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Friday, Nov. 25, 2011

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Nakase becomes first female head coach in bj-league


Staff writer

It's official: Natalie Nakase is the first female head coach in bj-league history.

News photo
Natalie Nakase

Nakase, a former UCLA point guard, was officially named the Saitama Broncos' new bench boss on Thursday, confirming speculation that had been brewing for weeks. She replaces first-year coach Dean Murray, who was shown the door on Wednesday by team officials.

This season, internal turmoil has been a constant distraction for the Eastern Conference team, sources have told The Japan Times whenever the topic of the Broncos came up in conversation. Or as one source said before a recent home game, "Tension is boiling."

Murray was suspended for Sunday's game for violating team rules and with Nakase on the bench the Broncos pounded the visiting Toyama Grouses, winning 93-74. Saitama was blown out in the series opener on Saturday, Murray's final game at the helm.

Murray is the first fired coach in the 19-team league this season.

The Broncos are 5-7 and have a bye week before returning to the court on Dec 3-4 against the host Shiga Lakestars.

Despite repeated requests, Murray declined to comment for this article. The 47-year-old Murray had previously coached in Europe, South Korea, China and the NBA Development League.

In comments issued by the team in a press release posted online at 2:36 a.m. Thursday, Nakase said she's grateful for the opportunity to be a head coach and eager to lead Saitama.

She said her goal is to work hard for the team to "make a successful season."

The Broncos are a veteran team with talented, experienced players, she added.

"Our goal is to fight for a playoff (position) and play together for 40 minutes," said the 31-year-old Nakase, a Japanese-American born and raised in southern California.

Nakase joins the long list of head coaches during Saitama's disorderly, chaotic existence in the fledgling bj-league. Charles Johnson, Kenji Yamane, David Benoit, Masato Fukushima, Bob Nash and Murray have all run the team since 2005. Benoit had the longest stint — two seasons in charge.

The Broncos entered the 2011-12 campaign with six consecutive losing seasons, zero playoff appearances and a 93-173 overall record.

Enter Nakase with a chance to turn around the team, which features former NBA point guard Kenny Satterfield, two-time bj-league scoring champion John Humphrey, rookie forward John Flowers — a shot-blocking menace out of West Virginia — and experienced Japanese standouts in Yuki Kitamuki and Daiki Terashita, among others.

Nakase worked for the Tokyo Apache last season, gaining valuable experience on longtime NBA coach Bob Hill's staff.

In an interview with The Japan Times this week, Hill reflected on Nakase's time with the Apache, who suspended operations in March and did not return to the league this season.

"She came to us as a volunteer," Hill said. "I welcomed her with open arms and had no expectations for her. She was an outstanding addition to our staff because she knows the league, she worked very hard and she really assisted in our game-preparation efforts. She was always on time and was willing to do anything I ask of her. She really did an excellent job for us. The players all liked and respected her and she became a valued member of our staff."

He added: "She earned the players' respect through her work ethic and direct approach with them. She learned quickly what I expected and was eager to implement those aspects with the players. They saw Natalie as a direct reflection of the staff. She has great coaching instincts which I think will allow her to become a great coach as she moves forward with her career."

Indeed, UCLA's storied men's basketball program — John Wooden, Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton are names that immediately come to mind — is something avid followers of the college game can tell you about. The late coaching legend Wooden's success made the school a basketball landmark and gave Nakase a place to grow into a backcourt leader for the Bruins' women's team.

"Playing and coaching are two completely different aspects of the game," said Hill, analyzing Nakase's career path. "(But) what it does for you is define how much a person likes or loves the game. If they love the game, then they are willing to put in the time to learn how to coach. She loves basketball and has a total commitment to learning how to become a quality coach. I think her experience at UCLA was a positive one and that inspires her to coach."

Nakase also served as a coach for the Rising Suns, a Tokyo-based men's team comprised of Japanese and foreign players, for the Quai 54 International Championship streetball tournament in France this summer.

