Most coaches walking onto the basketball court are thinking about tactics, starting lineups and the upcoming game. But as the first woman to coach a men’s national team at a major FIBA tournament, Liz Mills must think of everything – even what she wears.
“When I went to Mozambique, they said: ‘You can’t wear the boots. You’ve got to take them off because you look too feminine,’” Mills tells CNN Sport.
She refused to take off the high heeled boots and they have since become a mainstay. “I’m very proud to be a woman. Don’t you forget about it, but I’m here to coach. And that’s what I want people to talk about: the coaching.”
Growing up in Australia, Mills watched the Women’s National Basketball League. Unlike most, the people who inspired her were not the players, but rather the coaches on the sidelines.
Mills says, “I always say that, for me, seeing coaches like Kari Grass, Karen Dilts and Jared Sterling, these were head coaches of women’s teams in the 90s and early 2000s.”
She adds, “I think that put the idea in my head that, I’m not going to be a great player, but I could be a great coach.
“I saw these strong, successful, intelligent women winning the league. If they can do it, I can do it.”
Mills was inspired by trailblazers in the women’s game, but she would become a trailblazer in an entirely different way. She is a pioneer and a champion for women in a sport where coaches are almost exclusively male.
Having spent several years coaching basketball in Australia, mainly with boys and girls, Mills was volunteering in Zambia when she was invited by a friend to watch a local men’s club team.
Like many of us when watching a sports team, Mills thought that she could do better; but unlike most of us, she did something about it.
“I go up to one of the players and ask, ‘Do you have a club president or anything here?’” she recalls. “And he introduced me to the club president. He worked for the World Bank, Maziko Phiri, and was very open minded, so we have a chat and he said, ‘OK, you can have an hour of practice.’”
That one hour turned into one training session, which turned into another training session, which turned into Mills taking charge of Heroes Play United.
Over the next 10 years, Mills coached club teams in Zambia and Rwanda and served as an assistant coach to the Zambian and Cameroonian national teams before getting her big break as the head coach of the Kenyan men’s national team.
Mills took over the Kenya job ahead of the AfroBasket 2021 qualifiers, where the country was looking to make it to Africa’s premier competition for the first time in 28 years.
She duly delivered in the most dramatic fashion. In February 2021, forward Tylor Ongwae hit a buzzer-beater to lift Kenya over Angola – the most successful team in AfroBasket history – booking the Morans’ spot at the tournament.
In the competition itself, Mills guided Kenya out of the group stages for the first time in its history and only narrowly missed out on the quarterfinals, 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 another milestone as she became the first woman to coach a men’s basketball team in the Arab world.
Mills laughs looking back at her trials and accomplishments but enduring the discrimination she has suffered has not been easy.
“I remember the first time we played against Angola, they were like, ‘What is your water girl doing on the court?’ They couldn’t comprehend there was a female coach.”
But the prejudice was not restricted to Angolans. “An Australian journalist asked me what I did when the players take showers,” said Mills, “or what I do in the locker room when they need to get changed.”
She has also become accustomed to having the spotlight on her in the full knowledge that any failure will not simply be seen as a personal failure, but also one of her entire gender.
“I think back to AfroBasket,” remembers Mills. “Our first game against Cote d’Ivoire was the first time a woman had coached at an event like that ever. And so I’m saying: ‘Gosh, I hope we win this game, but I hope we play well.’ But then I’ve got to, as a woman, perform as well.
“My male colleagues aren’t sitting there worrying about stuff like that at all. They’re just out there to coach.”
In being the first to accomplish what she has, Mills has blazed this trail on her own, but she doesn’t want any other woman to have to do the same.
That’s why she founded the Global Women in Basketball Coaching Network in August.
“There are so many coaches in Africa now who reach out to me, especially young women, who are like, ‘I saw you coaching Kenya’ or ‘I saw you coaching Salé and that’s why I want to coach,’” 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 – which Mills set up with her twin, Vic – connects women from all over the world who coach in basketball at all levels of the game, providing them with training and courses to improve their coaching.
But more importantly, it is a safe space for coaches to support each other in an industry that is rife with sexism.
Members of the network have experienced discrimination of all kinds, particularly those working in the men’s game. Mills said one of the members was once offered a job as the head coach of a men’s team, but the sponsors of the club said that, if she was given the job, they would pull their sponsorship.
Even in the women’s game, coaching is still seen as a job primarily for men. Mills recently attended the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in her native Australia where only five of the 12 countries were coached by women.
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 BAL (Basketball Africa League). Day one of the tournament, we just finished practice and I was walking around the arena just waiting for a game to start, and a lady and her two children stopped me walking,” says Mills.
“And she’s like, ‘I just want to say the reason that myself and my two girls are here watching is 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 when they grow up.’”
Mills is not alone in trailblazing in the men’s game and is joining a growing list of women coaches making strides in the sport.
Brigitte Affidehome Tonon was the head coach of Benin’s men before Mills joined Kenya. In the US, Becky Hammon has been at the peak of men’s basketball for a number of years, spending eight years as the assistant coach to Gregg Popovich at the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. She was considered by a number of NBA teams for their head coaching vacancy, before she took up the head coaching role at the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, who she lead to a championship in her first season.
But Mills has her eyes set on achieving it all on the international stage – however long it takes.
“I want to be the first woman to coach at the World Cup as a head coach of an African [men’s] team,” she asserts.
Many would see that as only a matter of time.