When they don't believe her, when skeptics insist, right to her face, that Natalie Nakase can't possibly be a basketball player for the nationally ranked UCLA Bruins, that she must be a manager or mascot or maybe a gymnast, Nakase can say "no" and prove it.
Nakase is the littlest Bruin, 5 feet 2, according to the media guide, but if you stand her next to a yardstick, you might want to wager that something closer to 5 feet 1 is the truth. But make no mistake. Natalie Nakase is a basketball player. Period. End of discussion.
She has a basketball scholarship. She wears Bruin blue and gold. Watch her dribble a basketball, weaving around cones in a drill, making crisp passes in practice.
Yep. Nakase is a basketball player. A point guard by natural selection, but a point guard in her heart as well. You might laugh, but Nakase is also a basketball player by blood. Her dad, Gary, no bigger than 5-6, played for Whittier High and her older sisters, Nicola and Norie, were basketball players too.
If it seems that Nakase is so small she could stand on your palm, it is also true that Nakase is quick and smart. If she can't see over a 5-8 guard, then she'll look between her knees. If she can't face-guard a 5-11 opponent, she can slap the ball out of hands held too low for a moment.
So that's how it is that Nakase, way too short, is a member of the nationally ranked Bruins. Because she is a basketball player. Period.
"My coaches in high school warned me," says Nakase, a redshirt freshman. "They said I was too short to be recruited."
At Marina High, Nakase led her team to a 1998 Southern Section championship and two Sunset League titles. Nakase ended her high school career as the Sunset League's career assist leader. Since she was 6, Nakase had loved basketball. She played in her yard, she played with her dad and her sisters. She played on youth teams and AAU teams.
When Nakase was 12, she was playing with 13-year-olds on the Orange County Hoyas, an AAU team that made it to the national finals against the Philadelphia Belles. The leader of the Belles was another point guard, Ace Clements. Last Sunday, Clements, who is 5-11, was the starting point guard for the powerhouse Tennessee team that beat UCLA. Nakase watched the game from the bench this time.
When you're 12 and tiny, it's not so bad. The 13-year-olds who are tall are also clumsy, gawky, uncomfortable in their bigger bodies. Now those other big guards are happy with their size. They have fit into their bodies.
But Nakase was never going to grow tall. She knew that. So when her high school coaches, trying to be fair and honest, told her there would be no place in college basketball for her, she believed them.
"The day I came home from school and my mom said Coach Olivier called," Nakase says, "I didn't believe her. I had to check and make sure it really was Coach. I knew there weren't many girls my size playing D-1 basketball. I wanted to, but I had to be realistic."
Coach Olivier is Kathy Olivier, head coach of UCLA. Olivier says someone, the principal at Marina, she thinks, talked her into watching Nakase, into at least looking at the little girl with the giant heart.
"I went out, watched her play and she did a lot of good things," Olivier says. "I thought Natalie could be a good backup for us, a local kid who worked really hard."
When she got over her disbelief, Nakase was ecstatic. "I couldn't believe it," Nakase says. "I'd always wanted to go to UCLA."
Practice has just finished, a practice that included extra running because Olivier wasn't happy with the afternoon of work. Nakase doesn't mind. Nakase is in fabulous shape. In August 1998, a month before she would start school at UCLA, Nakase tore her anterior cruciate ligament. She had to undergo reconstructive surgery. So Nakase arrived at her first UCLA practice not only short but also limping.
"It wasn't a great way to start," she says. "But I knew what to expect. My dad had a torn ACL. My sister had two."
Nakase had hurt her knee driving to the basket for a layup. On the opposing team was Marie Philman, a UCLA senior who is from Huntington Beach, just like Nakase. "Everybody knew what kind of player I am," Nakase said.
What kind of player is that?
"She's good at pushing the ball up the court," Olivier says. "She understands the game so well."
Olivier says that Nakase, even on the bench, is totally into every play. "Against Texas this year," Olivier says, "Natalie came to me and pointed out that Texas' top scorer was making all her points by penetrating, penetrating, penetrating. She pointed out a different defense that might work. She was right."
But, as always, when you talk about Nakase, you end up talking about her size. "She can't see over some people," Olivier says, "and, defensively, some people will try and post her up."
In other words, 5-2 can't guard 5-11. And nowadays, a small major-college point guard is 5-8. Ten years ago, a 5-11 player was a forward. Now she's a point guard. "It's hard," Olivier says. "The game keeps changing."
Will there always be a place for a 5-2 girl in the sport? Nakase hopes so. She thought about playing other sports, even gave gymnastics a try. "But I just like basketball the best. If people just don't have preconceived ideas and look at me play first, I think I can show them some things."
With her knee rehabilitated, Nakase is now a full participant on the UCLA team. She has played only two minutes in the first three games. That is Nakase's challenge now. She has gotten herself a scholarship on a top Division I team. Now Nakase has to get into the lineup more often. Now she has to prove that the littlest Bruin can play this game. Again.
Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: email@example.com