AS Salé coach Liz Mills continues to make her mark in men’s basketball in Africa
‘I’m willing to wear that tag and open the door, keep the door open to encourage FIBA and clubs that regardless of the level, consider hiring female coaches’
DAKAR, Senegal — Liz Mills was preparing for her historic head-coaching debut in the Basketball Africa League at Dakar Arena when she got a tap on the shoulder. It was an Ethiopian woman who was with her two young daughters.
The mother told Mills that they were there solely to watch her coach AS Salé while making history as the Basketball Africa League’s first female head coach.
“She said, ‘We just wanted to watch you because they wanted to be coaches like you when they grow up,’ ” Mills told Andscape. “I was like, ‘This makes everything worthwhile.’ That was a really touching moment.
“It was before the game and after I was like, ‘OK, focus, let’s go.’ That was really touching. I have to remind myself that young girls in particular need to see women in these roles. How are they going to know they can do great things if they don’t see women as role models? I had to take a moment after they left. It was bigger than basketball.”
On Feb. 16, Mills made history by being hired by AS Salé of the BAL, the joint NBA-FIBA competition that started its second season Saturday in Dakar. The Australian also became the first woman to become a head coach of a professional men’s team in Morocco and the Arab world.
Mills was the first female head coach at a men’s AfroBasket tournament when she led Kenya at the continental championship in 2021. She was also a head coach professionally for two years in Zambia.
NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum met Mills last weekend and is optimistic about the growing presence of women in the NBA.
“There’s no reason why a female can’t run a men’s team and coach a men’s team,” Tatum said. “And we’re seeing that here. We were the first on the continent to actually have a female referee a game last year, and so it’s a big part of what we’re doing here in the continent.”
The NBA has never had a female head coach. Becky Hammon, who was an assistant for the San Antonio Spurs, interviewed for a few NBA head coach openings before accepting the job as head coach of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces beginning next season. The G League has also had female interim head coaches in Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman and Stephanie Ready.
Mills currently is the only women’s head coach in the NBA umbrella that includes the NBA, G League and Basketball Africa League.
“There have been moments over the last couple of years where I thought to myself, ‘Oh, wow, I’m on an island and I’m the one leading the way when it comes to this,’ ” Mills, 35, said. “And I take that responsibility very seriously. It’s great to be that in the NBA community, but also on the global stage.
“After the success with Kenya, I had so many female coaches all around the world reach out to me and say ‘You’re the role model that we needed because we didn’t have anybody to look up to.’ Be that with the NBA or FIBA environment, I’m willing to wear that tag and open the door, keep the door open to encourage FIBA and clubs that regardless of the level, consider hiring female coaches.”
Mills fell in love with basketball at the age of 10 while growing up in Sydney watching Australia’s Women’s National Basketball League. She adored such star players as Hall of Famer Lauren Jackson, Penny Taylor and Michele Timms. But Mills also paid close attention to the female head coaches, most notably Carrie Graf, Jan Stirling and Karen Dalton.
Mills’ love for the WNBL led her to play basketball, but once she realized she probably wouldn’t be good enough to play professionally, she turned her sights on coaching at the age of 16 after being identified by an Australian coaching program. Mills first began coaching kids between 8 and 10 years old. She also earned a bachelor’s degree in sports science and sports management in 2008 and a master’s degree in coaching in 2013.
“I know without a doubt that if I hadn’t seen women coaching, I never would have considered it as a career,” Mills said. “It just speaks to the power of having a role model. Someone who looks like you who is the same gender in a strong, powerful position like that. That planted a seed in my mind when I was 10. I was thinking to myself, ‘If they can do it why can’t I do it?’ ”
Mills was coaching in the NBL1, a semiprofessional basketball league in Australia, when she got her “first big break” in 2011 as the head basketball coach for a Zambian men’s basketball team called Heroes Play United.
Mills coached Heroes Play United to a title in 2012 and credits the owner for not seeing her gender as an issue and giving her confidence that she could coach on the men’s level. She also coached the Matero Magic in Zambia to a title in 2016. In 2021, Mills became the female head coach of the Kenyan men’s national team. She was also the first female head coach in the 89-year history of the International Basketball Federation to coach in the AfroBasket continental championship in 2021.
“I had a good experience working with her,” said Kenyan national basketball team member Tylor Okari via email to Andscape. “We won some very big games and qualified for AfroBasket after 28 years of no-show. She was very organized in terms of game planning and video session and scouting. She fully prepared us for the games knowing the ins and outs of our opponents. She is also a players’ coach, where she encouraged us as players to make decisions in the games but within the structure.
