Clippers assistant Natalie Nakase aims to be NBA head coach
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
Editor's Note: This story is part of FOX Sports' series celebrating Women's History Month.
Before each game, Natalie Nakase spends at least 30 minutes rehearsing what she's going to say.
When she steps onto the court as an assistant coach for the LA Clippers' player development staff, she wants to make sure her delivery is flawless.
Her voice must sound crisp, and she can't stutter.
As one of the few female coaches in the NBA ranks, she needs to command the room when she speaks.
"You have to be very clear because when they're listening and you get those four or five minutes to present, it's gotta be sharp, and it's gotta be in a confident voice," Nakase told FOX Sports.
Nakase, 40, got her start with the Clippers as an unpaid intern video coordinator in 2012. Over the past nine years, she has climbed the organization's ranks.
She became the first female coach to sit on an NBA team's bench when she served as an assistant for the Clippers during Summer League in 2014. In 2018, she became a full-time assistant coach.
Her ultimate goal is clear. She wants to become a head coach in the NBA, something no woman has done in league history.
Nakase pours herself into everything she does.
Most recently, she served as an assistant coach in the G-League bubble from Feb. 10 through March 6 for the Agua Caliente Clippers. During that time, she'd often watch five games a day and stay up until 3 a.m. watching film. On average, she'd sleep four hours a night.
There were many occasions in that four-and-a-half week stretch when a player would FaceTime her at night to ask a scouting question, and the player would be shocked that she was still in the team room.
Ramsey was immediately struck by Nakase's coaching style. She is personable off the court and makes her words count on it. She helped Ramsey grow his game, spending hours focusing on his shooting form and how to pick up his man for the full 94 feet on defense.
He now has a new preference in coaches.
"I would rather be trained by a woman just because they're all skills," Ramsey told FOX Sports. "So in training sessions, it's not just go out there and do one move, go dunk. That comes natural. She'll actually have me out there working different skill moves. At this level, you need a lot of skills."
Nakase is a brilliant teacher. And that comes from her being a receptive student over the past decade.
While working as a video coordinator, she became close with former Clipper Chris Paul, who gave her a crash course on how to analyze other teams.
Paul would obsessively study opponents before games. He once told Nakase about his at-home setup, which includes multiple television screens and an iPad that he uses for scouting purposes.
Before games, Paul would reach out to Nakase and ask for film of the opponent's plays so he could best position himself to make steals.
That attention to detail left a deep impression on Nakase.
"I learned that I could find out more and learn from Chris if I was on his level," she said. "So I would watch all of the games, and then I would text him, 'Hey, what would you do at the end of the game on this? What would you have done here? Would you agree with this coach calling the timeout on this play or taking the last shot?' For me, it was just building my knowledge and trying to soak up as much information from one of the top point guards in the world."
With former Clipper Danilo Gallinari, Nakase learned the importance of connecting.
When they'd grab meals, Nakase would always have an NBA game playing on her cell phone. Gallinari would make her turn it off.
For him, mental breaks were imperative.
"I said, 'Natalie, you're coming out with me. We don't talk about basketball,'" Gallinari told FOX Sports. "Because with her, she can talk about basketball all day, every day. She watches games all day, every day. And I am the exact opposite. Once I'm done with my game or my practice, basketball is the last thing that I think about."
Gallinari loved to challenge Nakase. He once invited her to dinner with him and his father and then insisted she order for the table.
"I'm sitting there sweating," she recalled, laughing. "I don't know if they eat this. I don't know if they're allergic to anything. I don't know anything. We're at this sushi place. And then after, he's like, 'We have to finish everything.' I'm like, 'I'm not that hungry. I'm a small person.' I'm trying to be polite and not trying to scarf my face. He's like, 'Finish everything.'"
Through that experience, Nakase learned to get outside her comfort zone. And Gallinari learned he can't make someone eat something they don't want.
Their rapport deepened, and Nakase realized that developing relationships off the court is key to having chemistry on it.
"If you want to coach someone and you want to teach someone, then they have to trust you," she said. "If they don't trust you, they ain’t going to listen to you."
Over the years, Nakase has also taken a lot of cues from the Clippers' coaches.
Doc Rivers, who was at the helm of the team from 2013 to 2020, always espoused the importance of authenticity.
He kept things real with his players. And he encouraged her to do the same.
"His advice was, 'Nat, don't be like me. That's not who you want to be. Just be yourself. Coach through your own personality,'" Nakase recalled. "He always said players can always smell bulls--- if you give them bulls---. So if you try to be someone else, they can sniff that out."
As for current Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, Nakase admires his level of preparation. She was shocked that during training camp, Lue never had to look at his notes. He had committed every play to memory.
"These guys that are at the highest level, they're going to question your IQ," she said. "They're going to question your adjustments. They're going to question your knowledge. So you have to be prepared."
It's a concept she has taken to the extreme.
During her time in the G League bubble, Nakase tried to make it so that there would never be a question that stumped her.
While watching games, she'd study everything.
Afterward, she'd know the top three scorers' moves and what they like to do at the end of games. She'd know what plays the team runs in crunch time and what plays they go to when they're struggling. She'd be able to identify their weakest defender.
"To me, preparation builds confidence, and when you walk into a game and you have that confidence, then everything else just takes care of itself," she said. "And you can also be ready for adjustments because if you're so prepared, you know every move. So, I think that's important. I'm obsessed with it."
Nakase has always approached things with an unmatched intensity.
She's just shy of 5-foot-2, but she never let her height get in the way of her basketball career. When she stopped growing in the eighth grade, she quickly realized she had to be smarter, quicker and in better shape than everyone else.
An AAU coach once told that her she'd never play for her dream college, UCLA.
Nakase walked onto the team and started for three years.
"I love when someone tells me, 'Hey, I don't think you can do this because right away, boom, great, I have a target on your back," she said. "I'm going to go after you, just wait and see. I've always been like that."
After graduating from UCLA in 2003, Nakase became the first Asian-American to play in the now-defunct Women's National Basketball League. She then coached internationally, becoming the first female head coach in Japan's top men's pro league.
Currently, Nakase has two very important doubter: her parents.
Her father, whom she says is her best friend, was skeptical when he learned she wanted to become an NBA head coach by reading an article about her in the New York Times in 2014.
"What the f--- is this?" he asked at the time.
Her mother's reaction was similar.
"My mom is scared for me," Nakase said.
Her parents don't want her to be disappointed. They don't want her to fail. But Nakase says their doubt drives her.
"If you don't believe in me, that's fine," she said. "I'll prove you wrong."
Many of the players and coaches who have been around Nakase think her goal is realistic, Lue among them.
"I think with her hard work and dedication, she can accomplish anything," he said. "I could definitely see her being a head coach one day because she puts the work in."
With eight other women currently serving as assistant coaches in the NBA, it's just a matter of time before a woman shatters the ceiling.
Nakase is beyond excited for that to happen. She believes it's long overdue.
"I wish the world would just understand, let's just keep focusing on hiring the best coach, not the best female coach, not the best male coach, just hire the person for their IQ, their ability to manage people and their ability to win championships," she said.
For Nakase, coaching is a labor of love.
She genuinely wants to help people accomplish their dreams. And it would be great if she reaches hers along the way.
"I'm passionately in love with basketball," she said. "That's why I'm here. This is no fake. This is no gimmick."
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.