It might have unfolded sooner, too, except Magpayo missed the season opener the previous week to be with his wife for the birth of the couple’s first child.
“It was the furthest thing from my mind,” said Magpayo, who was unaware that he was featured on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” on the night of the win until his wife alerted him. “As a coach, man, it’s always just relief when you win, number one, outside of any Asian thing.”
Thousands of miles across the country, Steve Yang was celebrating Magpayo’s accomplishment. The director of operations for the Georgetown women’s team is a close friend of Magpayo’s, having forged a bond years ago when the two partnered to promote the Asian Coaches Association.
The inspiration for the ACA stemmed from a conversation Magpayo, at the time an assistant at Columbia, had in 2011 with then-Lions coach Kyle Smith and fellow assistant Koby Altman (now the general manager of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers). Smith and Altman encouraged Magpayo to start an organization to advance the standing of Asian coaches in the sport.
In 2012, a dozen or so attendees convened at the ACA’s first event during the men’s Final Four in New Orleans. Jeff Hironaka, a pioneering Asian assistant coach then at Washington State, was the keynote speaker. Yang eventually came onboard to oversee the women’s side.
“Steve has done a spectacular job,” Magpayo said. “The women’s side, they are strong.”
Yang’s coaching journey has taken him a considerable distance from his roots, both geographically and culturally. Born in Tulsa to immigrants from Laos, Yang spent more than a decade in the Midwest as a college assistant after graduating from Missouri State.
During one stint as a men’s assistant, Yang faced racist taunts, underscoring the plight surrounding the small community of Asians in the industry, particularly in parts of the country where the Asian population is relatively scarce.
“We were losing against this good team, and the student body was yelling: ‘Put in Mr. Miyagi! Put in Mr. Miyagi!’ And they’re talking about me,” Yang said, referring to the character the late Pat Morita played in “The Karate Kid” movie franchise. “I was the only Asian guy. I was laughing at first, but I look back, and that hurts. It really did, and it does.”
Other obstacles for Asian coaches include a generational divide frequently resulting in skepticism and pushback from older family members, particularly parents, for choosing a nontraditional career path.
Yang said he continues to try to educate his mother and father on what his job entails, how his hours are far from conventional and that he isn’t just killing time while deciding on when he’ll attend medical school — or law school, for that matter.
Yang and Magpayo have encountered similar stories from other Asian colleagues, some of whom joined weekly Zoom meetings that took place during coronavirus-related quarantines over the summer. Participation at times surpassed 100, according to Magpayo, with coaches logging on from, among other countries, China, the Philippines, England and India.
“There are Asian coaches out there who have been doing this way before us,” Yang said. “We just don’t know about them because we don’t bring awareness to them and their history and what they’ve been through, right? So if we would just highlight them and spotlight them, I think it would kind of help the next generation to kind of get more involved or just wanting to coach.”
‘Am I going to get a chance to be on the court?’
Approximately 22.6 million Asians live in the United States, close to 6.8 percent of the population, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. That demographic group comprises original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
They’re also a significant contributor to the white-collar U.S. workforce, with 55 percent of employed Asians in management, professional and related occupations — the highest-paying job categories — compared with 41 percent of Whites, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics review released in 2019.
But in college athletics, Asian representation is severely lacking, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which issues an annual race and gender report card. Magpayo and Yang don’t need statistics to confirm the disparity.
“When I first started, I don’t think there was a Division I Asian, except for Coach Hironaka,” said Magpayo, who then recited the names of a handful of current Asian assistants on the men’s side, including Kurtis Townsend at Kansas, Anthony Santos at Cal State Fullerton and Texas San Antonio’s Mike Peck. “That was always my biggest fear. I was like: ‘Gosh dang it, am I going to get a chance to be on the court?’ Even though Kyle gave me a shot, was someone else going to give me an opportunity to coach? How can I prove to other people I can coach on the floor?’ ”
The calling to coach first struck Magpayo when he was an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara. He began working with several high school teams at the time and continued to do so after graduation, all while operating a lucrative real estate business.
So serious was Magpayo about coaching that he sold his company so he could devote all of his attention to pursuing a full-time position. He eventually found his way to Columbia in 2010, learning strategy and game management from Smith, who last season was named head coach at Washington State.
After a stop at Campbell, Magpayo reunited with Smith as an assistant at San Francisco in 2017-18. Magpayo joined UC Riverside the following year and rose to associate head coach in 2019-20 under then-coach David Patrick, who left this past offseason to become an assistant at Arkansas.
The Highlanders (8-4, 4-2) are in fourth place this season in the Big West, one game behind first-place UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara.
“No different than any underrepresented category in college athletics. The great challenge is presidents and athletic directors are predominantly White, and obviously there’s unconscious biases and just a lot of stereotypes,” said Washington State’s Pat Chun, the first Asian American athletic director at a Power Five school.
“From where I sit, really, really inspired and proud of what the Asian Coaches Association has done. I think that’s what Mikey Magpayo and Steve — I mean, here’s two guys that understand the value. The road is hard enough as a coach. It’s even harder when you’re an ethnic minority, and then especially when you’re the minority of minorities in coaching or in sports.”
‘All your experiences have prepared you for this opportunity’
Magpayo’s ascent within the coaching ranks afforded him greater leverage to push for exposure for the ACA, which at its most recent gathering at the 2019 Final Four in Minneapolis welcomed several hundred guests, including non-Asian allies in the industry.
The highlight was an appearance and brief remarks from Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra, whose mother is Filipino. Spoelstra was the first head coach of Asian descent in the four major North American professional sports leagues.
Magpayo for years had been trying to arrange for the coach of the 2012 and 2013 NBA champions to speak at the ACA meeting at the Final Four, but the logistics just weren’t right. In this instance, circumstances aligned. The Heat happened to be in town for a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“That was the first time I ever talked to or met Coach Spoelstra,” Magpayo said. “He was so great. He came and just spoke to our contingent for five minutes, but then took some photos, and everybody was fired up, and then he went to coach his game that night.”
It wouldn’t be the last time the two connected. When Magpayo was named acting head coach at UC Riverside, he received a text message from an unknown number. Magpayo recognized the Florida area code and suspected it might be Spoelstra.
The message remains in Magpayo’s phone as an uplifting reminder from one of his “idols,” as he calls Spoelstra, of the brotherhood among the Asian coaching community at every level and what a coach in an underrepresented group can accomplish if given the opportunity.
“I was really fired up when I saw the headline,” Spoelstra’s message read in part. “All your experiences have prepared you for this opportunity. It will seem crazy and oftentimes harrowing at first, but it slows down, and you find your head coach voice pretty quickly. Looking forward to following your season. …
“Good luck and congrats again Mike. Represent.”