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Natalie Nakase Becomes First Asian American Female in Pro Basketball League

By Bryan Chu
(Reprint Courtesy of Bryan Chu)

At first glance, coaches wouldn't give her a chance.

Natalie Nakase didn't mind. She's been overlooked and underestimated her entire life.

Standing at a dubious 5-foot-2, the 24-year-old former Bruin guard has already experienced a celebrated collegiate career and painstaking moments trying to fulfill her dream of playing professional basketball.

That vision has finally been realized, as Nakase, who graduated in 2003, has defied the odds by becoming the lone Asian American player in the National Women's Basketball League as a member of the San Jose Spiders.

"Everyone doubted me, even coaches," Nakase said. "Even on campus, people thought I was on the gymnastics team. Stuff like that I use as motivation to work even harder and I've been pretty much proving everyone wrong since."

Having already proven it to her herself, Nakase is now paving the way for the younger generation of Asian American basketball players to follow in her footsteps. By having a successful career at UCLA and setting a precedent at the NWBL, many young players view Nakase as a mentor.

In Nakase's senior year at UCLA, Asian and Pacific Islanders constituted 1.2 percent of all the players competing in NCAA Division I women's basketball. However, Japanese Americans' presence in the Pac-10 and in the collegiate ranks is ever increasing. There are currently three Japanese Americans in the Pac-10, all of whom are their team's respective floor generals – Corrie Mizusawa of Oregon, Kristin Iwanaga of Cal and Jamie Hagiya of USC.

Of the three, Nakase has left the strongest impression on Hagiya. The Trojan sophomore remembers going to UCLA home games in high school and catching a glimpse of Nakase playing in revered Pauley Pavilion. Torn over whether or not she could actually make it to the next level, Hagiya envisioned herself one day in Nakase's shoes.

"I didn't know if I could make it," Hagiya said. "I was just watching before, watching Nat play. I didn't think it would happen, so when I got recruited it was a dream for me. It was mind-blowing that I could make it too."

While Nakase and Hagiya have proven they can make it, they are also trying to help many other aspiring Asian American hoopsters recognize that same dream. This past summer, Nakase and Hagiya conducted clinics that were advertised around Japanese leagues in San Jose, San Francisco, Orange County and all throughout Los Angeles. With the help of former UCLA assistant coach Colleen Matsuhara, the Casaba Clinic was up and running at West LA College.

The clinic was extremely successful with over 70 wide-eyed young girls excited to absorb all they could from Nakase and Hagiya.

"We just wanted to give back to the programs we played in and to give back to the people that have supported us throughout," said Nakase, who has also played in the Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) league. "It was awesome, I've never seen so many girls."

"I see those kids there and it's great, I just hope they do get to the next level with hard work just like Natalie and I did," Hagiya said. "I'm positive a lot of younger kids see Natalie as a role model. People look up to her, even after her college career because she pursued tryout after tryout and never gave up."

It's that unwavering demeanor that has earned Nakase respect around the NWBL and from whomever watches her play on the court. During home games, Nakase often hears shrieks and screams from young girls thrown in her direction, causing the former Bruin to take a moment to look and smile.

"I do feel a bit special, but I'm just another person playing basketball," Nakase said. "I do feel very fortunate and thankful that kids look up to me and the fact that I have an effect on girls that aspire to play basketball, it's a great feeling."

"She gives them that dream, that the dream can be a reality," UCLA coach Kathy Olivier added. "She's amazing, an amazing woman in my mind."

While Nakase has realized her dream of playing professional basketball, she constantly reminds herself of the path she took to get there.

In her senior year at nearby Marina High, Nakase found herself in a situation where she was unsatisfied by other colleges' offers. Yet that all changed when Olivier saw Nakase play during high school.

With only one spot left on the Bruin roster and no scholarship to give away, Olivier believed in Nakase's ability and was attracted by the point guard's passion, offering her a position on the squad.

Nakase had one answer.

"Yes, without a doubt," she said. "The fact that I wasn't heavily recruited, it was almost luck. I was fortunate to get an opportunity and from then on I had to prove myself again."

After her freshman season, Nakase was put on scholarship and was designated the captain of the team for the next three seasons.

"She was a little spitfire on the court," Olivier said. "It wasn't about her size, it was about the size of her heart.

She would block out players that were 6-foot-1. She didn't care. She wanted it. She wanted it more than anything."

And playing at the professional level was something that Nakase has yearned for. After spending some time with the traveling team "Love and Basketball," and sticking to an intense workout regimen, Nakase wound up in San Jose one month ago along with 30 players hailing from all over the world trying to earn a spot on the Spiders' roster.

Nakase did not let the opportunity slip through her hands, as she impressed several coaches and ultimately landed in San Jose as the sixth pick by the Spiders and a starting role as the point guard.

"She's shown great leadership, intelligence, ball handling and superb on-ball defense," Spiders' coach Tracy Carpenter said.

"She's even smaller than I thought when I saw her, but she plays with an incredible passion. She's shown real control and the players look up to her, I guess you could say. She's well respected."

The NWBL is the second biggest women's basketball league in the United States next to the WNBA, and in trying to provide another outlet for basketball players to play professionally, president James Patrick Alexander has expressed how glad the league is that sports transcends all preconceived stereotypes.

"She's definitely the majority of the minority," Alexander said. "She's really something."

What's next for this burgeoning star? Nakase has expressed interest in coaching some day.

But first is first, Nakase's love remains faithful to playing basketball.

"Until my legs can't go any more then I'll give up playing," Nakase said.

It's those same legs that have taken enormous strides, those same legs that have achieved what everyone said she couldn't and it's those same legs and a person like Nakase that sets the bar for future generations.

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