Lo van Pham believes he wouldn’t have been in a position to grace the stage at the 2023 Asian American and Pacific Islander Sports and Culture Symposium if not for his father.
“My hero growing up was my Dad, who is no longer with us,” said van Pham during the introductory portion of Wednesday’s event, which was held at the NBA’s headquarters in New York City. “But with him having the tenacity to bring us over when I was very young — 6 or 7 years old — coming over here with no family members, not a word of English and really just trying to give us opportunities.
“Without him, this would’ve never happened.”
Van Pham made history in 2022 as the first Asian American to become an NFL official, 40-plus years after his father brought his family to the United States as refugees. He was participating as a panelist at the sixth annual installment of the symposium, which is collectively operated by Asian employee resource groups at the MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL, in association with the Asian Professional Exchange (APEX). The mission of the symposium, which is always held in May, during AAPI heritage month, is to recognize and mobilize the Asian American and Pacific Islander community within the sports world.
Joining van Pham on the panel were Kianna Smith, a South Korean American of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun, Kelsie Whitmore, a decorated Filipino American softball and baseball star and Donny Khan, a Pakistani American who is the senior director of hockey development and strategic collaboration for the NHL. Emceeing the event was noted South Korean American author, Min Jin Lee, who wrote the novels Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko.
Together, these Asian Americans discussed their personal experiences growing up in the United States and their ventures into the sports culture.
During a phone interview on Wednesday, van Pham went into greater depth about his journey toward the NFL as a Vietnamese American growing up in Amarillo, Texas.
“My parents knew nothing about (football),” van Pham told me. “When they found out (I wanted to play), they were really against me playing. They were like, ‘No, we can’t afford for you to get hurt.’ “
Van Pham remembered being “very, very heartbroken” by that response. Luckily, as he explained Wednesday, his softball coach was able to illustrate to van Pham’s parents the benefits of organized football when it comes to building character, responsibility, commitment and teamwork.
“I really loved the game, I really loved being around the kids and, more than anything, being able to compete,” van Pham recalled in the interview. “That’s what I enjoy growing up as a refugee, knowing that I’m maybe the only Asian kid playing, which is not very common back in Texas during that time period.”
Van Pham’s playing days ended after high school, but the memories of it all persisted after college. Having earned a master’s degree in structural engineering at the University of Colorado and begun a career, van Pham was itching to get involved again.
“Remembering the game as a kid playing in the high school ranks — I really enjoyed the Friday night lights of Texas,” van Pham said. “That’s just what really drove me to that. I started officiating after signing up for a pee-wee league that they needed some help with, and I just kind of got hooked after that. I just felt like I was doing something. Doing something productive.”
What he first considered a hobby soon turned into more. Van Pham went on to officiate in other sports as well, describing it as a civic duty of his. He rose through the officiating ranks, eventually partaking in the highly competitive high school football scene in Texas.
And he was met along the way with responses that were far from welcoming.
“In every sport I officiated, I got that double-take,” van Pham explained to me. “They don’t see any Asian officials, let alone play sports. It was rare, especially where I grew up. So, yeah, I’m sure people questioned it, and I’d get those looks you’d recognize just walking down the hallway.
“It was a challenge because as I started to become more passionate about it and more and more involved in it, going to different clinics and then to college, it was always like I had to prove myself. Like once I got to a certain level, I had to prove myself. I always wanted to get to a certain place not because they say we don’t have any Asian guys in this office or on this roster — I always wanted to get there by merit.”
Van Pham reached the college level, beginning in Division II, then landing in a few Division I conferences, including the Mountain West and the Big 12 in 2015. Then, around this time last year, van Pham received the news that he’d been hired into the NFL as a side judge for referee Clete Blakeman’s officiating crew.
“I want to use my position now, hopefully, to give hope to other Asian kids out there, whether it be football, basketball or any other sport they have a passion for,” van Pham told me. “To let them know it’s possible. It can happen. It happened to me, and it can happen to you.”
Van Pham made his NFL debut under the bright lights of Monday Night Football during Week 1 of the 2022 season. Not bad for someone who described their officiating career as an “accident.”
“It still feels surreal,” van Pham said. “The work has started since last year, and I’m looking to get better, because I see it as a challenge. I look forward to it, and I feel so blessed to be in that position of being the first Asian American to represent myself, my family and my ethnicity.”
At the end of the day, van Pham attributes his success to his dedication and work ethic, traits instilled in him by his father, Tu van Pham, whose courageous decision decades ago taught Lo never to settle for less, and to strive to improve, no matter the situation. That’s also the message Lo hopes to pass on in the years to come, now that he’s been blessed with a chance to be the example.
“It’s the American dream,” he said. “I always tell people, it’s not really my journey but the journey of the people that supported me. For everybody that I can hopefully inspire in the future to do the same thing if not better than what I have done, or to be that mentor and help someone.”