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Erik Spoelstra and the lack of Asian coaches in the NBA

Asian coaches in hoops often wonder where they belong in the conversation

Mike Magpayo was in Minneapolis last year for the Final Four, organizing a meetup for the Asian Coaches Association. It’s an initiative Magpayo, who became the first NCAA Division I head coach of Asian heritage in July at UC Riverside, started in 2012 in hopes of creating a network for Asian coaches at the collegiate level. Over the past decade, it has become a Final Four tradition.

At the first meetup in Houston in 2012, 14 people showed up. But through word-of-mouth, it has become the event to create visibility for Asian coaches. In Minnesota, around 150 coaches showed up for the festivities.

“I would say 50 of them were Asian,” Magpayo said. “The other 100 are coaches in the industry who come and have a drink to support us. It’s great networking for us. … These coaches get to meet us and say, ‘Hey, he knows hoops, he can coach.’ ”

For years, Magpayo tried to get Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra — a two-time NBA champion whose mother is of Filipino descent — to attend the event. In 2019, the timing finally worked out. Spoelstra and the Heat happened to be in town to face the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Before heading to the Target Center that day to coach the Heat, Spoelstra arranged a car service and spent an hour talking to coaches at the event. He understood the importance of the opportunity. As the first Asian American head coach in the history of the NBA, his voice holds a lot of weight among Asian coaches and executives.

“I would love to be able to talk to owners, general managers and administrators in college, or athletic directors in high school,” Spoelstra, 49, said, “to be able to open their eyes to some very talented young coaches out here of a different ethnicity.”

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra (left) with UC Riverside head coach Mike Magpayo (right).

Mike Magpayo/Asian Coaches Association

the challenges of the asian coach

When the Brooklyn Nets hired Steve Nash as their head coach, the reaction was mixed. While some understood Nash’s previous relationship with Kevin Durant in Golden State gave him an advantage, others lamented the Black coaches who were overlooked despite having more coaching experience than Nash.

At his introductory news conference, Nash spoke about his white privilege and acknowledged the need for more diversity among head coaches in a league where more than 70% of the players are Black. In 2012-13, there were 14 Black coaches in the NBA. Today, the list is down to five: Doc Rivers, Lloyd Pierce, J.B. Bickerstaff, Dwane Casey and Monty Williams.

There have been extensive conversations in recent years about the lack of diversity in leadership in the NBA, now led by Oris Stuart, the league’s chief people and inclusion officer. And while the push for equal opportunity for Black coaches in the NBA is clearly important, Asian coaches often wonder where they belong in the conversation.

Jane Hyun, an executive coach, once coined the phrase “bamboo ceiling” as a way to describe the lack of Asian Americans in leadership positions. When Jason Shen posted a survey about discrimination in the workplace and in day-to-day life several years ago, of the 350 Asian American men who responded, 88% reported experiencing a stereotype and about one-third of the respondents said they believed they were treated worse compared to white people. Research has suggested that white people see Asian American men as being unfit for management because of stereotypes that they are passive and weak.

In the NBA, Asians have held prominent roles, but the list isn’t very long, and most of the positions have not been in the coaching ranks.

Former NBA general manager Rich Cho (right) is currently the vice president of basketball strategy for the Memphis Grizzlies.

Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Mark Tatum is the NBA’s deputy commissioner. Rich Cho, who previously held general manager jobs with the Portland Trail Blazers and Charlotte Hornets, is currently the vice president of basketball strategy for the Memphis Grizzlies. Bobby Webster is the general manager of the Toronto Raptors. Brendon Yu is the director of G League operations for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Shenton Wai is a pro personnel scout for the Utah Jazz.

Spoelstra, after taking over as Miami’s head coach in 2008, remains the only Asian head coach in the NBA.

Hansen Wong, who started as a video intern with the Indiana Pacers in 2005 and was recently promoted as the team’s manager of G League and international scouting, says one reason there aren’t more Asians in leadership positions in the NBA is because few choose this career path.

