I’ve had the privilege of interviewing several outstanding Asian American women for my blogs over the years. A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to chat via phone with Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Natalie Nakase. She’s made herstory as the first woman of color to serve in such a capacity in the National Basketball Association (NBA); her ultimate goal is to someday become a championship-winning head coach in the league. We covered a lot of ground in our conversation, including the main themes of this blog: gender, race, and parenting that empowers Asian American girls and women.
Feminist Asian Dad: You played in the JA leagues [for Japanese American youth basketball players] growing up. Do you have any favorite memories from those years?
Natalie Nakase: I started earlier than I was supposed to because I was the youngest of three, and my dad always wanted me to play against older kids. He coached me until eighth grade, and that was a huge way for me to bond with my dad and a great way for me to learn the game. My dad has a high basketball IQ, and I was lucky to have a good teacher at such a young age. And then, as soon as I went to high school, my dad got another coach for me. Looking back, I really see my dad’s understanding of where he stood in my basketball career – when he needed to direct and coach, and when he needed to step back.
As I got older, I was with the same team all the time, so friendships built up. And then in high school, we put together an elite team. We ended up moving out of the high school division and playing in the top adult women’s division. That was really fun, because we were playing against 25 to 30 year olds. And there was this team called Imperial Purple that no one could beat. But we ended up beating them and frustrating the hell out of them, because for years, they had been number one. So that link created friendships for me.
It also created a way to learn more about the game. To compete against adults when I was just in high school was a great thing, because they played smarter and were more experienced. We were able to pick up things when we played against them, especially because they were very physical. We were quicker and faster, but they would just beat us up physically. I think that’s partly how we learned the physicality of the game.
FAD: They thought, “We gotta slow them down and make them pay for it when they go down the lane.”
NN: (laughs) Exactly.
FAD: So this was a team that you and some other JA league alums put together when y’all were in high school, playing folks who were bigger, stronger, and better than even elite high school players, but y’all did really well.
NN: Yeah, we did. We were some of the top high school girls in Orange County. You know, in Asian tournaments, you always play three games. We all knew that once we won the first two, we were always going to play Imperial Purple. It was really fun and competitive.
FAD: It sounds like you guys really got the better of them.
NN: I think we beat them the majority of the time. I don’t know if my memory’s blurred, but I just remember it was a bloodbath every time we faced them.
FAD: You played for some other club teams, too?
NN: My dad was always looking to improve my game, so besides JA leagues and my high school team, he wanted me to join the top AAU team in the county. It’s now called “club”; back then it was called AAU. It was the top 12 girls in Orange County, and we all played on one team and went on to play Nationals. AAU was a whole different ball game from the Japanese leagues in terms of athleticism. I was really tiny [at 5’2”] compared to their average height, which was five or six inches taller.
FAD: That was another way that your dad pushed you to keep growing as a player.
NN: My dad said, “You have to be very smart if you’re going to continue your career, because you’re going to be the same height from 8th grade on. You’re not going to grow, so you really have to learn the game and increase your basketball IQ.”
So I learned to use my height to my advantage. I would pick up full court defensively because, you know, why wouldn’t I use my speed and quickness? I would strip the ball instead of block shots because I was small and had quick hands. I would study my opponent during warm ups so I could force them to their weak hand. I focused on being an elite passer and loved to set up my teammates for easy shots. And I was a huge hustle player, so for any loose ball, I was like, “Oh, I’m getting to that first!” I might as well; I’m quicker and smaller. I loved to take charges and sacrifice my body so the more athletic girls would get pissed when they tried to drive on me. I wanted to do whatever it took to win! My dad really taught me to play with no fear, because that was going to be my advantage.
And he never once yelled at me from the crowd. His compliments came rare, but the majority of what I heard from my dad in public was positive. I didn’t get constructive criticism until we got in the car for my post game talks. When I watch my nephew play now, I hear all these people yelling at the kids. I’m like, why? People underestimate that as kids, even as pros, a compliment can go so far. I remember my dad being more complimentary to me in front of people and giving more constructive criticism individually.
FAD: Where do you think your dad got his love for basketball?
