ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
The National Basketball Association's made up of 30 teams. That's 30 head coaches, and all of them men. But Natalie Nakase hopes to change that. The 34-year-old Nakase is currently the assistant video coordinator for the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers. Before that, she played women's basketball professionally and even coached a men's team in Japan. But a few weeks ago, just before the start of the NBA Summer League, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers called Nakase into his office and changed her life.
NATALIE NAKASE: He just said, OK, I'm going to make this quick. And I was like, all right - thinking, like, I did something wrong because I usually don't go into his office that much. He just pulled me in, and he just said, would you want to coach Summer League? And I said, what? Like, I just - you know, my first response was, like, a shock, and then I said yes right away.
WESTERVELT: Your goal is to be a head coach in the NBA. One commentator said there won't be a female NBA a coach until there's a lawsuit. Do you worry you're going to run into glass ceiling that will only be broken through litigation?
NAKASE: No. I actually don't worry because I think if I did worry it would kind of distract me from my goal. You know, your mind is so strong that if, you know, you have one, like, negative thought about what you want to do, it's going to kind of put you in a reverse, you know, reverse direction. So I continue to believe every day that I could do it. And then I just stay focused on what I want to do.
WESTERVELT: You're one of the first Asian-Americans to play in professional basketball. I mean, what inspired you to want to become a coach?
NAKASE: It just - it actually just happened. I didn't want to become a coach at the young age that I was. I wanted to keep playing as long as I could. I always told myself that - that I wanted to just keep playing because that's the best job, I think, in the world is to play basketball and get paid for it. So I did that. And then I hurt my knee a second time. And so when I hurt my knee the second time, I didn't want to go through the rehab again. So it was kind of like a blessing in disguise.
WESTERVELT: And what's it like being on the bench? You know, you're 5' 2'' with these - these are giant basketball players, these giant men.
NAKASE: When they sit down is probably the best time where I can, you know, really get into their ear because they're sitting and they're, like, level to me. But you know, they don't ever say anything in terms of, like, my height or - they don't say anything. As long as, you know, they trust me. And again, I bring value to help them winning and then helping them to make them play better. You know, if I say the right things and things that can help them, then they'll listen no matter how tall I am or, you know, if I'm a female.
WESTERVELT: Obviously, the L.A. Clippers have been through one heck of a year, Natalie, with the ouster of team owner Donald Sterling after these recordings of him making the racist and sexist remarks. Has that added a natural layer of stress and distraction to this job? It must have.
NAKASE: For me, no. He was never around. So I really had no connection with him. And so for me, I just - I was so focused on coaching the Summer League. I didn't have any chance to think.
WESTERVELT: So you're coaching the Summer League. I mean, will you be on the Clippers' bench this October, this fall when the NBA season begins?
NAKASE: Not that I know of. Doc, you know, assigned me as being assistant video coordinator this year. And, you know, whatever Doc needs, I'm going to do. So if he wants me to be the best at that job, then I'm going to do that and help him win the championship. If he, you know, wants to put me in a different situation like on the bench or on the floor then, you know, I'm just going to be prepared to do it. So I'm more, like, given an opportunity, OK, do the best you can with that position. And that kind of, you know, go forward unless given the opportunity.
WESTERVELT: That's Natalie Nakase. She's the assistant coach for the L.A. Clippers Summer League and the team's assistant video coordinator. Natalie, good luck, and thanks for coming on the show.
NAKASE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.