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Kenny Phan

Episode 107

Change from Surviving to Building for Basketball

Kenny Phan is a Chinese Vietnamese coach in the San Gabriel Valley. His family moved from Vietnam to America in 1980. Kenny graduated from Monterey Vista Elementary, Garvey Intermediate, and Mark Keppel High School. In 5th grade, he picked up a basketball and never looked back. Currently, Kenny runs the Mofufus Basketball League and has done so since 2001. 

The league has become a staple of the adult recreational basketball league in the SGV. In 2014 he started coaching his daughter, which lead to him training and coaching youth basketball. Basketball has taught Kenny life lessons and provided many opportunities, great memories, and experiences that he remembers to this day.

Kenny Phan is a Chinese Vietnamese coach in the San Gabriel Valley. His family moved from Vietnam to America in 1980. Kenny graduated from Monterey Vista Elementary, Garvey Intermediate, and Mark Keppel High School. In 5th grade he pick up basketball and never looked back. Currently, Kenny runs the Mofufus Basketball league and has done so since 2001. The league has become a staple of adult recreational basketball league in the SGV. In 2014 he started coaching his daughter which lead to him training and coaching youth basketball. Basketball has taught Kenny life lessons and provided many opportunities, great memories and experiences that he remembers to this day.

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Kenny Phan Quotes

  • “Your high school kids, college kids, pretty much traveling the world, playing basketball for free, almost like, you know, celebrity status and for Asian kids in the SGV. Without basketball, I wouldn’t have left the SGV. I was able to travel and play in Taiwan, Taipei, and Hong Kong. We went to see Sydney, Australia, Toronto, and Vancouver. They knew who we were, and we went there, and we won.”
  • “So I combined it and kind of did my own coaching style where I kind of analyzed the players. Right. Can this player handle the way I coach? And if they can’t, I kind of adjust the way I coached it.”
  • “Basketball taught me that it’s not your size but your skill set. It’s your mentality. People can feel if you approach life the same way you put out this energy. That’s how I approach life. I come with the right attitude.”
  • Kenny Phan is the founder of Mofufus, a basketball community in the San Gabriel Valley (SGV) focused on Asian recreational players. He played a crucial role in expanding the league from eight teams to over 100 teams in a few years.
  • Kenny’s passion for basketball stems from his childhood experiences, where the sport provided him with a sense of belonging and a way to stay disciplined and focused, steering him away from negative influences.
  • Kenny’s coaching style is a combination of his mentors’ methods, focusing on individualized coaching based on the players’ abilities and adjusting the approach to accommodate the softer and more sensitive nature of modern-day players.
  • Basketball has had a significant impact on Kenny’s life, instilling in him a winning mentality and teaching him the importance of skill set, mentality, and the right attitude. It has also provided him with opportunities to travel, play against pro teams, and gain valuable life experiences.
  • Kenny’s dedication to basketball and the local community led him to start Mofufus as a way to give back, provide exposure to basketball in the SGV, and teach youth valuable life lessons through the sport. He also emphasizes the importance of family and aims to devote his life to his own children.

Today we welcome Kenny Phan to the show.

I have known today’s guest since 6th grade, and I met him through basketball. He was in a class above me in terms of his grade, but in terms of basketball, I believe he could have and should have played division one, whereas I think I could have made the practice squad and got in if it was the last game of the season and up by 20, that’s like my level.

But he definitely could have and should have played division one. But more than that, he’s central to the basketball community, the Asian basketball community here in the San Gabriel Valley.

I don’t think anybody who plays organized basketball doesn’t know about him or what he’s built here. So I’m excited to introduce him. His name is Kenny Phan. He’s the founder of Mofufus’ father and husband. Kenny, welcome to the show.

mofufus-basketball
 

Are you the founder of Mofufus?

Thank you for having me. Actually, I’m not the founder of Mofufus. A couple of my friends started it, then I took over.
 

So you helped found Mofufus, then?

Some of my close friends, who were like my brothers, started it in 2001, and it was located in Eagle Rock.

I was playing in the league. And then we started talking about bringing it to the SGV area, where a lot of Asian players were.

This was right after the Chinese League had ended.

So I decided to return to Keppel and rent the gym out and started having leagues here. And then we went from basically one division with eight teams to over 100 teams in three or four years.
 

This was all at Mark Keppel.

We started at Mark Keppel, and now we use a lot of the local high schools.
 

Is this something you do full-time?

This is what I love to do. Just basketball, which has always been a part of my life.
 

How did you come up with the name?

We came up with the name because of Danny.

Danny had used the name for his soccer team, and in college, we had to form a team to play in college tournaments, and we started using that name.

We were one of the better teams, so everybody knew who we were. So let’s call it Mofufus because everybody knew who we were.

So that name alone just attracted so many players locally.

We’re probably one of the most dominant Asian teams I can think of for years. We were that good.
 

The Mofufus League is all Asian players?

It started as all Asian players, but we do accept non-Asians. But since we’re in an Asian community, it’s primarily for the Asian recreational players who are ordinary everyday workers living in the SGV who want to play basketball.
 