NN: He loved the game! He was very competitive, never wanted to lose, and just played all the time. He was a scorer and had a great feel for the game.
I heard my mom tell this story a while back. She told my dad, if you’re going to play basketball, then you have to take the three girls with you. So we went and watched the games, and he had us keep stats! He taught us how to track rebounds, assists, points, free throws, everything. It was his way of teaching us the game without us realizing it.
I remember my dad was a really good teammate. If a guy was struggling, he would say something positive, give constructive criticism, and encourage him. That was fun for me to watch, seeing my dad be a great teammate and get his team to believe they could win. That’s the thing I love to do, try to get my team to believe we can win every game no matter who the opponent is. I think I do that because of my dad.
FAD: Did anyone ever take you less seriously as a ballplayer because you’re Asian, like Jeremy Lin experienced?
NN: I heard people say, “Oh, there’s the ‘Asian girl’,” but I never took that to heart. I was so worried about winning and getting better and proving people wrong because of my height. When I play basketball, it’s just about killing the competition. When the ball goes up in the air, all I can think about is how I’m going to win and piss off the other team and their coach.
FAD: You let your play do the talking.
NN: (laughing) Yeah.
FAD: I know that you coached a men’s pro team in Japan. What was that like for you, as a Japanese American living in Japan?
NN: I didn’t fit in, in terms of what I look like. The majority of women had dresses or skirts on, and they wore heels; that was the norm. I wore basketball clothes all the time. So I was a little different. When I started to travel from city to city, the translators would tell me, “You know, what you’re doing, it’s pretty powerful.” And then I learned that I had a lot more women becoming my fans; I thought that was pretty cool. They had never seen a woman in a commanding or authoritative type of position. But it was a great learning experience for me, and I would never replace it for the world. It was a lot of fun.
FAD: What you’re saying makes me think of something I read recently. I grew up in Houston, so a lot of my sports references are Houston-related. Alex Bregman is third baseman for the Astros. He was interviewed by Sports Illustrated and when he was growing up, his dad had a saying: TTFU, which stands for Toughen The F*** Up. Your experiences make me think of that. You put yourself in positions that are uncomfortable, because you know that will help you improve and grow. If you can see your way through it, you come out stronger, so why be afraid? You’re going to make mistakes; that’s okay, because it’s part of learning. It sounds like your dad, and then you, put yourself in positions where there’s going to be some tough parts, but you’re going to learn something and be better for it.
NN: Wow, that is right on the money. I have very similar experiences in my past. Like if I’m too small, then let me prove these people wrong. And then I took the UCLA walk-on position, instead of starting at UCI [UC Irvine]. It’s weird, but I do put myself in these positions. The coach [at UCI], he called me, saying, “You’re going to start if you come here.” I was like, why would I do that? I want to go to my dream school – walk on, but once I get there, trust me, I can prove to these people I can play. Just exactly what you said, I take the tougher route. What’s just given to me, that’s kind of like B.S.
FAD: You mentioned UCI, and I wanted to ask you about that because I worked there for a bit and met their current women’s coach, Tamara Inoue.
NN: Oh yeah! I played AAU with her. She was one of the top players in her high school.
FAD: And the point guard there is Lauren Saiki; she played a couple of years at West Virginia, but transferred before last season. She’ll be a senior.
NN: I know her, too!
FAD: But the UCI coach from back then offered you a starting role, yet you wanted to push yourself instead of taking something just served up to you.
NN: Yeah. I mean, I hadn’t earned it yet. My dad always taught me that you have to earn your position – money, job, things in life. So something which was handed to me, it just didn’t seem genuine or real. UCLA was always my dream school since I was young, so when I got the call that I could walk on and meet the coach, I was like, I’m going to UCLA!
FAD: What made it your dream school?
NN: Growing up in Southern California, you hear about [legendary UCLA basketball coach John] Wooden all the time. And it’s a huge basketball school, a huge sports school, successful in everything. It was also just 45 minutes away. I was daddy’s girl so I didn’t want to leave home; 45 minutes was a lot for me. And I still had a lot of my close friends here in Southern California. I knew I wanted to be close.
