Magpayo, first Filipino head coach in Div. 1, eager to make his mark in US college hoops

Mike Magpayo: 'I'd love to help PH national team' (0:58)

UC Riverside head coach Mike Magpayo says given the chance he'd love to help and get involved with the Gilas program. (0:58)

Mike Magpayo has been the face of Asian basketball coaches in the United States for the past eight years so it is only fitting when he became the first head basketball coach of Filipino descent in NCAA Division I.

When he got the UC Riverside coaching post on July 1, his initial reaction was to start his new job right away.

"The most important thing was to retain our team, which is a good team. We have an accelerated pace in building this program. We've done it in two years. Usually, it takes three to four years building a program. That was my No. 1 goal," Magpayo told ESPN5.com.

Magpayo's first task was to contact his players and their families and he retained every player from the last season.

The Highlanders, who compete in the Big West Conference, tied their best Division I showing with 17 wins last season. Magpayo was also the architect of the team's staunch defense, which was ranked eighth in the nation.

Magpayo already has a plan for the team, but the coronavirus pandemic has put everything on hold.

For now, his team will focus on watching film and building strategies. "We just try to keep them engaged as much as we can. It's a challenge to keep their mental health positive. Make them positive. That's all that you can do right now," Magpayo said.

In 2012, Magpayo was an assistant on coach Kyle Smith's staff at Columbia University. Smith and Koby Altman, an assistant at the time who is now the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, were members of the Jewish Coaches Association. They suggested that Magpayo create an organization for Filipino coaches.

"I said, 'There's not many. There's going to be two of us. Coach [Erik] Spoelstra and me,'" Magpayo responded.

Spoelstra, Magpayo's main inspiration, eventually became a two-time NBA champion with the Miami Heat, and would use the joke every now and then in camps.

When Magpayo started the Asian Coaches Association in 2012, 15 coaches attended their first meeting -- seven of them were among the Columbia coaching staff. But Magpayo's group grew quickly and the organization is now 200 members strong and holds a convention during the NCAA Final Four.

Getting into coaching

Magpayo, whose last name means "to give advice" in Filipino, started honing his coaching at a young age.

He helped his father Lito, who was coaching his younger brother's basketball team. Mike was 16 years old then, and was an athlete in baseball and basketball.

"I played baseball and basketball and I was a better baseball player actually. Growing up, my passion and love for basketball came from my dad and my mom," he said. "They love basketball, being Filipino, obviously, and when I went to UC Santa Barbara, I wasn't good enough to play basketball there and that's when I started coaching young kids. When you're not good enough to play, you usually coach."

After graduating with a degree in business economics in 2001, he worked for a Southern California real estate firm and eventually became its CEO. His passion for coaching still continued as he coached local area high school basketball teams for nine years.

In 2010, Magpayo moved to New York to pursue a masters degree in real estate. Still interested in coaching, he reached out to colleges in the area. Nobody responded except for Smith.

After volunteering for a couple of months he was eventually hired as the Director of Basketball Operations at Columbia. However, he could no longer study at New York University and he would have to sell his real estate firm. Smith said he needed be focused full-time if he wanted to pursue a coaching career.

"I did it because I was so passionate and it was a dream of mine to do this and if you're truly passionate about it, and you're going to wake up everyday doing what you love to do, you should always believe there's a chance," said Magpayo. He added that never saw being Asian or Filipino as a barrier to becoming a coach.


Mike Magpayo on PH basketball, Kai Sotto and Jalen Green

UC Riverside head coach Mike Magpayo talks about prospects Kai Sotto and Jalen Green.

In 2014, Magpayo moved to Campbell University in North Carolina to serve as a defensive and recruiting coordinator. Magpayo and Smith then reunited once again at the University of San Francisco in the 2017-18 season, where Smith served as head coach and Magpayo as the Director of Basketball Operations.

Smith embraced analytics in the sport, using data to track and decide the team's strategies and was dubbed "Nerdball."

"We track every shooting drill that our players do. They know what they did, what they shot that day percentage-wise and they know what their average is throughout the year," Magpayo said on their program at UC Riverside. "So we use it as an accountability for coaching as well and the study of analytics for our opponents and knowing what we're good at and knowing what we're trying to get. I believe in it wholeheartedly. It's a tool."

Growing up in the Southern California area, Magpayo was captivated by Phil Jackson's coaching style with the hometown Los Angeles Lakers.

"Phil Jackson always believed in positivity. Three positives for every one negative that you [do]. It was hard being a young coach, I was a yeller but as you get older, I'm sure I became more poised," said Magpayo.

Aside from Spoelstra and Jackson, another coaching inspiration for him was Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who also had a high-paying job at an insurance company before starting his coaching career.

"All three of them, very calm, poised, analytical. Just think it through. And that's how I... hopefully I get to coach a game soon. We get to practice. Those would be my idols."

Reconnecting with his roots

Magpayo said he avidly follows the careers of Filipino and Fil-American basketball in the United States.

"I'm a proud Filipino so every Filipino-American, every Filipino, Kai Sotto, Kobe Paras, I was rooting for him," Magpayo said. "Even the Canadian-Filipino Christian David and then here, you've got the Americans, you've got Jalen Green and Kihei Clark."

He has visited the Philippines twice -- in 2008 and 2015. In his latest visit, he attended Tab Baldwin's Gilas Pilipinas practices and an Alaska Aces game.

He has yet to talk to the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas, but Magpayo is interested in helping the national team.

"You know, my inspiration was Coach Spoelstra, you know, he's my coaching idol growing up and that's why I thought, maybe I can do it. I can do it. And you know, I would love to coach on a national level in the Philippines," said Magpayo.