Liz Mills: How the Coach Became the First Woman to Coach a Men’s Basketball Team at an International Tournament




CNN

Most coaches stepping onto the basketball court are thinking about tactics, starting lineup, and the game ahead. But as the first woman to coach a men’s national team at a major FIBA ​​tournament, Liz Mills has everything to think about – even her clothes.

“When I went to Mozambique, they said, ‘You can’t wear the boots. You have to take them off because you look too feminine,'” Mills told CNN Sport.

She refused to take off the heeled boots and they have since become a mainstay. “I am very proud to be a woman. Remember, I’m here to coach. And that’s what I want to talk about: the coaching.”

Mills said she initially felt she had to behave

Mills grew up in Australia watching the Women’s National Basketball League. Unlike most others, it wasn’t the players who inspired her, but the coaches on the sidelines.

Mills says, “I always say when I see coaches like Carrie Graf and Jan Sterling, they were head coaches of women’s teams in the ’90s and early 2000s.”

She adds: “I think that gave me the idea that I’m not going to be a great player, but I could be a great coach.

“I’ve seen these strong, successful and intelligent women win the league. If they can do it, I can do it.”

Mills was inspired by pioneers in women’s football, but she became a pioneer in a very different way. She is a pioneer and advocate for women in a sport where coaches are almost exclusively male.

After coaching basketball in Australia for several years, mainly with boys and girls, Mills was volunteering in Zambia when a friend invited her to see a local men’s club team.

Like many of us, when she was watching a sports team, Mills thought she could do better; but unlike most of us, she has done something about it.

“I go up to one of the players and I’m like, ‘Do you have a club president here or something?'” she recalls. “And he introduced me to the club president. He worked for the World Bank, Maziko Phiri, and he was very outgoing, so we talked and he said, ‘Okay, you can practice for an hour.’”

That one hour turned into a training session that turned into another training session that resulted in Mills Heroes taking over Play United.

Over the next 10 years, Mills coached club teams in Zambia and Rwanda and served as assistant coach to the Zambia and Cameroonian national teams before her big break as head coach of the Kenya men’s national team.

Mills took over the job in Kenya ahead of the AfroBasket 2021 qualifiers, which saw the country look to reach Africa’s premier competition for the first time in 28 years.

Mills says her success as a women's coach could only have happened in Africa, where many women already work in football.

She duly delivered in the most dramatic way. In February 2021, forward Tylor Ongwae hit a buzzer-beater to lift Kenya over Angola – the most successful team in AfroBasket history – to book the Morans’ place at the tournament.

In the competition itself, Mills led Kenya out of the group stage for the first time in its history and narrowly missed out on the quarter-finals, losing 60-58 to South Sudan in the round of 16.

With that success under her belt, Mills made the move from East to North Africa, taking over Moroccan club AS Salé and breaking further milestones by becoming the first woman to coach a men’s basketball team in the Arab world and the first woman the coach became a team in the Basketball Africa League (BAL).

Mills laughs as she looks back on her trials and accomplishments, but it hasn’t been easy to endure the discrimination she has endured.

“I remember when we played Angola for the first time, they said, ‘What is your water girl doing on the pitch?’ They couldn’t understand that there was a female coach.”

But the prejudice was not limited to Angolans. “An Australian journalist asked me what I do when the players shower,” Mills said, “or what I do in the dressing room when they have to change.”

She has also adapted to being in the limelight, fully aware that any failure will be seen not only as a personal failure but also as a failure of her gender as a whole.

“I think back to AfroBasket,” Mills recalls. “Our first game against Côte d’Ivoire was the first time a woman had coached at an event like this. And so I say, ‘Gosh, I hope we win this game, but I hope we play well.’ But then I also have to appear as a woman.

“My male colleagues don’t sit there at all and don’t think about things like that. They’re just out there to coach.”

Mills led AS Salé to the BAL Quarterfinals.

As the first to achieve what she has achieved, Mills paved the way herself, but she doesn’t want another woman to have to do the same.

That’s why she founded the Global Women in Basketball Coaching Network in August.

“There are now so many coaches in Africa who are turning to me, especially young women, who are saying, ‘I’ve seen you coach Kenya’ or ‘I’ve seen you coach Salé and that’s why I want to train,'” says Mills. “Especially after Kenya qualified I had a lot of women around the world [getting in contact]from Ireland to the Philippines to Colombia.”

The network Mills has built with her twin, Vic, connects women from around the world who coach basketball at all levels of the game and provides them with training and classes to improve their coaching.

But more importantly, it’s a safe place for coaches to support one another in an industry riddled with sexism.

Members of the network have experienced discrimination of all kinds, particularly those working in men’s football. Mills said one of the members was once offered a job as head coach for a men’s team, but the club’s sponsors said if she got the job they would withdraw their sponsorship.

In women’s football, too, coaching is still seen as the primary task of men. Mills recently competed in the FIBA ​​Women’s Basketball World Cup in her native Australia, where only five of the 12 countries were coached by women.

AS Salé was the first men's basketball job for which Mills was paid.

But for every story that weighs Mills down, there is another that lifts her up and encourages her to keep fighting.

“I was in Senegal for the BAL (Basketball Africa League). On the first day of the tournament, we had just finished practice and I was walking around the arena just waiting for a game to start when I was stopped by a lady and her two children,” says Mills.

“And she’s like, ‘I just want to say, the reason me and my two girls are watching here is because we love basketball, but we’re going to come and watch every single one of your games because my girls want to be like you if they are adults.’”

Mills isn’t the only one pioneering men’s football and joins a growing list of women coaches making progress in the sport.

Brigitte Affidehome Tonon was the Benin men’s head coach before Mills joined Kenya. Becky Hammon has been at the forefront of men’s basketball in the United States for a number of years, spending eight years as Gregg Popovich’s assistant coach at the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. She was considered by a number of NBA teams for her position as head coach before taking on the head coaching role with the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, which led her to a championship in her debut season.

But Mills has made it his goal to achieve anything on the international stage – no matter how long it takes.

“I want to be the first woman to coach an African at a World Cup [men’s] team,” she assures.

Many would only see it as a matter of time.