What’s the age group range?

We have a lot of players in their fifties and sixties playing, but the majority are in their twenties and thirties.
 

What’s your connection to the San Gabriel Valley?

I was born in Vietnam and moved to Orange County in 1980. Then in 1986, I moved to Morrey Park and grew up here.

I’m still in SGV, so it’s been over 30 years. I went to Martin Vista, Garvey, graduated from a Mark Keppel, and have lived in SGV ever since.

It’s very family-oriented, so I can never move out because my parents still live here.
 

Are you Chinese?

I am.
 

Do you speak Mandarin or Cantonese?

We speak a different dialect called Hainamese. It’s a Chinese dialect, but it could also possibly be Vietnamese. I’m unfamiliar with that, but my parents speak Chinese and Vietnamese. It’s almost like a lost dialect.
 

But it’s a Chinese or a Vietnamese dialect?

That’s a good question. I think it’s Chinese because we originated from China, and obviously, my parents were in Vietnam when I was born, and then we immigrated to America from there.
 

Did your parents share why they left Vietnam?

Not really. My family and I didn’t talk much as a kid. Never that close. So that’s that gap where the first generation from us is substantial communication-wise, and it is a different culture and understanding of each other.

They’re more like work, work, go to school. Basketball opened me up and gave me that family I didn’t have. I have my parents and my sister, but we were never that close.
 

When was the first time you played basketball?

The first time I picked up basketball was in fifth grade. I loved the game. I used to watch the Lakers a lot.
 

So Doc was your first coach? Doc must be like family at this point for you.

That’s interesting you brought that up. He and his wife, looking back, have been the most important people in my life.

They basically raised me because I wasn’t close to my family. So basketball, when I met Doc and his wife, Mrs. Wallen, I was always with them 24/7.

He was a teacher, so I had classes with him after school. We practiced basketball. And then he was one of the type of family that was very nurturing.

They just loved helping kids, and they knew that we had something special because, back then, there were a lot of gangs. We grew up with gangs. And they tried to show that being in a gang wasn’t the only choice you had.
 

So basketball was a big way out?

Huge. Basketball is the reason why I’m still here. It would have been easy to go down the wrong path, and unfortunately, a couple of friends of ours went the wrong path and passed away because of that.

I got bullied growing up, but what kept me disciplined was I had something to look forward to, going to basketball practice and going to basketball games.

So that alone distracted me away from the wrong path because distractions are why kids do bad things. I was very fortunate enough to wow.
 

How would you describe how you play?

Very intense. I’m just very passionate about what I do with anything. If I get into certain things that I like to do, I’m 200% into it. There’s no not giving up. I’m all in. And that’s how I play when I’m locked into the game.
 

Who influenced you as a basketball player?

Growing up, I loved Magic Johnson. So when I started playing basketball with Doc, I wanted to be a point guard. I loved passing the ball, like giving assists. I got a lot of joy from that.

But Doc knew that I also could shoot. So the funny thing is that only a few guys were allowed to shoot when Doc coached. So I was one of the guys, but my strength as a young kid was driving around kids passing the ball.

Then, as I got to high school, the coach realized I could shoot. So I became a shooter. So in high school, I could dribble, pass and shoot.
 

We ask everybody to bring something with them, an item of significance. what did you bring with you today?

It’s funny when Russell and I met a couple of months ago during lunch; his friend talked about the game we played in the 6th grade. When I got into the game at the end of the first half, we were down by 30 and ended up coming back and winning by two.

I was cleaning up the garage, and I found this old tape of that game.

And the thing is, I mentioned I was never close to my family. Never once did my parents or family members go to any of my high school games. Or, really, any of my games as a kid.

But my grandfather went to the game. When I saw that, I remembered my grandfather went to the game, and he was the only one that ever went to my high school or any of my games as a kid.

So that’s why, like I mentioned, looking back, it was never my family’s fault because they’re always working and a very traditional hardworking family, but they were opposing me playing basketball. So that’s the biggest difference. They didn’t want me to play basketball.
 

When I met you, your name was Khim. Why did you change it?

So my real name was Khim, K-H-I-M. When I moved to America right before going to school, you had the opportunity to change your name, and I always wanted an American name because, as a kid, Khim was a girl’s name.

In 6th to 7th grade, I wanted to change to Kenny. And then that’s the reason why in high school, it was Kenny because I always wanted to change it. Now as I look back, I love that name. That’s who I was.
 

What do you do now?

I actually work for the county, so I work for the Department of Children and Family Services. But I’m in IT and do system analysis. So I do project managing.
 

Did your parents know how good you were?

They never saw me play. They probably hated me playing. They didn’t know how great I was. So after college, I started working, and my parents are part of the Heinen association, and they started a basketball tournament against another association.

And everybody locally knew who I was because I was pretty popular in basketball because I was good.

So they asked me to play for that association which my parents were involved in. And they saw me for the first time. They’re amazed because everybody’s like this parents tell me your son is so good.
 

You played for Alpine, a Chinese travel basketball team, and I remember hearing stories of you playing for the Australian national team. They’re looking down at you guys like, here come these little short Asian kids, and they don’t even think you guys are going to be competitive.

