Darvin Ham is bringing his philosophy and a Saginaw toughness to the Lakers
Former NBA player talks about his long road to becoming a head coach, the challenge of coaching LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis, and more
Darvin Ham’s first NBA head-coaching job includes the prestige and pleasure of coaching the 17-time champion Los Angeles Lakers, who are always dreaming of a title. The Lakers’ roster includes arguably the NBA’s greatest player ever in LeBron James, injury-riddled star Anthony Davis and struggling star Russell Westbrook.
There are not a lot of first-year NBA head coaches who have dealt with this level of pressure. But considering the near-death situations, painful deaths of loved ones, and the long odds that Ham has overcome to win an NBA championship after going undrafted, he respectfully says the pressure of joining the Lakers does not scare him.
“It’s really not pressure,” Ham, 48, recently told Andscape. “I’ve been through so much s— in my life. When people say pressure, come on, fam. Pressure is like the boogeyman is only real in your mind. The boogeyman doesn’t exist to me. I’ve literally almost been killed before, bro. So, I understand what the challenge is. I don’t want to say expectations. It’s the order of things. I understand what the order of things are with this franchise, and I embrace it, accept it 1,000% because I’m built like that.”
Ham talked to Andscape about his life or death experiences growing up in Saginaw, Michigan, how basketball changed his life after he decided not to enlist in the Air Force, going from undrafted to an NBA champion, the state of Black coaches, executives and owners in the NBA, coaching James, why Davis is a key component, what’s next for Westbrook and much more.
“I’m a grinder, man. I’ve never been good enough to have the ego. Everything I got came out of the mud.”
What was your selling point to the Lakers when you interviewed for the head coach job?
We ain’t about all the bells and whistles. I just told them, ‘These guys need to be coached. They need to be coached hard.’ It was three words that led my whole interview process. The three words I believe in, the three words that made me who I am, and the three words that are going forward with this new Lakers era. And that is competitiveness, togetherness and accountability.
And that rung true. They’re seeing it with the type of staff I’m putting together. They’ve seen it with the type of energy, the new energy that’s in the building. No disrespect to none of these teams at the bottom of the food chain, but I’m not coming from one of those teams. I’m coming from an organization [the Milwaukee Bucks] that’s fresh off a championship and knows how to do things.
You began your coaching career as a G League assistant with the Albuquerque Thunderbirds in 2008. How did you keep your ego out of that opportunity being a former NBA player having to get his first coaching opportunity as an assistant in the minor leagues?
That first year, 2007-08, I went to Albuquerque like a player-coach almost. Jeff Ruland was the head coach. I used to do workouts with the guys and player development stuff.
Then, the next year, a coach named John Coffino took over, I became the lead assistant and Dean Garrett joined the staff. That following year, I was like an associate coach, so I had the opportunity to be the head coach for a few games. In my last year there, 2010-11, I became head coach and GM [general manager].
I’m a grinder, man. I’ve never been good enough to have the ego. Everything I got came out of the mud. I’m from the east side of Saginaw, bro, between Remington and Holland. If you Google 1530 Emily between Remington and Holland, you Google that and see how dangerous that neighborhood is, bro. I grew up behind a liquor store and a motorcycle club. I ain’t supposed to be here. When I told them I got shot April 5, 1988, that was a block away from my house. I literally got shot two seconds from my crib. It was crazy. It was wild outside. The crack, and everybody getting money, and everybody got guns.
So, growing up under the circumstances, I had great parents. My mom was a teacher. My dad was working at General Motors. We had everything we needed. We weren’t poor, but we weren’t rich either. You remember those middle-class-type situations? One paycheck away from being in the projects.
But the ego s— never meant nothing to me. I’ve seen too many people dying, man. Anybody that thought too much of themselves would get knocked down and that killed your ego right there.
What was the darkest time growing up through some of the challenges in Saginaw?
It was the summer of ’89. One of my guys I grew up with … I’m talking about our families are close, growing up in the church. He’s staying the night at my crib; I’m staying at his crib. We’re godbrothers. My man Chaka Euell. He got murdered. He got hit eight times with a sawed-off shotgun, bro. He got clapped up. We’d been growing up all these years and then people start choosing sides.
In Saginaw, you had the north side, you had an east side and you had south side. All Black areas, and everybody got their own street organizations within these areas. It wasn’t no heavy gang bang thing. People selling drugs, and you grew up on a certain side and I’m growing up. … The side I happened to grow up on, they were taking s—. They were moving their stuff, but they were taking a lot from people.
I had to be his pallbearer, bro. One of the darkest moments as a 15-year-old going on 16, was having to put white gloves on, sit in front of the church, take that casket to the hearse out of the church, put it in the hearse. Get to the graveyard, take it out of the hearse and put it on the straps that go in the ground as a 15-year-old kid, bro. That s— changed me forever.
And I’m coming off getting shot my damn self. You talking about dark? Here we are 13, 14, 15, 16 years old and there’s gun violence and my man gets gunned down, him and another guy.