“We’re too practical sometimes,” Wong, 41, said. “People say, ‘Go chase your dreams.’ Meanwhile, you have Chinese parents saying, ‘Dreams aren’t going to feed you. You need a real job to put food on the table.’ That’s just our cultural background, which is hard to break.”

When Spoelstra speaks about his journey from video coordinator to NBA head coach, he is quick to point out that his father, Jon Spoelstra, who is white, worked as an executive with the Buffalo Braves, Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets and New Jersey Nets.

“I was extremely fortunate to grow up in an NBA family,” Spoelstra said. “That gave me an opportunity to get my foot in the door.”

Spoelstra is aware that many other Asian coaches don’t have the same opportunities.

Overcoming Asian stereotypes is a big part of that challenge.

Several years ago, Jonathan Yim, an assistant coach with the Trail Blazers, met a general manager of another NBA team in passing. It was a brief conversation. But Yim said he later found out from a friend that the general manager thought he was soft.

Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum (left) warms up with assistant coach Jonathan Yim (right).

Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

“It really affected me,” Yim said. “I remember thinking I wasn’t being soft. I was brought up to be respectful to my elders. When he talked to me, I wasn’t going to cut him off. I thought, at the time, that was unfair, and some of it is because in Asian culture, we’re not raised to be loud.”

Wong tells the story of how members of the Pacers organization long assumed he had an engineering degree.

“Hey, if they’re thinking I have an engineering degree makes me smarter,” said Wong, who received an undergraduate degree in business at the University of Minnesota, “that’s fine.”

These Asian stereotypes exist at all levels of basketball.

Gilbert Guo, who grew up in Connecticut and played basketball at Amity Regional High School for four years, later worked as an assistant varsity boys basketball coach at the high school. Guo would often suffer the indignity of not being viewed as a coach because of what he looked like, an experience that many of the coaches who spoke to The Undefeated for this story shared.

“Some people do a double take when you show up as a coach,” Guo said. “They’ll say, ‘Where’s the coach?’

“And I’ll be like, ‘It’s me.’ ”

Evin Gualberto, who grew up in the Philippines and moved to the United States when he was 16, is a basketball coach at Oakton High School in Fairfax County, Virginia. Over the years, he’s witnessed far too many occasions with referees in his league overlooking him and speaking with his white assistant coaches instead to consider it a coincidence.

“I always thought maybe because I look young the refs don’t take me seriously,” Gualberto said. “But I’m turning 30 soon, and the fact that this guy sitting next to me [on the bench] is getting explanations that I’ve certainly never got, even though I’ve been coaching for longer, it makes me want to give up on the game a little bit.”

It’s a similar story for more experienced Asian coaches in the country.

Harvey Kitani spent 35 years from 1981 to 2016 as the head coach at Fairfax High School, where he led the school to four Los Angeles City Section championships and two state championships before taking on a job at Rolling Hills Prep as the school’s boys basketball coach and assistant athletic director. His decorated resume includes coaching in the McDonald’s High School All American Game and spending time as a court coach with USA Basketball.

Harvey Kitani spent 35 years as the coach at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles.

Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

When Kitani first started coaching at the junior varsity level in high school, he envisioned himself moving onto the collegiate level after a decade.

“I was naive,” Kitani said. “I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I was Asian.”

After 10 years passed, Kitani got his life insurance license and started selling annuities on the side while waiting for opportunities that never came. When Kitani was being considered for an assistant coach position at UC Santa Barbara, he felt optimistic about his chances because of the relationships he had with members of the coaching staff. He didn’t get it.

“One of my friends was an assistant there,” Kitani, 65, said. “He flat-out told me, ‘You ain’t the right color.’ They said we have to get an African American guy here. There were a few other jobs where I could read between the lines, that they weren’t going to hire an Asian guy. I wasn’t all bent out of shape about it, that’s just the way it was.”

‘It’s going to take some very persistent people’

Despite the stereotypes and barriers, Asian coaches who are in the game want to set an example for others.

