After moving from China to California, freshman hoopster Michael Wang finds a home at Penn.
By Dave Zeitlin
When Michael Wang returned to the locker room following the Penn men’s basketball team’s 78–75 victory over reigning national champion Villanova in December, he was expecting some congratulatory messages. But for the Quakers’ 6-foot-10 freshman, the sheer volume of texts on his phone was almost as shocking as the win itself.
Only later did Wang learn the reason: the Penn–Villanova game had been streamed live across China, and he was told about 8 million people in his native country watched. Among them were friends and family members from Taiyuan, the capital of the Shanxi province where he grew up.
“For a player who comes straight from China, that means a lot to a lot of people,” says Wang, who scored 14 points against ’Nova and has since emerged as a key starter. “Hopefully my story will motivate others and help them become more successful players.”
Although basketball is very popular in China, Wang always felt he’d have more opportunities in the United States. “Before I came here,” he says, “there were two paths: you either choose to play basketball and become a pro, or you become a fulltime student.” And so, with the blessing of his parents, both of whom played basketball and helped nurture his love for the game, he moved to California when he was 14.
His mom stayed with him for a couple of months to help get him settled, and he initially stayed with a family friend. But adapting to American culture, learning English, and finding a permanent place to live was hard. “I moved all over the place,” he says. “I got used to it.”
Hooking on with Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana eased the transition. Not only does the school boast a prestigious basketball program but the team was led by Spencer Freedman, who became Wang’s best friend. So when Freedman’s parents asked Wang if he wanted to live with them, he happily accepted the offer. “And then they just became family to me.”
Freedman is now a freshman point guard at Harvard. Wang, who developed into a highly rated recruit, could have probably joined him there, or have signed on to play for one of the Pac-12 programs that showed interest. But Wang picked Penn, according to Quakers head coach Steve Donahue, because “his parents really stressed going to an Ivy League school.” And he got better vibes at the Palestra and around the rest of campus than at Harvard. “I came here for a visit and I just fell in love,” says Wang, who reckons there’s only a handful of Division I college basketball players from China.
Donahue faced obstacles during the recruiting process, including the fact that Wang’s parents don’t speak English. But on his visit, Penn fencing coach Andy Ma, who is of Chinese descent, tagged along, which “helped with the language barrier.” And Donahue came away impressed with how Wang’s parents helped foster their son’s passion and motivation.
“I think it’s kind of unique that a kid that age is willing to pick up and move halfway across the globe because he thinks it’s right for him academically and for basketball,” Donahue says. “It’s also remarkable how he’s adjusted to American life.”
Wang has also adjusted well to college basketball, bursting onto the scene with 14 points in his first game and pouring in 23 points the next month in a win over Miami. A sprained ankle caused him to miss a couple of games and then struggle upon his return—a contributing factor to Penn’s four-game losing streak from December 29 to January 12—but he put in a good performance versus Saint Joseph’s to help Penn complete its first sweep of Big 5 opponents in 17 years.
Wang, who has a sweet shooting stroke and is a great passer for his size—he said he’s still growing and may hit 7 feet soon—has “got to get a little grittier, a little tougher,” in Donahue’s estimation, to become an Ivy League star or win a dreamed-for place in the NBA.
“I think his commitment in the weight room, the physical part of it, will be a big piece in determining to me if he can make a real living playing basketball,” the Penn coach says. “But he does have a lot of things you can’t teach.”
Spoiling Dunphy’s Farewell Tour
Few people have done as much for Big 5 basketball as Fran Dunphy, who played at La Salle before long coaching stints at Penn and now Temple. So it was with mixed emotions for Donahue when he led Penn to a mid-January upset of Temple in Dunphy’s final city series game.
Dunphy—who coached at Penn from 1989 to 2006, with Donahue serving as his assistant for much of that tenure—is moving on from Temple at the end of this season after 13 years, making the 2018–19 campaign something of a farewell tour for a coach that Donahue believes belongs in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“You can count on one hand the college basketball coaches at this level that have achieved as much as he has,” Donahue says, pointing in particular to the number of league championships that he won, including 10 at Penn. “I think it’s not a coincidence our 11-year [Ivy League title] drought coincided with him leaving the program. You just don’t replace guys who are legendary.”
Donahue hopes Dunphy will remain in coaching if he wants to because “I see the same guy I saw 20 years ago. I see great energy, great passion.” But barring a return, this year’s Penn–Temple game marked the final meeting between the two friends, with Donahue pulling off his second win over Dunphy in 17 tries. The only other came when Cornell upset Temple in the 2010 NCAA Tournament—which Donahue called “a terrible feeling for a while,” even though it was the “highlight of my career.” In this year’s game, Donahue pulled some tricks out of his sleeve, playing a few reserves, including Kuba Mijakowski, who surprised the Owls with four three-pointers in the first half to help boost the Quakers to their first win over Temple since 2007.
“I told Dunph that I’m handling this worse than he is,” said Donahue, who was hired by Dunphy as an unpaid volunteer assistant almost 30 years ago. He then served on Penn’s staff from 1990 to 2000 before head coaching stints at Cornell, Boston College, and now Penn. “Every spring, I used to think, ‘I’m going to have to work for someone else.’ And I thought about it and I knew it wasn’t going to be any better. That drove me to stay. And I haven’t worked for anyone else since. I’m just really lucky.”
Dunphy said that he, too, learned a lot from Donahue during their time on the bench together. “At the end of the game,” Dunphy said, “we shook hands, we hugged a little bit, and I said, ‘I’m very proud of you.’”
For more on Penn’s Big 5 title, visit our sports blog.