Then, one of my other friends, Terrence March, lived the next block over. He got killed. He got shot. We were really tight with his family and all that, man, like Erica and Adrian, Sharane. All of them. This s— is happening in real time, going to school, desk empty. ‘Damn, why didn’t Elton come to school today?’ ‘Elton Simmons died. They found him last night. He got shot up.’ This s— is happening.
So, why were you fortunate not to succumb to street life?
I had great parents, man, and I wanted something better for myself. I wanted to leave that … I wanted to travel. I wanted to see the world, bro. And then, my appetite for that is the thing, along with God, first and foremost, it’s the thing that saved my life. It’s me wanting to do something and see something different.
You got shot as well?
I got shot in my right jaw. They took the bullet out the left side of my neck. I actually looked toward where the shots were coming from to see who was shooting. And me and my brother, my brother DeRonnie Turner, he was driving. It was just the wrong place, wrong time. We were about to make a left, right onto my block, and the shootout happened at a Church’s Chicken parking lot. I got shot April 5, 1988.
Me and my brother coming back from picking up a pizza and they start letting off. We’re about to turn and I see dudes scatter and running. It’s about three or four different cats shooting, and I’m looking, and as I looked, I just ducked. Once I looked and saw where the shooting was coming, I went to duck and it hit me in my jaw, bro. I swear, if I wouldn’t have looked toward where the shots were coming from, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.
Your college basketball career was far away from Saginaw as you went to Otero Junior College in Colorado in a small town called La Junta. Sounds like you had to get far away from home.
I was trying to get as far away from this [expletive] as I could. Excuse my language, but when I go back there, I think about how toxic it was. I only played one year of high school ball, bro. My man, Rodney Alston, the guy that talked me into playing. And the dude that talked me into it, he’s no longer alive. I grew up playing football, but then my grades started slipping and my dad wouldn’t let me play football no more. And then, I started hooping in the city leagues and the church leagues around the city.
So, Otero was the only option you had coming out of high school?
My dad, his two brothers and my uncle all served in the armed forces. My mom’s brother was military police during Vietnam. My dad and his two brothers were Air Force. So, I had verbally committed to the Air Force and my dad was like, ‘Nah, I want you to try college, man. If college doesn’t work out, then you can go to the armed forces.’
So my coach, Marshall Thomas, said this guy [from Otero] came and asked, ‘You got any players?’ ‘Well, this one kid, he only played for one year, but he may have a chance. If we keep working, he may turn out to be something.’ That’s how it happened. I went out there. It was cool, man. Coming from Saginaw High, I had not been around many people who were not Black. We had a lot of Latinos, but probably about a handful of white people. I’m talking about our school probably had about 1,000 students. So, it was different.
You went on to play at Texas Tech, where you were most known for shattering the glass with a vicious dunk. That dunk was memorialized on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Do people still ask you about that dunk?
All the time. I still get magazines in the mail. I’m still signing stuff. It’s crazy, man. It’s alive 26 years later.
The 1996 NBA draft is arguably the greatest in league history, but you actually went undrafted that year. What do you recall from that time?
I wasn’t anticipating getting drafted. I just wanted to have an opportunity to go play somewhere, summer league or something. After I finished up with Texas Tech in May ’96, I signed on to go play with the Jacksonville Barracudas in the United States Basketball League, where I got the chance to play with the illustrious [boxing legend] Roy Jones Jr. Dude, I swear to God, I got a Forrest Gump story, bro. He was part owner of the team. It was like a May-June league. The July guys would come and play in that league, try to get used to some type of pro basketball and how the NBA is going to play before they go to the summer league. So, I went and played, and I’d say about 14, 15 games in, I got traded to the Florida Sharks, who Eric Musselman coached, and my teammate on the Florida Sharks was [Lakers assistant coach] Phil Handy. Bro, we ended up winning the championship.
We beat the Atlantic City Seagulls. We played and stayed the night in Atlantic City, bro. We partied hard.
You made it to the NBA when the Denver Nuggets signed you as a free agent on Oct. 1, 1996. How did you make it to the NBA?
There was a guy that took a liking to me, that understood me and when he found out my story and the s— I had been through, who I talk to still to this day, and that’s Bernie Bickerstaff. Bernie was my coach with the Nuggets and in Washington. Bernie would chew my ass out, get on me for not approaching the game the right way, for not playing hard. If he sniffed out anything I was doing cheating the game, he’d be on my ass. I still talk to Coach B today, and that’s my guy, bro. That’s family, having a guy like that set a tone for you.
You averaged 2.7 points and 2.3 rebounds while playing in 417 NBA games for Denver, Indiana, Washington, Atlanta and Detroit. You always accepted your role player situation, gave full effort, and got a highlight-reel dunk or block when you came in even if it was just in garbage time. How did you keep a 110% mentality when you oftentimes played limited minutes?
I’m going to give the people a highlight or two. I’m going to beat somebody’s shot up. I’m going to have a spectacular block and a spectacular finish, I promise. It’s going to happen. Some of my teammates would get mad at me, bro, because I’d get called in what they call garbage time, and I was like, ‘Yo, this is the f—ing NBA, bro. There ain’t no garbage time. Anytime is good time. You’re on the NBA court.’
