Standing only 5 feet 2, Natalie Nakase was always one of the smallest players on the basketball court. That never prevented her from dreaming big.
She was barely recruited out of high school but turned herself into an all-conference point guard at UCLA. Later, she became the first Asian American player in the professional National Women’s Basketball League.
Nakase has retired as a player, but she continues to dream.
“My goal is to coach in the NBA,” she said.
That seems like far-fetched ambition. But Nakase, 31, has already become the first female head coach in Japan’s top-tier men’s professional league. Her team, the Saitama Broncos, includes former NBA point guard Kenny Satterfield and one-time West Virginia standout John Flowers.
Nakase’s former coach at UCLA, Kathy Olivier, said a huge grin came over her face when she heard Nakase had been promoted in November when the previous coach was fired 12 games into the season.
“Only Natalie,” Olivier said, alluding to Nakase’s persistence. “Only Natalie can do that.”
Nakase arrived in Japan in 2010 to visit friend Darin Maki and his wife. Maki, a Japanese American who played at Cal State Dominguez Hills, was playing for the Tokyo Apache.
Maki introduced Nakase to his coach, Bob Hill, and Hill invited her to attend Apache practices. Nakase’s only previous coaching experience was for a women’s team in Germany.
“She started coming every day,” said Hill, who has been the head coach of four NBA teams. “She always got there early, which I loved.”
Because she was always around, Hill eventually asked upper management to officially make her part of his staff.
He said she did everything that was asked of her, from rebounding during shooting drills to scouting opponents. She also paid her own way to road games.
When the Apache folded at the end of the season, Hill said he urged Saitama’s head coach, Dean Murray, to hire her as an assistant.
Broncos swingman John Humphrey said some players viewed Nakase with a measure of suspicion when she took over as head coach.
“But everyone came to understand she’s passionate about it,” Humphrey said. “Passion eventually wins out.”
Nakase said that in some ways she finds it easier to coach men than women.
In the men’s game, she said, “You see the emotion.”
Nakase isn’t afraid to show emotion and say what’s on her mind.
“She can get a little loud,” Humphrey said.
Said Hill: “She can talk like a sailor. She lets it go.”
Nakase said overcoming gender bias wasn’t her greatest challenge.
A third-generation Japanese American who grew up in Orange County, Nakase didn’t grow up speaking Japanese. Her season working for the Apache was her first extended exposure to the Japanese culture.
Seven of the Broncos’ 13 players are Japanese.
Nakase said she noticed that Japanese players apologized to her whenever they missed a shot in practice. She eventually learned why.
One of her Japanese players told her that in high school failure to apologize for an errant attempt resulted in him being hit by his coach.
Nakase said she told her players to never say sorry for a missed shot. “Don’t think negative,” she told them.
A positive outlook was Nakase’s trademark as a player.
Because of her height, Nakase wasn’t a highly recruited player out of Huntington Beach Marina High. It wasn’t until late in her senior year that Olivier offered her a place on the UCLA team. Her scholarship wasn’t guaranteed, but UCLA was Nakase’s dream school.
“I didn’t even hesitate,” she said.
In accepting Olivier’s offer, Nakase turned down a full scholarship at UC Irvine.
Soon after, Nakase said she received a phone call from a club basketball coach she knew. “You’re crazy if you go to UCLA,” he told her. “You won’t play there.”
Nakase said she hung up the phone and cried. “But I told myself, ‘There’s no way I’m going to let this guy tell me I can’t do this,’ ” she said.
When she got to UCLA, other students didn’t believe Nakase was a basketball player. “They thought I was a gymnast or a tennis player,” she said.
Nakase left UCLA as a three-year captain.
“She’s tiny but her heart’s as big as a 6-8 kid,” said Olivier, who now coaches at Nevada Las Vegas.
Nakase’s resolve is being tested again.
The Broncos, who were 5-7 before Nakase was promoted, took a 9-21 record into their game Saturday. They have the 17th-best record in a 19-team league fighting for visibility in a country where baseball, soccer and sumo are the most popular sports.
The team’s problem is one with which Nakase is intimately familiar: With injuries depleting their frontcourt, the Broncos have been undersized for most of the season. Until their post players returned a couple of weeks ago, their tallest active player was 6-3.
Hill, who now works in China but remains in close contact with Nakase, said he maintains belief in his protegee. As far as she might be from the NBA, he said he doesn’t discount her dreams.
“I wouldn’t bet against her,” Hill said. “She’s beaten the odds her entire life.”