This column on former Saitama Broncos head coach Natalie Nakase appeared in The Japan Times in March 2012. Nakase now works as an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Nakase says goal is to coach in the NBA

By Ed Odeven

Isn’t it funny how likes and dislikes can shape one’s future when you least expect it?

Like any ordinary 10-year-old growing up in Southern California, Natalie Nakase preferred fun and games to studying a foreign language.

A third-generation Japanese-American, Nakase briefly took Japanese lessons after attending Sunday church service. She didn’t enjoy this experience.

Reminiscing about those lessons, Nakase said, “I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this, dad, because this lady is talking all fast and I don’t know what she’s saying.’ “

Gary Nakase, Natalie’s father, had a simple solution.

“Then, Dad said, ‘Well, then you are going to go to basketball practice,’ ” she recalled.

“And I was like, ‘OK, I’ll take basketball practice over Japanese.’ “

Two decades later, Nakase is the first female head coach in Japan’s men’s pro basketball history. She was named the Saitama Broncos sideline supervisor after Dean Murray was relieved of his coaching duties on Nov. 24.

Now she wants to begin taking Japanese lessons in order to become an effective communicator on and off the court.

“Eight of the players speak Japanese only, and I don’t speak Japanese at all,” the 31-year-old admitted during a Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan meeting on Monday. Despite having a translator available during games, “I instantly want to talk to one of the players immediately, making a switch or something in the game.”

When she replaced Murray, Nakase, a native of Huntington Beach, California, experienced a night that many first-time parents can relate to.

“There wasn’t any sleep,” Nakase said, describing her life-changing job opportunity. “The first person I called was my dad and I’m like, ‘Dad, guess what’s happening?’ And he was just as shocked as I was. And I’m like, ‘What do you think.’ His best advice to me was, ‘Natalie, just don’t be afraid to fail.’ ”

His other advice: “Don’t stress yourself, don’t overthink everything. … Just make sure you do your best. Make sure your team tries as hard as they can, and then at the end of the day that’s all you can do at this point.”

The Broncos hosted the 2011-12 All-Star Game before a crowd of 14,011 at Saitama Super Arena on Jan. 15, a day that put Nakase in the national spotlight as the game was televised on BS Fuji.

As is customary, the host team’s head coach leads one team in the annual midseason showcase, and Nakase directed the Eastern Conference All-Star squad.

“It was a lot of fun to be in a crowd like that and in an arena with so much energy was great,” Nakase said with a smile. “What was really nice was my players were very professional. You really don’t know what to expect when you have All-Stars around, you don’t know what will happen. But I was very fortunate to get a great group of guys that were on the same page.”

The full column: