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Natalie Nakase on Trying to Become First Female NBA Coach

What It Takes to Become the First Woman to Coach in the NBA

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By Kate Fagan

Meet the NBA's first female coach. Well, not yet, but that's at least what Natalie Nakase has in mind. The question is, when will the league be ready? Before we get to The Dream, we must visit the beach.

The beach is where Natalie Nakase is sweating through a Navy SEAL workout with Billy Knight and Earl Watson. The trio attended UCLA together a decade ago, playing basketball for the Bruins. Now, during an afternoon session in Santa Monica beneath the blazing summer sun, they are shuffling and backpedaling and straining on the constantly shifting sand.

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A few minutes into their session, a man bikes past and eyes them, craning his neck to get a better look at the unusual scene: two strong, tall, black men crawling on the beach alongside a small, fit, Asian woman. "We always draw a few stares," Nakase says with a laugh. "I guess people don't see this every day."

Nakase has spent the past few years coaching professional basketball overseas — coaching men who tower over her — and the 32-year-old California native earns a living in the offseason by training kids and college players. She doesn't have to be here today, submitting to this torture with Watson, a veteran NBA point guard, and Knight, a shooting guard who plays abroad. But all three friends are chasing something, an intangible edge that comes with pushing the limits.

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Which is why Nakase is dragging a 15-pound weight bag through the sand between four orange cones about 20 yards apart, pausing at each one to do 20 soldierlike pushups. After she finishes her last set, she rises, covered in sweat, chest heaving, and brushes the sand off her shins and knees. She has not rested more than a minute before Knight grabs a weight bag and takes off running for a distant lifeguard stand. The 5-foot-2 Nakase follows him, her strides short and strong. Knight returns first, then collapses into the sand and watches while Nakase grinds through her final steps. As Watson looks on, he says to Knight, "NBA players wouldn't even do this s---; they'd quit halfway through."

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The day before, Nakase had told Watson her ultimate goal, the same one she had expressed to Knight a year earlier:

"I want to coach in the NBA."

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She said it with conviction, strong and true, like a blow-by to the rim. She has gradually learned to do this, to own The Dream. Before, she would float the words out there — I know it's crazy, but … I kind of think, maybe … I might want to coach in the NBA — and the syllables seemed to deflate, falling to the ground before they reached their destination.

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Nakase cares what Watson thinks — she cares a lot — and not just because he has spent 11 years in the NBA (currently with the Utah Jazz). Back in college, when she was a walk-on guard for the UCLA women and he was an unheralded recruit for the Bruins men, Watson inspired her to become a better player. He doesn't know this, but she cherishes the times they sat in his dorm room and talked basketball. She saw him work for his dream, late at night inside Pauley Pavilion, when no one else was around. And she wanted to work, too.

So when Watson tells Nakase, quite simply, "I would hire you," he has done more than he can understand. Those four words are like jet fuel, sending her off with renewed conviction. She attacks the beach workout as if her NBA future depends on it. And in some ways, it does.

The pushups, the sprints, the crawls, the slides — they fortify Nakase and will help her to destroy one of the excuses NBA people will use to dismiss her. General managers and coaches won't say, "We don't hire women." They'll have other reasons and arguments, such as, "We need someone who challenges our guys." They'll have justifications, an endless supply, for upholding the status quo.

Natalie Nakase wants to be the first female coach in the NBA. And when you're trying to do something never before done, you must first understand all of the reasons you might not succeed.

Continue reading "Dream Role" by Kate Fagan on espnW.

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