Liz Mills: Trailblazing Australian coach says Africa offers great opportunities

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AS Sale coach Liz Mills court side during the Basketball Africa LeagueLiz Mills has spent a decade coaching in Africa at club and national level

Liz Mills has become a trailblazer for female basketball coaches and believes working in Africa has helped advance her career.

The Australian will lead Moroccan club AS Sale in the Basketball Africa League (BAL) play-offs in Rwanda this weekend as she continues to break down barriers for women in the sport.

Last year, with Kenya, she became the first woman to coach at men's AfroBasket and has notched a similar landmark in the second edition of the BAL.

Sydney native Mills has worked across the continent at club and national level and thinks coaching in Africa has given her better roles than she would have received elsewhere in the world.

"I've been here for ten years and without doubt I wouldn't get the opportunities that I've had to coach men's club teams and national teams in Africa that I would back home in Australia, Europe or the United States," Mills told BBC Sport Africa.

"In some aspects, I think Africa is leading the way in regards to gender and equality.

"I've been really lucky to not have to face the same kind of discrimination that I would be facing if I had been in the West. Predominantly I have been embraced by the African basketball community.

"We see female commissioners in the BAL, we see female referees, female head coaches and assistant coaches. How often would we see that in any other league?"

'If I was African I might have struggled'

Liz Mills with Kenya's men's side at AfroBasketMills led Kenya's men to the AfroBasket finals for the first time in 28 years

Mills had spells at Rwandan top-flight club Patriots and as an assistant coach with Zambia and Cameroon before joining Kenya and then moving on to AS Sale this year.

Despite the progress she has made, Mills still faces people querying her position as a coach - and remains surprised she is the first to have achieved some of her feats.

"On one hand it is exciting to be the first [woman] to coach a national team at AfroBasket or coach an Arab team, which in particular is a huge achievement, but it's 2022," she said.

"Why am I the first to be doing this, in 2022?"

"I've been called the water girl. I've been called an assistant coach when I'm the head coach, I've been completely ignored.

"Even last year, when we were in Cameroon for AfroBasket qualifiers, a female official came up to me and said that I needed to move from my head coaching seat to the assistant coaching position. And she pointed out my male assistant coach, she said 'That's the head coach. And I said 'No, no no, I am the head coach'.

"She apologised and I continued to sit in my seat. And then after the tournament had finished, she said it was amazing to see me in that role, and it opened her mind up to the possibility."

Despite the range of jobs she has filled, Mills thinks her Australian background has been of benefit while coaching in Africa.

"I'm coming from a very strong basketball culture in Australia which has developed a number of great coaches and great players," she said.

"So there's that respect in terms of where I'm coming from. And I believe that they see I'm just an Australian. They don't see the gender that I'm female - they just see a coach.

"I believe if I was an African woman or an African American, I might have struggled a bit more.

"I think when it comes to the historical aspect of colonialisation, that's something that does still continue to play out in Africa. Coming from the West and the history behind that, there is still that level of deferring to someone from an Anglo-Saxon background."

On encouraging change

Liz Mills passes on instructions to AS Sale playersMills says sport "embraces change" and can help in the drive for equality in society

Mills is not just content with federations providing more chances for women to be trained as basketball coaches, and thinks further opportunities must be provided despite the progress BAL is already making.

"It all starts with federations and clubs - we need to engage and encourage women to coach," she said.

"And it's not just a ticking the box exercise to say 'This is what we're doing, here's our female programme'. You need to give these people opportunities to actually coach.

"Where are the jobs for these women? That's what we need to start discussing. And I think once we develop a base and get more female coaches in there, we'll see more of us in the league."

Yet Mills believes basketball, and sport in general, can be a catalyst to push for equality in wider society.

"I think the wonderful thing about sport is it embraces change," she added.

"Obviously sport produces superstars. Look at Cristiano Ronaldo in football or LeBron James in basketball. When these people are promoting equality, then fans are looking up to their role models.

"And we can educate people by using these athletes, we're pushing the conversation forward. And that's why I really think that sport is at the forefront and is a beacon that the rest of society can look to in terms of breaking down these barriers."

BAL title is 'expectation' for AS Sale

Khalid Boukichou of AS Sale in action in the Basketball Africa LeagueAS Sale are one of eight teams bidding to win the second edition of the Basketball Africa League in Rwanda

On court, Mills' AS Sale side take on Petro de Luanda in the BAL play-off quarter-finals in Kigali on Saturday.

AS Sale progressed with three wins and two defeats from the Sahara Conference, which was held in the Senegalese capital Dakar in March, and Mills is confident the Moroccan club has the quality to succeed in the play-offs.

"We have loads of talent and once that talent can work together in a more cohesive manner, we'll be scary," she said.

"Once our chemistry evolves and we get to understand each other on and off the floor, that's going to be when we start clicking.

"By the time we get to Rwanda we'll see a different team and therefore I think the title is our expectation. Every time we step on the floor we expect to win."

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