"She was a true professional from the minute we rolled out the balls at the first shoot-around," said Rising Suns organizer and player/coach Jason Hutson. "The guys all tuned into what she was saying right away. There was never an issue with her being a woman in a men's game. She's a tough-as-nails kind of person, and I think most of us knew it already before the first practice even started."

"Coach Nat is hungry to run a team," he added. "Her energy is intense, and she always seems to be very prepared mentally. I think she brings the poise that keeps players focused, and still shows the energy to keep them fired up at the same time."

Hutson believes Nakase has the knowledge, communication skills and proper attitude to be a successful coach in a men's pro league.

"Running the point guard position and being a floor general at such a storied program like UCLA gives her a commanding sort of presence that you may not expect from a person her size," Hutson said of the diminutive Nakase. "But when she's standing next to 7-footers and you see them listening, you feel the respect these guys have for her.

"I guess a lot of that comes from the way she speaks and how well she knows the fundamentals of the game. She breaks things down clearly, and I think players are going to be responsive to a former PG who knows how to run the show on the court."

Upcoming schedule: In Saturday-Sunday series, the matchups are as follows: Akita vs. Hamamatsu Higashimikawa, Sendai vs. Fukuoka, Niigata vs. Iwate, Toyama vs. Chiba, Shiga vs. Takamatsu, Kyoto vs. Shimane, Osaka vs. Miyazaki and Ryukyu vs. Oita.

Making an impression: Sendai 89ers forward O'Neal Mims discussed what makes the Chiba Jets, now 7-5 to begin their inaugural season, a tough opponent moments after his team's 79-74 loss on Nov. 18 in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture.

"They are playing with their backs against the wall," Mims said in a post-game interview. "They are going to come out fighting and you can never know what to expect. I just feel like they gave us their all. Most teams in the back-to-back (games) format, it's pretty tough but they knew what they were up against. Coach (Eric Gardow) prepared them . . . and they came out with everything they had."

Bouncing back: Improving to two games over .500 instead of falling to 6-6, lead guard Maurice Hargrow and the Jets ushered in the weekend on a high note, ending a three-game losing streak.

"Today was definitely a big blessing after three tough losses," Hargrow said on Nov. 18. "Hopefully we can just continue to build on this and rack up some more wins."

Was the aforementioned five-point win a big deal for the first-year franchise?

"It was a huge step because we had never lost three in a row," Hargrow said, "so this was the first time it had happened. It was like the first real adversity for us, and today was definitely a big (test) of the team's character."

Around the league: Toyama's Masashi Joho is the league's top scorer among Japanese players (14.8 points per game, 25th overall). . . . Referee Josh Davis, who worked in the bj-league's Final Four at Ariake Colosseum in May, is currently officiating in the Golden State Athletic Conference (NAIA level) and the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference, a California community college league . . .

The HeatDevils are 3-9 despite a roster that features 2009-10 MVP Wendell White, guard Matt Lottich and two-time Best Five guard Naoto Takushi. Lack of depth is the team's chief shortcoming, according to a league insider. "The biggest problem in Oita is they're a five-man team," he said. "Takushi, (Kohei) Mitomo, Matt, Wendell and T.J. (Cummings) . . . and after that not much production." . . .

Chiba has had limited opportunities to watch the 89ers play, but the team's gutsy style of basketball and their captain, Takehiko Shimura, have earned plenty of praise from Gardow.

Listen to his thoughts on Shimura: "I watched him in the video last week beat Toyama. (In) transition, big steal, he pulls up (and makes a shot) off the glass, over an import player. He's 4-foot-4½ (actually 160 cm).

"He moves well. I think what he does well is distribute the ball, and I think that shows in their assist column . . . and a lot of that has to do with him. He's moving the ball, and not only that, the import players are going through him to get it to somebody else. He's all over the floor.

"He's a stat stacker. He's got rebounds, assists, steals. He's got them all. But he plays hard."

The last word: "We always want to work hard for coach because the guys he puts on the floor are the guys he trusts. So we've got to be able to perform for him, night in and night out, man." — Hargrow, explaining his mind-set as one of Gardow's players.

Do you have a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp



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