Marshall Cho is the head boys basketball coach at Lake Oswego High School in Oregon. When Cho’s family immigrated to Springfield, Oregon, he and his brother were the only Korean Americans at their school.

“Growing up, you learned to assimilate quickly,” Cho said. “We’re not expected to be in the basketball scene. I feel like I’ve worked twice as hard as people in my field … I might have got opportunities because we’re not seen as at this elite level yet. There’s so few of us still, it’s not something that people are used to seeing.”

Cho has started to build his own network of coaches and regularly provides advice and feedback for younger Asian coaches who reach out to him. He isn’t shy about his role in helping to shape the basketball program at Lake Oswego, and hopes other Asian coaches follow suit.

“We tend to be humble about our accomplishments,” Cho said. “And it’s like, no, if you accomplish something special, you have to let the world know. That’s the beauty of a sport like basketball. On the basketball court, the best is the best.”

Many of the coaches The Undefeated spoke to agreed that a better pipeline and more networks have to be established to achieve the goal of placing more Asian coaches at all levels.

Assistant coach Natalie Nakase (left) and Terance Mann (right) of the LA Clippers prepare before a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 1 at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Natalie Nakase, who played college basketball at UCLA and is now an assistant coach with the LA Clippers, represents another potential path for Asian coaches to make it at the NBA level. Lauren Kamiyama, the athletic director and girls varsity basketball coach at North High School in Los Angeles, believes the quality of Asian players in the region will translate into more players and coaches at various levels of basketball.

“The pipeline is unbelievable,” Kamiyama said. “Where I coach now, the pipeline is the Asian league. That’s where we get 80 to 90% of our kids. If you look at our team, you would think, ‘Man, they all come from the Asian league.’ ”

While Spoelstra is aware of the challenges Asians face in getting their foot in the door, he emphasizes the importance of taking full advantage of the opportunity when it arises.

“Competency is a major part of it,” Spoelstra said. “But also, trustworthiness and integrity are just as important. Players have to be able to trust your intentions, and that takes time to build that.”

Yim, who credits his mother for encouraging him to pursue his dreams, is an example of how Asian coaches can run with an opportunity once they’re invited in. He has built close relationships working with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and former Trail Blazer Ed Davis. He doesn’t believe what some coaches and organizations might think: that an Asian coach without an extensive background as a former player can relate to guys on the team.

“I feel like anyone can relate to anybody, because there’s so many things that you can be relatable with,” Yim said.

He talks about the stock market with Davis, discusses music interests with Lillard and banters about television shows with McCollum.

Yim has aspirations of becoming an NBA head coach one day, but he is quick to point out that while Asian coaches do deal with stereotypes, rejection is part of the business. Persistence, he says, is just as important as recognizing the real and perceived slights that Asians face.

“Think about just how many people, of all races, get turned down for NBA jobs,” Yim said. “It’s not just us. There are millions of people who would love to be coaching in college or the NBA. When I was given the opportunity, I made the most out of it.

“If you’re really passionate about coaching, if you really want it, you will find a way to make it work. You’re going to suffer a lot of heartbreak along the way, but your resolve has to be stronger than all of that.”

Spoelstra is hoping to use his platform as an NBA head coach to help shine a light on Asian coaches who are overlooked. He speaks proudly of Jimmy Alapag, a retired professional basketball player from the Philippines who recently landed an assistant coaching position on the Sacramento Kings’ summer league team.

“Five years ago,” Spoelstra said, “nobody would have thought about bringing in a coaching intern from the Philippines.”

Spoelstra, who is currently coaching in his fifth NBA Finals, is cautiously optimistic there will soon be more Asian coaches across all levels of basketball. But he says there is a long way to go.

“It’s going to take some very persistent people to be able to change perception and change the narratives about it. It takes really uniquely persistent people,” Spoelstra said. “There needs to be continued awareness and opportunities and a young generation that is willing to push open doors that are not quite open right now.

“That’s an uncomfortable step.”

Alex Wong is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He writes for Yahoo Canada Sports, GQ, The New York Times, SLAM, and other places.