There are three passions that define Chris Cheng. A love of basketball, a love of coaching, and a love of family. As head coach of the Windsor Lancers, Cheng has found a way to lead with all three each day. Since falling in love with the game when the Toronto Raptors arrived in Toronto in 1995, Cheng has spent his life giving back to it.
Cheng loved Damon Stoudemire, relating to the undersized point guard. After playing in high school, but realizing that a professional playing career wasn’t going to be in the cards for him, Cheng began teaching and coaching.
“My mindset was to pay forward the values that my parents instilled in my sister and I,” Cheng said. “The values and the life lessons I learned being part of a team sport and of course, being part of a student in the classroom, and just trying to pay it forward. The only way that I knew how to do this was through education and sport. And that's where it started, teaching at the elementary school system, the high school system. And I've been fortunate enough to now be a full-time coach at the post-secondary level.”
Cheng is in his third year as head coach of the Lancers. His first year with the program coincided with the start of the pandemic. Prior to joining the Lancers, Cheng was the first-ever head coach for Nipissing University, in North Bay, Ontario, leading the team to the OUA playoffs in just its third season of existence. He served as an assistant with York University prior to taking the lead job at Nipissing, as well as working at Humber College, and he has worked with Canada Basketball’s youth teams in various capacities.
“One of the greatest honours that I've ever had so far in my coaching career was to represent the red and white,” Cheng said. “I've done that as a manager, as a team manager and as a manager of player development, and I've done it as an assistant coach.”
His resume is easily one that can be held up against any of his colleagues. Despite these successes, Cheng has had to work against preconceived biases to receive opportunities that his success had already earned.
“In the beginning it was really challenging to get any opportunities just because of my race,” Cheng said. “I think that it's not very common to see, you know, a 5-foot-7 asian head coach on the sidelines at the post-secondary level. You see it at the high school level, as you know, Toronto is very diverse. I'm Filipino, so there are Filipino leagues, and you see Filipino coaches and Filipino people playing the sport and sharing their passion. But I think outside of that, it's not very common to see. For me to get involved, I’ve been very fortunate that people helped me along the way to give me opportunities, but also created some of those opportunities myself. It was very challenging that people didn't take me too seriously or I didn't get the same support as maybe another person that was, I guess, taller or a different skin tone than me or even that has had a respectable playing career.
Having to break through these barriers himself has made Cheng that much more determined to serve as an example for other aspiring asian coaches and to help create a space for them in the basketball coaching landscape.
“Now I’m 37, and [sometimes] people still think I’m a trainer,” Cheng said. “It kind of made me think about, you know, I've come a long way. I'm not going to let individuals like that shut me down because this is what I'm passionate about doing and I know that I'm good at it.”
One of Cheng’s first opportunities on the sideline was coaching Team Ontario. He served as an assistant coach for the program when he was just 21 years old, moving up to become the head coach when he was 24, leading the team to back-to-back championships. Cheng also works as the manager of youth development for Canada Basketball. He also started the junior varsity program at Humber College, where he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
During Cheng’s time at Humber, he worked under then head coach of the Men’s program, Darrell Glenn.
“I owe that guy my life,” Cheng said. “He was the first person of colour that I've learned from in basketball. He taught me how to manage coaching and being a husband and being a father because he did that when I was with him, seeing his young kids and how he's managing all that. And he was a teacher, too. So that inspired me to be an educator. I owe that man my life. We talk weekly and I don't know what I would be doing if it wasn't for that man.”
Glenn currently serves as the head coach at the University of Prince Edward Island. He has become one of Cheng’s strongest advocates and mentors, as well as one of his best friends.
“He gave me an opportunity to start [the junior varsity program at Humber] and the administration there was so supportive,” Cheng said. “A lot of the athletes were either older than me or the same age as me. But it gave me an opportunity to find myself and develop my coaching philosophy and try things and mimic things that I've seen from the coaches that I've learned from.”
During his time with Humber’s junior varsity program, as well as in his first few seasons with Nipissing, Cheng sometimes had to deal with opposing coaches, as well as parents of potential recruits, questioning his knowledge and coaching ability all because he didn’t fit the mold of who people expected to see manning the sideline.
“If I were to focus on those negative energies, those toxic things that were being said, then I would start becoming jaded,” Cheng said. “And those that do believe in me? Such as all my student athletes, my administration that hired me, the coaches that want to work for me and believe in me and believe in my vision, that's where my energy is devoted to. And that's why I stay committed. Because if you believe in me, why would I waste so much time feeling jaded about what's being said about me?
“I know that I'm always in the business where there is going to be a lot of successes and happy moments, but there's also going to be a lot of failures and disappointments,” Cheng continued. “I have to have endurance for those individuals that believe in me and believe in my vision and come into Windsor because of me. They deserve my attention.”
Cheng’s very presence on the sideline is helping to shift the idea of who or what a head coach looks like. Though he tries not to spend too much time thinking about the periphery, focusing instead on coaching each game as it comes, and on building a successful team identity and culture, Cheng is aware of this.
“I didn’t allow other people to tell me that I couldn’t do it,” Cheng said. “Parents are saying to me, ‘Wow, that's amazing that you're a Filipino head coach, this is cool.’ I really don't think about it so much, but I know I have to be more aware of it. I think it just opens up doors. I want to open up doors for people of the Asian community to say, look, you know, you could do anything. It’s not just sport. Get into uncommon places and make it common.”
Coaching and education continue to go hand-in-hand for Cheng, who is currently enrolled in classes twice a week at Windsor as he works toward finishing his graduate program to receive his Masters of Sports Management.
“I'm walking out of class and some of my players are walking into class because they have an exercise class right after me,” Cheng said. “I’m walking down the same hallway as my athletes and coaches, saying, ‘Have a good class.’”
While Cheng has proven to be an adept recruiter for his basketball teams, he says the best recruiting job he’s ever done came away from the court, in the form of his wife, Siobhan.
“She's my rock,” Cheng said. “She's a rock to our family. There's no way I could be able to do all the things that I have done to this point without her support, without her tough love. She gives it to me straight. She's everything. I don't know what I would do without her. She's my best friend. She’s my number one fan, and I’m her number one fan.”
The two are now parents to a son and two daughters, but sometimes it feels like there are more than three kids in the Cheng household. It isn’t uncommon for Cheng’s players to come over for dinner or just to hang out to decompress after a long week of school and basketball. Cheng and his wife have always agreed that any house they call home would always have a spare bedroom for players who may need a place to stay.
“If any of them want to get out of the house, they always have a place to stay at Coach Cheng’s,” he said. “My wife also helps these guys. She teaches some of these guys how to cook, how to grocery shop, how to use apps to save money [on meal planning].”
Cheng’s players are always welcome because to him and his wife, they are family. The two got married just after Cheng’s time coaching Team Ontario and the wedding guest-list included some familiar names.”
“12-year-old RJ Barrett came to my wedding,” Cheng said with a laugh. “MiKyle McIntosh, Marcus Carr, all of these players who had represented on the national team, because I had coached them in the youth program and Team Ontario. I always see any team that I coach as family.”
Cheng’s laugh is contagious as he recalls his players commandeering the mic and holding court for nearly 20 minutes, talking to the guests at the reception about their coach.
“They all spoke, like, ‘Coach, you know, we're at your wedding and we knew you before you were married. You coached us since we were this age. And now we're here celebrating with you,’" Cheng said.
“Moments like that, you’re like this is why I do this.”