Kenya basketball coach Liz Mills eyes further landmarks after historic year

By Michelle KatamiBBC Sport Africa, Nairobi
Kenya coach Liz Mills
Liz Mills led Kenya's men to AfroBasket for the first time since 1993, and made history by coaching at the tournament

With 2021 drawing to a close, BBC Sport Africa is reflecting on some milestones this year. One of these came at the men's Afrobasket, when Australia's Liz Mills became the first woman to coach at an International Basketball Federation (Fiba) competition:

"As much as I was concentrating on the game, the weight of being the first woman to do that did weigh heavily on me," Mills said when reflecting on this year's men's Afrobasket competition.

"I wanted to make women proud and feel inspired and I know my team did that for me. I am hoping to be first woman to coach a men's team from Africa at the World Cup or the Olympics."

The Australian hopes to break more barriers in the game after "shattering the glass ceiling" when she stood courtside during the game against Ivory Coast on 25 August.

The Sydney native has been in charge of the Kenya Morans since January, and is the only female head coach currently serving in the men's game on the African continent.

"Coach Liz has been amazing for us as a team and for me personally," Kenya centre Tom Wamukota said.

"She's one of the least craziest coaches I've had. As a player she's changed me so that I am looking at more technicalities in the game."

Mills, who is in her 30s, has spent a decade working in Africa at club and national level, including spells at Rwandan top-flight club Patriots and as an assistant coach with Zambia and Cameroon.

Liz Mills with the Kenyan men's basketball team
Mills coached in Zambia, Cameroon and Rwanda before joining the Kenya set-up

She credits the Kenya Basketball Federation for hiring her for her skillset and experience.

"I got overlooked for coaching jobs because I was a woman - because of my age sometimes - and that hurts after you put a lot of effort in," she told BBC Sport Africa.

"Ten years ago a lot of the times opponents would be like - 'what's your water girl doing on the court?' or 'why do you have your physio on the court?' They couldn't get their minds around the fact that I was actually the head coach."

Kenya were knocked out of AfroBasket in the quarter-finals, in what was their first appearance at the tournament in 28 years, and Mills hopes to become a role model for women working in the men's game.

"Being the first woman to coach at a Fiba tournament, and lead a team like the Kenya Morans, we have proved that we belong in these positions," she said.

"After shattering the glass ceiling, I am holding the door open and I am welcoming them [women] through."

Changing mentalities 'a good thing'

Mills was not the only woman working at the men's AfroBasket tournament in Kigali, with Dr Julia Kuc serving as South Sudan's team doctor.

"When I joined the men's training camp they were sceptical, maybe because I am female or they just have not met a doctor who's almost their age," Dr Kuc told BBC Sport Africa.

"I needed respect and to prove myself to them through my work."

The 28-year-old added: "The older male doctors were not receptive. Most of them thought it wasn't right, first of all because I am a female, and then the fact that I am still young."

Nyang Wek, who was being treated for ongoing tendonitis, said Kuc was "very much an inspiration".

"It is rare to see a South Sudanese woman as a doctor," the power forward added.

"I was more like 'okay, South Sudanese doctor is a woman and let's see what she can do'. She came and proved to us that it isn't just about male and female."

Elsewhere in Rwanda, osteopath Yari Keita worked with the Central Africa Republic men's team.

"The players don't see me as a woman but as a medical professional," she said.

Keita is an anatomy professor in Paris and because her father is a former basketballer and she has four brothers, working with men is second nature for her.

"I was very lucky to be at AfroBasket with the men," she added. "I don't forget that I am a woman. I am also a wife and a mum - I am proud of that.

"And if I can have a part in changing mentalities, it is a very good thing. That is why I want to say thank you to Simone Biles, Michelle Obama, Billie Holiday, coach Liz Mills and Dr Julia."