When Natalie Nakase ’03 was playing basketball for the Bruins, there was a brief, but prescient, note in her player bio on UCLA’s official athletic site: “She is like a coach on the floor.”
The 5’2” point guard remembers how UCLA Head Coach Kathy Olivier would allow her to strategize and make in-game decisions during timeouts. “I don’t know many coaches who would let their players do that,” Nakase says. “I think that was almost the beginning of my coaching career.”
Today, as a player development coach for the Los Angeles Clippers, Nakase is one of only three women currently coaching in the NBA, along with Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs and Jenny Boucek of the Dallas Mavericks. It’s a job she earned through hard work and determination, starting as a video coordinator intern and working her way up through the ranks.
“My approach is to actively and consistently work on building a professional and personal relationship with the players,” Nakase says. “I’ve experienced that the best ways of coaching come from a genuine bond with the players. They know I’ll be there, not only for the high moments, but for the low moments as well.”
The fact that she’s female has been a nonissue for the team, says her boss, Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers. “I just think she’s a good coach. I don’t look at what her sex is,” he says. “I just see that she’s a very capable coach. She has a great feel for the game, and she really helps our staff.”
The youngest of three girls in a basketball-loving family, Nakase was a standout on the Marina High School team in Huntington Beach, California. She turned down a full scholarship from UC Irvine to become a walk-on at UCLA, her dream school, and soon afterward earned the starting point guard position and a full ride.
Of her job with the Clippers, Nakase says, “It’s almost like this was meant to be. This is where I feel the most comfortable, and I feel like I can relate to people who have this similar passion. I’m very lucky — I get to do something I love to do, every single day.”