'Why is your water girl on the court?' - AS Sale coach Liz Mills on coaching men's hoops

Newly-hired AS Salé coach Liz Mills will make history when she leads the Moroccan champions at the Basketball Africa League, becoming the first woman to coach a BAL side, and the first to coach a Moroccan men's team.

Mills, who comes to the role on the back of her stint as boss of the Kenya men's national team, was set to coach at the first edition of the BAL last year, but opted to lead Kenya to their first Afrobasket qualification in nearly three decades.

The Australian is one of the most experienced coaches in Africa, regardless of gender, but says she does encounter opposition at times, though says the players under her wing are always on her side.

Mills, who started coaching in Zambia in 2011, told ESPN: "I've been really lucky with the teams I've worked with. I tend to get resistance from the other teams; not necessarily my own.

"When I first came into Zambia, [the response] was very much, 'Well, she's qualified and from Australia. Let's learn as much from her as possible.' I never had that resistance in Zambia, or working in Cameroon, Rwanda, Kenya and now Salé, because I've built a reputation in Africa.

"I'm not one of those foreign coaches who comes in for a tournament and then gets lost. I've consistently been in Africa and helped develop the game here, so there's that level of respect for my career here."

Mills added that the longevity of her career in Africa has indeed seen that opposition resistance, or scepticism, reduce, and that incidents were mostly when she first started out.

She explained: "In my first Zone 6 tournament -- so, Southern Africa tournament -- in 2012, it was Club Championships, so like the BAL, Mozambique's clubs gave me a hard time about what I was wearing. The boots caused a lot of problems!

"The Angolan teams who were playing in the tournament were like, 'Why is your water girl on the floor?' They couldn't understand that I was actually their coach.

"Then, when I was in Cameroon, a person from the federation told me to move down the bench because she didn't understand that I was the coach."

Despite her success in Africa, Mills, who at one point was the only woman in the world in charge of a men's senior national team in any major sport, has shown more patience than most when dealing with doubters.

"It's been a learning experience -- learning not to take it personally and trying to educate people in those situations, opening minds one step at a time," she said.

Mills' journey in Africa began under bizarre circumstances, as she, unintentionally, talked her way into a head coaching job at Heroes Play United.

"I went to their preseason tournament in 2011. I had never coached men before -- I had never thought about it. As a female coach, you're told [you can only coach] juniors, predominantly girls, and then women," Mills explained.

"After the first session with Heroes, they kept inviting me back and I became their head coach for the rest of the season. That was my first domestic league title in Africa."

She subsequently coached Zambian side Matero Magic, and then served as an assistant coach for the Zambia and Cameroon men's national teams.

She was an assistant at Rwanda's Patriots as they went undefeated en route to the BAL East Division Qualification Title in 2019. However, Mills left before the tournament itself began, taking charge of the Kenya men's national team.

Now, Mills is finally preparing for her first BAL tournament and has hit the ground running. No sooner had American guard Terrell Stoglin arrived in Morocco than he was given a statistical masterclass by Mills, who is somewhat of a guru in this field, over dinner.

Mills said: "I think in Africa, the analytics, scouting, film etc. is really in its infancy, especially in terms of local teams. National teams have a lot of coaches who have experience in Europe or the NBA, so they're bringing that into their national teams, but on a local level across countries in Africa, this is very much in its infancy.

"What I really enjoy is bringing that to new teams as I continue my coaching career. The more that we can educate coaches in Africa on these aspects of coaching, [the more] I think it can really improve the standard of basketball across the continent."

As far as career ambitions go, Mills is firmly rooted in African basketball. She hopes to one day take a men's national team to the Olympics or World Cup, and although she does intend to pick up experience in Europe, she ultimately intends to bring any knowledge gained there back to Africa.

For now, her eyes are firmly on the BAL prize, which she feels Salé stand a strong chance of winning due to having more games under their belt this year.

She said: "[Salé is] one of the favourites. Salé won the Club Championships in 2017. They were in the finals in 2019. They definitely could have performed better last year, but given the fact that there hadn't been a league in Morocco, that really hurt their chances. Now, that league is back up and running. They've got games under their belt.

"Now, we definitely have to be considered one of the favourites - [one of the] top four teams in this tournament."

Mills would ultimately prefer to be remembered as a top basketball coach on merit, rather than as a woman in basketball, but she has grown accustomed to her newfound role model status.

"It's overwhelming," Mills said. "There is pride as well, but this is 2022 and we are talking about the first to do this and the first to do that. I would like us to get to the point where we don't even have to say the first, second, third... It becomes the norm and we change the narrative.

"It is overwhelming in terms of feeling the weight of the expectations of having to carry that you're the first woman to do this, but I'm also conscious of changing the narrative and encouraging more women to start coaching men's teams and achieve whatever goal that is, be it in sport, life or whatever."