCLA point guard from 1999-2003 before embarking on a pro career in the National Women’s Basketball League and Germany (2004-08) is determined to find a way to end Saitama’s history of mediocrity, which includes six non-winning seasons before the current campaign.
“I set a goal for our team at the halfway mark, and right now we are not close to it, but our goal is to make the playoffs,” Nakase said.
“It’s still a long way ahead, a long-shot . . . (but) our confidence is growing and that’s what I like to see, that we’re playing very close to some of these teams that are high ranking on both sides.”
As a 159-cm point guard, Nakase’s feisty defensive-first approach carried her through the rigors of big-time college hoops while suiting up for UCLA. Defense became her trademark.
“I had to find ways to steal the ball. I had to definitely find ways to be more scrappy andphysically compete against taller and stronger girls,” she says now.
“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.’ That (characteristic) has transitioned into my coaching.”
And she’s not afraid to speak her mind on the court. In a recent road game against the Yokohama B-Corsairs, who are coached by former NBA guard Reggie Geary, Nakase picked up a technical foul for “harassing the referee,” as one veteran observer described the scene.
She’s also eager to learn every nuance about the game from coaches with a track record of success.
Legendary UCLA men’s coach John Wooden, who died in 2010 at age 99, provided one such moment during her time in Westwood, giving a halftime speech in the team’s locker room. He was about 90 at the time.
“We were honored,” Nakase said. “We all just sat there with our mouths open. That was just a great experience. What he speaks was just very honest, very truthful but inspiring. That was great. I’ll never forget that.”
Nakase has an open mind about returning to the Broncos next season if she’s offered a contact extension. But her ultimate goal is to reach the sport’s pinnacle: to coach in the NBA.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean head coach, “she said, “but just being a part of a program in the NBA and reaching a level where it’s the highest level in your sport, I think, that is definitely a goal of mine.”
Growing up a Lakers fan, Nakase regularly watched the team’s games on TV with her father and developed a love for the sport. She began to learn the intricacies of the game after beginning to work as an assistant coach for longtime NBA mentor Bob Hill, the Tokyo Apache coach last season.
This was after a playing pro ball for the NWBL’s San Diego Siege and the San Jose Spiders, followed by the aforementioned season in Germany. But after sustaining her second major knee injury, — she tore her ACL as a UCLA freshman and endured a painstaking physical rehabilitation — Nakase opted to retire and begin a coaching career. She had a two-year stint as the Wolfenbuttel Wildcats head coach in 2008-10.
Saitama point guard Darin Satoshi Maki, who played for the now-defunct Apache last season, introduced Nakase to Hill while she was visiting Maki and his wife, a longtime friend, in Tokyo before the 2010-11 season began. Nakase then joined Hill’s Apache staff.
“As soon as I met Bob, I learned all these different tactics in terms of vocabulary to basketball,” she said. “He would use different words that I had never even heard of in practice, and that’s when I was like, wow; the NBA is a whole new level that I had no idea of in terms of vocabulary, drills, preparation. And when I saw how much work had to be done in order to achieve at the top level that just intrigued me 100 percent.”
Working with Hill, the former New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Seattle SuperSonics coach, Nakase learned that NBA-level preparation is a never-ending task.
His tireless work ethic made a big impression on her, including emails at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., and, even 4 a.m. “after a practice or a game because he always wanted to know the little details . . . the communication that he made sure he had with every player was important,” Nakase said.
“The practice plan had to be perfect in terms of timing, the drills and the purpose of the drills. Scouting was huge. He put me in charge of scouting, which I took on.
“And I remember writing my first scouting report and it took me, like, 3 hours. And he was like, ‘Yeah, but what about this, this, this, this?’ But I’m like, ‘Man, it took me 3 hours,’ and I go over it again.
“What I learned from scouting from him is don’t assume, because I said, this guy likes to go right, and I believe he’s dominantly right and he likes to do the step-back (shot). And he said, ‘Are you sure that’s his No. 1 move?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know! It looked like it.’ So then I had to make sure. I didn’t just watch the game once; I watched it two or three times to get everything down. . .”
Though Hill is now working in an advisory role for the Chinese Basketball Association’s Guangdong Tigers, Nakase and her ex-boss frequently communicate.
Day after day, Nakase is growing in her role as Saitama’s coach. And it starts with time management.
Though Monday is usually a day off for the players, there’s little free time for her.
“After our weekend, I’ll watch both games and I’ll see how much our defense has improved and where the weaknesses are,” she said. “And then I’ll watch the other (upcoming) team and see if our defense will be enough for it or do we have to concentrate more on the offensive end, depending on how good that team is.”
The Broncos feature two-time scoring champion John “Helicopter” Humphrey, ex-NBA point guard Kenny Satterfield, who was removed from the starting lineup 11 games ago as a retooled rotation takes shape (the team is 3-8 in that span) and perimeter players Yuki Kitamuki and Daiki Terashita. What they haven’t had is much consistency, and that’s something Nakase is fighting to change.
That’s her primary focus, but she recognizes that being a high-profile role model gives her added responsibilities.
“I do kind of think about it,” Nakase said. “But to be honest, taking this job with only a short, little time of preparation, you just think win — how am I going to get my team to win?”
To do this, a coach must manage competing egos, and whether a woman or man leads the charge it doesn’t matter, Nakase insists.
“I think coaching basketball at the end of the day between genders is the same in terms of Xs and Os. It’s all about being able to connect with your players and learning how to manage the different personalities,” she said. “It’s more than men vs. women.”
During the wide-ranging FSAJ discussion, Nakase spoke about a number of other topics, including:
■ On watching Nancy Lieberman coaching the NBA Development League’s Texas Legends:
“My eyes couldn’t leave the screen. I was so inspired by her, and I remember that as soon as I finished watching I was like, ‘I want to do what that lady’s doing.’ I really was so impressed with her ability to coach the men and have a great connection with them.”
■ On talks with Broncos management about her future with the team:
“I was put in a position not in their schedule. I was really supposed to be the assistant. So they briefly mentioned about next year and about the future, and I’m very open-minded to their ideas and open-minded to my future, so I just don’t give a definite answer, but I stay interested.”
■ On what the vibe was among Apache staff and players last season, when the team failed to attract a respectable following in Tokyo:
“When we would walk into our gym and only see five fans, I mean really like a hundred, we’re realizing something is not working here, and we see what we did bring here, obviously a high-qualified coach and some high-qualified players (ex-NBA center Robert Swift, future second-round NBA draft pick Jeremy Tyler, among others) and we brought some American cheerleaders. . . . Everyone saw what happened.”
■ On the way Evolution Capital Management, the Apache’s parent company, handled the on-again, off-again preparations for the 2011-12 season after suspending operations after the March 11 earthquake, which included staff members returning from California to Japan in early June, being told the team would continue and then, abruptly, it was called off:
“We were all still thinking we were going to have jobs coming for the next season, so that’s where I really felt at times betrayed that we didn’t really know.”
■ On Nakase’s personality and how she’s like her father and how she’s like her mother, Debra:
“We have a very strict, stubborn father, so we have this male figure that (says), ‘you’ve got to do this, this, this,’ and it’s just like in Japanese culture. So my mom is very passive-submissive and obedient.
“Actually, I could learn more from her in terms of being a good listener. . .”
■ On New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin’s rise to stardom:
“For Asian basketball in general, that is a huge accomplishment. So, for me, he is an inspiration right now.
“Not only is he a part of the NBA and he’s doing well, but he’s excelling at what he’s doing. So he’s been against all odds. . . . He’s kind of doing what is almost impossible.”