Men’s basketball coach Liz Mills eyes ‘girls club’ network

Basketball coach Liz Mills has again shown that women can successfully coach men’s teams. Now she wants to help other women join the ranks.

The Australian led her Moroccan club team to the quarterfinals of this year’s Basketball Africa League after she had coached the Kenyan men’s team to its first Afrobasket tournament in 28 years.

When she left the Kenyan team to take over AS Salé in February, she became the first female head coach of a men’s club team in the Arab world.

Mills hopes to turn her collection of acquaintances, colleagues and distant supporters into something more formal, particularly in Africa, where she’s spent the past decade coaching.

“Instead of trying to be part of the boys club, I think we’re stronger making the girls club and building each other up,” she said. “We don’t spend enough time connecting with each other.”

Mills cited Khardiata Diop, an assistant coach with the Senegalese team in the BAL regular season, as someone worthy of a head coaching job.

“There’s a lot of other female coaches in Africa working with men’s teams and with boys teams — it’s an exciting time for female coaches in Africa,” said Mills, who wants to return to a men’s national team after the Moroccan season.

Along with sharing coaching tips, a more formal network would help them identify job opportunities.

“I want to create either a WhatsApp group or some kind of monthly chat where we all join in on Zoom and we stay connected. We can lift each other up that way,” she said.

Getting the job doesn’t mean problem solved; there are everyday obstacles like lower salaries compared to male colleagues. And Mills still regularly hears comments about her appearance.

“That kind of physical appraisal is entirely not necessary,” Mills said.

The BAL has networking in mind, too. Last weekend, it hosted a “BAL4Her” workshop featuring female leaders like NBA Africa vice president Gbemisola Abudu and Toronto Raptors scout Sarah Chan.

Now in its second season, the BAL is an NBA-FIBA partnership styled on soccer’s Champions League but lacking the star power. It is part of the NBA’s long-term strategy to both develop the game and cash in on its popularity.

Rosters are heavy with local players and imports though this season each team was assigned a prospect from the NBA Academy in Senegal. Sixteen-year-old Ulrich Chomche, a 6-foot-11 Cameroonian, averaged 1.7 blocks per game for FAP — Cameroon’s entry — including three in a semifinal loss to Angolan team Petro de Luanda.

AS Salé’s playoff run in the BAL ended early. Luanda eliminated them 102-89 last Saturday. The Angolan champions hit 19 3-pointers and withstood Salé’s fourth-quarter push.

“We simply didn’t follow our game plan,” she said in the postgame news conference. “We talked about defense for two weeks. For us, that’s where we lost the game.”

The tournament final between Luanda and Tunisian team US Monastir is on Saturday in Kigali, Rwanda.

Ousmane Dramé, who had 19 points and 13 rebounds in Salé’s quarterfinal loss, said it’s “breathtaking” to see how hard Mills works.

“That’s the kind of environment I want to be around as a professional basketball player,” said Dramé, who played at Quinnipiac and briefly in the G League.

Salé now heads into its domestic league playoffs, after which Mills will pursue a switch back to a men’s national team in contention for the FIBA World Cup next year. She hasn’t considered a return to women’s teams, she said. She has turned down invitations to coach at G League preseason camps.

Mills has spoken to two African federations but declined to identify them.

“It’s also about what kind of learning opportunity am I going to get. Whether it’s an assistant coach to an exceptional head coach that I can learn from or taking over a team and becoming the first woman to coach at a World Cup,” Mills said. “I like breaking barriers, as you know.”

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