“She has worked in African basketball for more than 10 years and she has been able to show that with passion and dedication you can achieve whatever you set your mind to do. Also, she has been able to inspire more women to take leadership roles and break the barriers that has been there for so long.”
Even with her success and historic and groundbreaking moments, Mills has faced her share of sexism, disrespectful comments, and moments and stereotypes during her coaching career. Despite winning two titles in Zambia, she was most pained by being overlooked for the Zambian national men’s basketball head coach position because of her gender, age and nationality.
Mills said being passed over for that job had a ripple effect on her career that left her limited to assistant coaching positions in Africa from 2017 to 2019.
While she considered quitting coaching in Africa in 2017, she credits her family for helping her stay committed to becoming a notable head coach in Africa.
“The disrespect happened more earlier in my career in Africa because it was weird seeing a female coach working with a men’s team,” Mills said. “The disrespect was [comments] like, ‘Why is your water girl on the floor? Why is she warming you up?’ And then when the game starts realizing I was in the head-coaching position, people had a problem with what I wear when I coached in my boots. I might scratch the floor and leave a trail or a mark. Ridiculous things like that because it reminds them that I am a woman and it offends them.”
Mills coaches in boots as a sign of strength to women, and it has become her signature look. Actually, some of the disrespect toward Mills has come from women who had never seen a woman in a head-coaching position before.
“I was in qualifying in Cameroon for AfroBasket [in 2021] and I put my bag on the head-coaching seat. A woman from the Cameroon Federation said, ‘No, no, no, this seat is for the head coach,’ and she pointed at my male assistant,” Mills said. “He had a laugh and said, ‘No, no, no, she is the head coach …’ She apologized profusely. The irony was I worked in Cameroon as well but on an assistant level. She came up to me after the competition and said, ‘It was so amazing to see you coach. I can’t wait to see you come back to Cameroon.’
“I used to get really riled up and offended. And then I said, ‘You know what, let’s use these as educational opportunities to correct people. Why do you think I couldn’t be the head coach?’ And then I let my performance speak for itself.”
Mills reached out to AS Salé to show interest in being its head coach in the BAL last year. And in February, she landed her first head-coaching gig in North Africa with the Moroccan club. She says the AS Salé players have been respectful since her arrival.
While a strong woman, Mills also is respectful of the cultural and religious customs that come with living in the Arab world for women.
“I’m generally always covered up on the court,” Mills said. “Off the court, I have to be a little bit more sensitive. I keep a little more to myself. This team is very successful and has a lot of fans. But they want to keep it in a small circle. It’s about being respectful, not being out and about and not wearing what I normally wear when I’m relaxing at home. Just culturally, religiously, I’m very aware of their views on women. I’ve tried to be respectful of that.”
Mills is passionate about basketball in Africa and wants to continue to help develop it. The African basketball community widely respects her and believes in her after the time she has put in on the continent. She added that her nurturing approach as a woman has helped her communicate well with her male players.
With her growth as a coach and more media attention, it could be inevitable that at some point she could attract interest from the NBA or back home in Australia from the National Basketball League. Okari said he believes that Mills will have a “promising future in the big leagues.”
So would Mills be interested in coaching in the NBA or an American men’s college basketball program?
“To be honest, you never say never,” Mills said. “But right now, my focus is on Africa. We will see. I foresee myself being here for the next decade and be the first woman to coach an African team at the Olympics or the World Cup. That is my next goal.
“And I’d like to do some coaching in Europe because the style is very similar and that is the trend I’m moving towards,” she continued. “Would I like to work with some NBA teams or G League teams or watch what is going on at that level? For sure, because that would be an amazing learning experience. But in terms of actually coaching in America, it’s not in the cards right now.”
Mills and AS Salé lost 91-87 in their BAL opener to Rwanda Energy Group, coached by former NBA guard and assistant coach Robert Pack, on Saturday night. The hope for AS Salé is to win enough to be among the four teams out of six in the Sahara Conference to qualify for the BAL playoffs in Kigali, Rwanda, in late May.
But win or lose for Mills at the BAL, it certainly is bigger than basketball for women, as she is a head coach, Senegal’s DUC team has a female assistant and there are also four female referees.
“We lost our first game. You have to regroup. But it’s only basketball. And what I’m doing transcends that,” Mills said.
Said Tatum: “We have a women’s head coach here with the Moroccan men’s team in the BAL. And pretty soon people aren’t going to question that. It’s going to be common nature, and it’s going to be part of the process to include the best possible candidates for the job.”