The NBA 2020 Finals showed Erik Spoelstra’s optimism and poise as a coach in carrying his underdog team to an Eastern Conference championship. As the first and only Asian American head coach in the NBA, his presence and voice carries a vast amount of weight among the Asian American basketball community.
Despite Spoelstra’s establishing himself over the last 12 years with the Heat, a run that has included winning two NBA championships, his success has only slightly cracked open the door for Asian coaches to follow in his footsteps. One of those coaches, though, is up-and-coming UC Riverside coach Mike Magpayo. In accepting his position this summer, Magpayo became the first Division I men’s basketball head coach of Filipino or Asian descent in NCAA history.
People of Asian descent make up a disproportionately small number of professional athletes in the majority of professional leagues, as well as in the NCAA. More than 18.6 million Asians live in the United States. Of the more than half a million NCAA athletes who compete every year, just 1% of them are Asian. That number gets even smaller when carried over to the professional level; in 2015, Asian players made up only 0.2% of the NBA.
For Magpayo, a first-generation Filipino-American, basketball became an unrelenting passion at a very young age. During his time as an undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara, he began coaching multiple high school teams and continued to make time for coaching as a hobby for years. What started as a pastime while Magpayo simultaneously ran a real estate company soon took over his life. Eventually, he gave up and sold his business, pursued his passion for coaching and took on assistant jobs at Columbia and then Campbell before making the move to UC Riverside.
“I was making 15 grand … you’re not making much money, you’re taking a chance or betting on yourself and you have to do it because you love it,” Magpayo says. “I’m lucky that I do love it and I wake up every morning with that feeling.”
As much as Magpayo credited Spoelstra for paving the way for Asian coaches, the 41-year-old Highlanders coach has had a hand in doing so as well. He founded and serves as the president of the Asian Coaches Association, an organization that serves to unify, support and elevate all Asian coaches beyond just the basketball community.
From the association’s first event at the 2012 Final Four in Houston with a 12-person turnout to its events now hosting over 200 people, Magpayo has been proud to use his organization as an avenue for Asian coaches to network and get involved within athletics.
“Spoelstra has opened the door for me and I hope I can open the door for other Asian coaches … that's the mission,” Magpayo says.
However, as Magpayo and his organization continue to open doors in the sports industry for the Asian community, his own door has been wavering shut.
In August, officials at UC Riverside listed eliminating the entire athletic program as an option in addressing the financial uncertainties the public school is facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to USA Today, UC Riverside is currently the most subsidized Division I program in the country. Over 90% of its annual revenue is coming from student fees and institutional support. UC Riverside senior associate athletics director Wes Mallette pointed toward the school’s financial deficits—as well as several other schools taking similar action—as reasons why the elimination has been considered.
A number of Power 5 universities have already eliminated several sports teams—including Stanford’s rowing program and Minnesota’s indoor and outdoor track and field teams—though no one in 2020 has ended athletics entirely. But for a non-Power 5 school like UC Riverside, which additionally lacks a lucrative football program (the Highlanders’ football team is a member of the NCAA’s Division II), a notion to cut its entire athletic program could be seen as justifiable.
For Magpayo, this action would throw a wrench in his career journey before he barely even gets his feet wet as the Highlanders’ head coach.
“I know it’s about dollars and cents and we’re in a once-in-a-century pandemic, but I just truly believe in the value of athletics and sports in general,” Magpayo says. “Especially in a pandemic … I just can’t imagine it.”
Mallette paralleled Magpayo’s optimism, noting that UC Riverside athletics launched a campaign entitled #KeepUCRAthletics that engaged more than 350,000 people via social media alone.
“We’ve seen other teams and programs get cut … but an entire athletic program would be unfathomable and devastating,” Mallette says.
Despite both Mallette’s and Magpayo’s high hopes for the UC Riverside athletic program staying afloat, Mallette, along with other coaches, has acknowledged the possibility of Magpayo’s current opportunity ending. Howard basketball head coach Kenny Blakeney, voiced his concern for the future if Magpayo does lose his job if the program gets eliminated.
“It doesn’t allow Magpayo to have his story be told … it doesn’t allow for that fire to ignite and to inspire more people of Asian descent and other racial minorities within the basketball community,” Blakeney says.
Blakeney—as a Black man and head coach—noted his similar experiences to Magpayo as a racial minority in their profession. While 78.9% of major-conference scholarship players are Black, Black head coaches only represented 29.2% of D-I men’s basketball coaches last season. Blakeney acknowledged this clear disconnect that permeates through the NCAA.
Previously serving as the Harvard assistant basketball coach before moving to Columbia, and then Howard, Blakeney’s time coaching at Harvard coincided with Jeremy Lin’s college basketball career at the university.
Lin took the NBA by storm in 2012 as he led the New York Knicks in the regular season, scoring a career high of 38 points against the Los Angeles Lakers. In his most recent NBA season in 2019 with the Toronto Raptors, Lin became the first Asian American to win a ring.
After coaching Lin and staying in contact with him to this day, Blakeney said the point guard heard a number of racial slurs both in college and in the NBA. According to Blakeney, opposing crowds in the Ivy League would often chant slurs at Lin, but said he has seen improvement over the years and hopes Magpayo can continue bettering the basketball landscape on that front.
“It’s a responsibility,” Magpayo says about being the first ever Division I head coach of Asian descent. “But my players don’t look at me as Asian, white, Black, or anything … they just see me as ‘Coach’ and that’s really all I could ask for.”
Magpayo’s optimism at UC Riverside has carried over to his work with the ACA. As the pandemic forced all events to go virtual, Magpayo took advantage of the circumstance and began scheduling weekly Zoom events for the organization.
“The goal is to grow and connect … maybe move to having monthly meetings with a big turnout, but now we all can connect and get to know each other through Zoom so it’s incredibly easy to grow,” says Magpayo.
As the ACA grows and, in turn, raises Magpayo’s profile, UC Riverside can remain part of that progress if its basketball program remains in the NCAA.
The Highlanders' 2020–21 season kicks off Wednesday afternoon at 2 p.m. local time, but Magpayo may not be there to see what would have been his head coaching debut. Upon landing at the Sacramento International Airport on Tuesday afternoon with his team to take on the Pacific Tigers, Magpayo received a call from his wife, Caroline, that her water broke.
“I never left the airport!” recalled Magpayo. “I sent the team off and bought a flight right back [to Los Angeles].”
Magpayo said his wife’s due-date range was from Dec. 19 to Jan. 5. However, he told Sports Illustrated on Tuesday that if his wife was able to have the baby that evening or early Wednesday morning, he’d fly back to Sacramento for the game.
“First baby or first game… wow!” he said.
No matter what happens with the Highlanders this season or in the future, Magpayo is intent on continuing to open doors for future basketball generations as much as he possibly can. And those inspired by his presence as a coach can clearly see how crucial it is to keep his own door open.
“I hope that Magpayo can have the chance to inspire the next generation of Asian coaches so we can’t even have a conversation of him being the only Division I basketball coach of Asian descent,” Blakeney says. “Because he won’t be.”