There was no holding Natalie Nakase back.
Frankly, there never has been.
She was standing in the expansive loading dock inside Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. It was the third day of Summer League for the Clippers; the third day since Nakase, 34, had become the first female to sit amongst assistant coaches on an NBA bench.
The dream, or rather, the goal, was inching towards fruition. She was surrounded by a handful of reporters following the Clippers’ only win of the summer, a 91-85 victory over the Miami Heat. As she talked about her experience, working two years as a video intern with the Clippers before being assigned an assistant coach position for the two-week Summer League slate, Nakase was asked what the ultimate goal was. What was her endgame?
“To be a head coach in the NBA,” Nakase said with such confidence that it bordered on brash.
Nakase has long aspired to lead an NBA team. It started when she was a point guard at UCLA, where she worked her way back from reconstructive surgery on the ACL in her left knee to become an honorable mention on the All-Pac-10 team in 2002.
“Being a point guard kind of allows you to be that second coach, that leader on the floor,” Nakase said. “It was kind of natural.”
Breaking ground is nothing new for Nakase. She was the first head coach in Japanese men’s professional basketball and the first Asian American to play in the National Women’s professional basketball league in the United States. According to ESPNW, Trish McGhee, who worked for the Memphis Grizzlies in 2011, is the only video coordinator in NBA history. Nakase, who was hired by then-Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro prior to the 2012-13 season, very well could be the second, but she has loftier goals.
“To do the video part, that really feels like something foreign, especially my first year,” Nakase said. “Sitting in an office behind a desk and not being on the floor active was something different.”
And that’s first and foremost what makes Nakase a natural as a coach. She’s passionate and dedicated and has a thirst for knowledge. She wants to be on the court.
“It actually feels like home,” Nakase said. “It’s something that I’ve done for the past five or six years since I stopped playing basketball. Being right on the bench, being able to communicate and help players, talk to the coaches, strategize, that’s my comfort zone.”
In Vegas, Nakase has been tasked with running drills, something that helped establish ethos with the players immediately, and was given the scouting assignment for the Heat.
“She’s been phenomenal,” Clippers Summer League coach Brendan O’Connor 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.”
Nakase is known for taking copious notes. It was partly what caught Del Negro’s eye a couple of years ago and it has carried over in her first season with Doc Rivers. Still, despite her preparation and dedication, there have been plenty of obstacles. None more so than earning the respect of male NBA players.
“For them, there’s a shock value,” Nakase said. “I take it as it’s a basketball court. They want to learn just as much as women. They just need some direction. They just need help.
“Maybe it will take a little bit longer for some guys to understand that they have to listen to a woman, but to be honest these guys were great. It’s great and I think it comes from Doc and Coach O’Connor. As soon as they say, ‘Hey, you’re allowed to do a drill,’ I think the respect is right there.”
According to Rivers, though, players, including Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, seek Nakase out for help. When asked about that, she shrugged it off.
“I feel like I’m very, very passionate about the game and think that’s what guys feel,” Nakase said. “They know I want to be there any moment, anytime, anywhere. I’ll be there and I think they understand that.”
And that passion has shown up every game this summer. Nakase is often the first person off the bench to greet players as they come off the court. She offers guidance, encouragement and insight, particularly in helping with game preparation.
When Summer League ends, Nakase will go back to the video room, and to assisting with workouts on the whenever, wherever timeline. But her stint on the sideline may be only just beginning.
“I don’t ever think anything’s too big,” Nakase said. “I think anyone can do anything they want to do as long as they stay focused and they just keep trying. A lot of times when people go after their goals as soon as they see slight setbacks or failure, they’ll stop. But my dad kind of instilled in me like a keep going, keep trying, keep trying [mentality] and it’s just something that I really love doing. And when you really love doing something you’re just going to keep trying no matter what.”