So one of the benefits of the Alpine team is we traveled a lot. We were considered one of the top Chinese American teams in the country because they always had national tournaments where we played against different states. And when I played, we won six out of seven championships.
 

Did you play in college?

I did not, but I was supposed to. I got recruited through Elac.

And, as I mentioned, my parents were not big in sports. I went to college and got a job, so I didn’t have a choice.

I wish, looking back, I did play college basketball.
 

Your parents never came to a game? How did that affect you?

It made me a stronger person. I don’t like people telling me, ‘You can’t do things.’ So I’m going to prove you wrong. So if I can’t play basketball, I will be good at it. So that’s how I approach life.
 

How long did you play with Alpine throughout high school?

Three years in high school and then until my adulthood college. I stopped playing after ten years.

Then I played once in a while, but then obviously, I started a family, my own life, and went my own way, and then the whole thing happened, which changed everything.
 

What is your coaching style like?

My daughter started playing basketball in 2014, and she started playing with the Pasadena Bruins; they didn’t have a coach. She wasn’t going to play because of that. So I said I’d coach. So in the beginning, now that I look back, I coach her harder.

Now I look back and think that wasn’t a good idea, but somehow it worked out for her because she’s a lot tougher.

Now, I know a lot of kids couldn’t handle it. So what I learned as I got older and even coaching high school now, I used Doc’s method and Tony’s method.

So I combined it and kind of did my own coaching style where I kind of analyzed the players. Right. Can this player handle the way I coach? And if they can’t, I kind of adjust the way I coach it.

So it’s a player-by-player type of coaching instead of just coaching one style. And kids nowadays are a lot softer and are more sensitive. So the way we coach back then, it won’t work. So we had to adjust.
 

Which high school do you coach at?

Marqueppo. I am a JV coach, and I helped Danny and the head coach with the varsity.
 

How has your success in basketball translated into life?

I feel like a winner. I don’t like losing. Not to sound, like, bad, but for me, if I’m losing, something’s got to be done. I need to change something, and not.

I approach life like if I wanted to be good, I could be good. So that’s how I approach Mofufus and how I coach—the same concept. When I’m out there, I feel like I’m the best.

Basketball taught me that it’s not your size but your skill set. It’s your mentality. People can feel if you approach life the same way you put out this energy. That’s how I approach life. I come with the right attitude.
 

Have you played in Asia?

I’ve played in Taiwan, Taipei, and Hong Kong. I’ve been to Sydney, Australia, a couple of times, Japan, Toronto, and Vancouver.
 

So were you pretty big shots when you traveled?

They knew who we were. And we went there, won, and even played against some pro teams.
 

Wow, you’re like a superstar.

Basketball has given me all this experience that I would not get without it. Especially the way I grew up; we had nothing. I remember growing up in elementary, and I had one pair of pants and one shirt. I wore that every single day.

Basketball gave me all this great stuff, all this great experience.
 

Can you talk about what Mofufus has meant to you? to see what it became?

The biggest reason why I wanted to bring it back was because of the local community. There wasn’t a lot of exposure for basketball, at least in the 90s, because a lot of the parents were immigrants and were focused on school and work.

Sports weren’t important, at least for the Chinese Americans.

Adults that never got a chance to play high school or organized basketball.

If I could bring that to SGV, it’s my way of giving back to the community and giving back to basketball itself, what I’ve gotten out of it. That’s why I started doing youth, too, to teach them. Through basketball, you learn many life lessons that stick with you forever.
 

So, Kim, what are you looking forward to for your family, your kids, coaching, Mofufus? what does the future look like for those things?

My biggest thing is devoting my life to my kids. I realized that my parents were never around when I grew up, so I devote my life to my kids.
 

So how many kids do you have?

I have a daughter and a son.
 

Can you tell us about your basketball podcast?

I always had this vision of exposure because they have travel ball kids nowadays. There are many ways to get exposed, but it’s done the wrong way where it’s all money based. I’m opposed to that. I want to provide an opportunity for local kids to be exposed, and it won’t cost them anything, like social media and podcasts.

There are ways to become better without spending money. And unfortunately, nowadays, for basketball, it’s all about money. It doesn’t guarantee anything.

I always tell the parents that great players will always be good no matter what because they want it for themselves. Nowadays, parents want it more than their kids.

So with that podcast, it’s good exposure for the kids. Just writing about local superstars, like potential players, get on here and give them, basically letting the community know we have a superstar here that they need to support.
 

Thank you for coming on the show and sharing your story with us and our listeners. If people want to learn more about the Mofufus, what’s the best way to?

People can reach me on my website, www.mofufus.org, and on Instagram @mofufus_basketball.
 

Picture of Kenny Phan

Kenny Phan

My elementary school, Monte Vista. That’s when I touched a basketball for the first time. That’s where I met Doc, Mrs. Wallen, and my close friends.

Barnes Park. That was the site of my first-ever basketball game.

Mark Keppel High School. Keppel is still part of my life. I never left it.