TOKYO – Natalie Nakase knows there's more to her job than winning games. The American is the first female coach in Japan's professional men's basketball league.
Nakase was hired by the Saitama Broncos last November after the previous American coach, Dean Murray, was fired for a violation of his contract.
Nakase's appointment was considered something of a breakthrough in Japan. The 31-year-old Los Angeles native says she's happy to give women encouragement to take on new roles.
"I get a lot of attention for being the first woman in coaching," Nakase said at a news conference. "I'm starting to realize the responsibility I have of giving women a chance, not only in basketball, but in the corporate world as well."
The 5-foot-2 Nakase was an all-conference point guard at UCLA from 1999-2003. She competed in the National Women's Basketball League for four seasons on teams in San Jose and San Diego, where she was the first Asian-American player.
She's coached a women's team in Germany and was an assistant under former NBA coach Bob Hill for the Tokyo Apache last season. She was in Tokyo when the earthquake and tsunami hit and participated in Play for Japan, which raised money for the survivors.
Nakase, a third generation Japanese-American, said Hill's influence still guides her.
"I would say we talk once or twice a week," Nakase said of Hill, who is coaching in China. "He taught me so much. I learned about work ethic, the commitment to detail and the importance of communicating with every player on your team."
Her next goal is to become an assistant in the NBA.
"I'd like to coach in the NBA," Nakase said Monday. "Not necessarily as a head coach but as part of a coaching team. I think everyone wants to reach the highest level of their sport and, for me, that would be the NBA."
Nakase signed a training camp contract with the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA in 2007, but was waived.
Hill said he expects Nakase to keep progressing as a coach.
"I would never bet against her," Hill told The Associated Press via email. "Her strength is her desire to coach men and win. I believe she will continue to learn and become an outstanding coach. I think this season has taught her many, many valuable lessons."
Taking over from another coach has been a big challenge for Nakase, who knew right away that changes were needed. One of her toughest moves so far was taking former NBA point guard Kenny Satterfield out of the starting lineup.
"I knew right away the team needed a strict leader," Nakase said. "I could see there were going to be some feelings hurt, but that's a coach's job."
The Broncos have a 9-23 record and are next-to-last in the 10-team Eastern Conference. The top six teams make the playoffs.
Nakase said a 94-84 overtime loss to three-time champion Osaka on Sunday gave her players encouragement as they drive for a playoff spot.
"The game showed our competitiveness," Nakase said. "Our goal is to make the playoffs. That may be a long shot at this point, but I just tell my players to just stay focused on the next game."
While working toward a possible career in the NBA, Nakase gets encouragement from New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin.
"For Asian basketball, what he is doing is a huge accomplishment," Nakase said. "It's a huge inspiration for me. Not only is he playing in the NBA, but he is excelling."
As for coaching men, Nakase said it's no bigger a challenge than coaching women.
"I had women in Germany who caused problems," Nakase said. "I don't really see a lot of difference between coaching men and women other than the men can be more outspoken, which can be a good thing."