CAPE TOWN – Liz Mills’ decision to look more professional when coaching basketball games by wearing high-heeled leather boots instead of sneakers was somehow seen as provocation.
To make sense of that, you have to understand her environment.
Mills coaches men's basketball. She has for a decade in Africa at both the club and national level. The Australian is now head coach of Kenya, the only woman in the world currently in charge of a men's national team.
She decided years ago that she may as well confront the issue. The woman in the room, if you like. And so, the boots.
“I think it was a way of looking more professional but also reminding everybody that I’m a woman and I’m not afraid of that and I want you to know that,” Mills said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I wanted to walk in and be like, this is me, here I am.”
Some male officials tried to stop her from wearing the boots, citing damage to the court. Mills knew that was a lie.
“They were offended by my presence," she said.
In a way, the boots ultimately worked out. Mills hasn't had any problems recently. In fact, there was a commotion when Mills didn't wear them one game. They're now accepted, even embraced. Maybe Mills is also.
Last month, Mills led Kenya to a place at the African championship for the first time since 1993. She did it by overseeing an upset in qualifying over Angola, the record 11-time African champion and a team Kenya had never beaten. She'll make history as the first female head coach at the tournament in August.
“Justification," she said.
Mills has arrived at a time of progress. In December, San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon became the first woman to take charge of an NBA team in a game. Brigitte Affidehome Tonon broke barriers in Africa as head coach of the Benin men's team for a while.
Still, women coaching men is rare.
Over 10 years, Mills has seen it all, heard it all. Opposing players asking her players why their “water girl” was calling timeouts. Other coaches whispering among themselves whenever she was around.
“The talk was always, who’s the random chick?” Mills said.
At African championship qualifying last month, she was shooed away from the head coach's chair just before a game by a female official.
“No, this is for the head coach,” Mills remembers the woman saying. “I’m the head coach,” Mills responded. A battle over the chair ensued.
Yet despite all that pushback, Mills’ overarching story actually transcends gender. It's about throwing herself at challenges anyone, man or woman, would find daunting.
Mills started coaching at 16 back home in Sydney. She first carved out an opportunity for herself in Africa while visiting Zambia in 2011. Mills was inspired at a men's league game, approached the president of one of the clubs and asked if she could coach his team. She was 24, and had never coached men.
“He said ‘I’ll give you an hour.’ I was like, this guy’s crazy for doing this,” Mills said.
The hour turned into the whole session and they asked Mills to stay. The team won the national championship that season.
One of her bitterest disappointments was missing out on the 2017 African championship as assistant coach with Zambia's national team. Soon after, she picked herself up and flew with her twin sister, Vic, to Tunisia where the big African teams were playing a tournament. She went seeking a new challenge with one of them.
Armed with pages of stats she collated herself, she approached coaches and team officials at hotel swimming pools and news conferences, wherever she could find them. She came back with a job as assistant coach with Cameroon.
Kenya called late last year and asked Mills to be head coach for the final push for African championship qualification. Mills flew from Australia to Kenya and for two weeks in early February ran a training camp while still doing her job back home remotely.
Her schedule involved coaching during the day, and then working Sydney time overnight. She slept for about four hours a day.
Mills has never been given a contract to coach and has nearly emptied her own bank account to make it happen. She doesn't seem to mind.
What does bug her is people riding her success when they did nothing. She won't forget the Australian basketball federation once didn't bother to help her with a coaching reference. Now they want to congratulate her.
“I get really annoyed at federations," Mills said. “I think it’s absolutely their fault that we don’t see more female coaches. They don’t encourage.”
One thing that's rarely been a struggle is winning over her own players, although there's been occasional awkward moments.
On one team, players were "really upset" when they heard Mills swear the first time. She swears “like a truckdriver,” she admits. Players have been confused about what to call her.
"Is it ma’am? Is it coach? Is it Liz? They're very nervous about it,” she said. "It's easy, it's coach or coach Liz. If someone calls me ma’am, I’m like 10 pushups for you. Never again.”
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