FAD: Have you read the Wooden leadership books, about the Pyramid of Success and everything?
NN: I read all his books, yeah. To consolidate all of it, for him it’s doing the right thing. A lot of his phrases are very simple. But if you just do the right thing all the time, good things will happen. There’s no question why he was so successful. He treated people the right way, so they’re going to work for him and play for him.
FAD: He’s really left a legacy. Now, you’re sansei [third-generation Japanese American], and many Japanese Americans, of course, who are second, third, fourth generation were greatly impacted by World War 2. Have you seen the legacy of those years on your own family?
NN: My dad was born in 1942. He doesn’t speak about it unless we ask. I remember, actually, when we drove to Tennessee for a basketball tournament, we drove through Rohwer, Arkansas [site of what had been the Rohwer War Relocation Center], where he was assigned at the time.
From the small pieces that my dad did tell us, my grandfather had everything taken away from him and had to start over from scratch. That carried over to my dad in terms of how he has a family business with his brothers, who have carried on what my grandfather started. And my dad won’t let go of his work ethic and won’t retire, basically. Because that’s what he learned from my grandfather. The legacy is to continue to work every day and provide for your family, hoping to set the standard and create a better life for your kids.
When I went to Japan, I visited my grandmother’s cousin, who barely spoke English. But what I had translated to me was, “Your grandfather was known as one of the hardest working people in our family.” And I was just like, no wonder my dad is how he is. He’s one of the hardest workers I know, and I think it’s really cool that my dad has continued to set an example for us.
FAD: Speaking of legacy, when you’re out on the court working with players during warm ups before a game, or you’re sitting on the coaches’ bench, I gotta think that has an impact on Asian American kids. What do you hope they take away from seeing you or reading your story?
NN: I just hope they can see that they can do anything they put their heart and mind to in this world. And that it’s okay to be different!!! Don’t be afraid to be different and to step out of those assumptions of what a woman is supposed to do in this world!
I just did this camp with 50 young girls, and I was telling the girls that it’s okay to be different. We were in basketball clothes, so I said, “Look at my outfit! It’s okay to wear this every single day.”
Looking back to high school, I wish I had just stayed true to who I was and didn’t wear things just to fit in. Society wants us to look a certain way, or to think we’re only pretty if we wear this or do our hair; screw all of that! It doesn’t matter. Be true to yourself; you don’t have to be normal. Being different is cool.
FAD: As we wind up, I have kind of a self-indulgent question. I’m a lifelong Rockets fan, and Sam Cassell, your fellow assistant coach with the Clippers, is a Rockets legend. When he played for the Rockets and they won their championships, he hit big shots, but he was young and kind of a goofball. I’ve always wondered, “What is Sam Cassell like as a coach?” He looks very dignified in a suit and everything!
NN: (laughing) That’s who I was talking to before our call; I was meeting with Sam. He is one of the most authentic and genuine people I’ve met in this business. You know, our coaching staff and our players are together 80 percent of our lives. What Sam brings every single day is positive energy. I’m so glad I get to see him like that; that’s what I’m taking into my career. Whether we win or lose, whether rain or shine, Sam is coming in and greeting everybody – every day! He asks them how they’re doing and keeps our energy going. As much as it sounds simple, it’s really hard to do.
And he has a very genuine way of teaching. For instance, he had Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander] this year, and he got on Shai with a lot of constructive criticism, but at the same time, he had spent so much time with him off the court that they had a great relationship, so it was fine. Sam and I were just talking about this! I went back and watched all of our practices, and he got on Shai all the time, but Sam’s like, “You gotta balance it out with love and positivity.” He has such a great feel for that. [F.A.D. note: Gilgeous-Alexander was just named to the NBA All-Rookie team.]
FAD: Thank you so much for talking with me! You’ve been really generous with your time, and I really appreciate your entrusting your story to me. I think you have an awesome one!
NN: No problem, it was really fun.
Note of encouragement to readers: follow Natalie’s journey on Twitter and Instagram! Standard note about interviews: this one was edited for length and clarity. Non-standard note of gratitude: special thanks to Cate Park for helping Natalie and me to connect!