What’s the key to somebody that averaged three points in a game staying in the NBA that long?
I just think your approach. You can’t get caught up in the numbers. I got to make big waves in a short amount of time. I might get thrown in the game at the end of a quarter. I might get thrown in at the end of a game to guard somebody. I got to know what play they may be running. I got to know not to foul, not to make a mistake, but also be aggressive in what it is that I do.
So, just understanding that and being a good teammate, being a good professional in terms of how you engage people and the energy you bring to the gym every day. Coming in with a smile on your face. And so, I think that thing kept me alive, and the coaches I played for, Bernie, George Karl to Larry Brown and Terry Stotts, Lon Kruger, all these guys I’ve played for, they recognized that I always try to bring it and always try to be just a source of positive energy.
Does that mentality stick with you now as a head coach?
Yes, indeed, bro. It bothers me sometimes when maybe you’re up 30 points, right, you got to put these kids that don’t really get no shine, don’t get no tick, you have to put them in the game and you’re like, ‘Oh, no, no more fast breaks. We’re already up 30.’ And there’s somebody somewhere watching them, evaluating them like, ‘Man, why ain’t they going hard?’ Dude, OK, if it’s a 30-point blowout, that ain’t my fault. Your team should have prepared better and played better, but who am I to tell these kids not to go hard. They’re waiting to get this opportunity.
I understand sportsmanship and all of that. But that part, I don’t get.
What did winning an NBA title with the Detroit Pistons in your home state mean to you in 2004?
Being at home, being a Saginaw kid coming as far as I came, it meant everything in the world, bro.
You were an NBA assistant coach from 2011-22. When was your first interview and were there disappointments along the way through getting your first head-coaching job with the Lakers?
My very first interview in 2018 as I was leaving Atlanta and [Hawks president] Travis Schlenk took over, but it was informal. The interview was informal because at the end of the day, I was so closely attached to Bud [Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer], I didn’t see them hiring me. I interviewed for head-coaching jobs with Atlanta, Minnesota, Chicago, Indiana, Clippers, Boston, Washington, Sacramento, Charlotte and the Lakers.
You go on all these interviews looking like, ‘What the hell?’ But I never got down on myself, never doubted myself because, for one, I was with the best coach in the league, in my opinion. There’s Pop [Gregg Popovich] and this one here and this one there, but Coach Bud was the best coach in the league, in my opinion. Just the way he does everything. It’s tactical. It’s personal. The way he deals with his guys, he takes good care of his players, and makes sure they’re healthy top to bottom.
And with being a finalist in Indiana and the finalist in Chicago, a finalist in Washington, a finalist in Boston, Charlotte and the Lakers, somebody’s going to figure it out eventually but the s— don’t make or break me. When they figure it out, these other people are going to be like, ‘Damn, we passed on that dude.’
In February of 2021, the Minnesota Timberwolves fired then-head coach Ryan Saunders and didn’t promote then-associate head coach David Vanterpool, an African American, for the position. Instead, the T-Wolves went outside the organization and hired Chris Finch. The Vanterpool news created a firestorm about the lack of Black NBA head coaches. But in the summer of 2021, seven of the eight NBA head coaches hired were Black. Now, 15 of the 30 NBA head coaches are Black. What are your thoughts on the changes?
Whoever is hiring you has to have a diversified train of thought. A diversified repertoire in terms of dealing with people. It’s the individuals, man, that are in these positions doing the hiring that’s keeping that s— blocked where it’s not diverse. But as you see, all these guys that have broken through now and we still got a long way to go. We’ve come a long way. That’s great, but what about the GMs? What about the ownership groups? This is just the start. You look at the medical and how diversified are the training staff.
I think David Vanterpool was the sacrificial lamb. I think for him to get done like that, he suffered so all of us could celebrate. For him to be as respected and qualified as he is to get stepped over in that fashion, and the guy who stepped over him no longer holding that position, and I got love for Chris. … But to see what Vanterpool went through, I think the league sat back and took notice.
“It’s funny I had this joke, and [former Lakers and Sacramento Kings head coach] Luke [Walton] is my man. When I was getting passed over for these jobs, I was like, ‘Man, you take my résumé and if I was white, I’d be Luke Walton. I’d be on my second or third job right now.’ Real talk, bro. That’s real, and I’m happy to see that the league corrected itself from that standpoint of coaching.
There also has been a trend of hiring former NBA players that are African American as head coach. Why do you think that is?
It’s relatability. These kids are coming through the system right now and they need somebody that looks like them, talks like them and speaks the language. You hear that. And I just think as a thorough human being, regardless of what color or gender you are, if you’re a real one, that’s going to come through and people are going to be able to relate and you’re going to be able to communicate. But now we take guys that have done it before and won at a high level on both sides of it. I know that was a part of what I brought to the table with the Lakers.
What are your thoughts on LeBron James?
One of one. None like him before him, none after him. Rare. Rare commodity. Exclusive. Never seen anything like him. I’m so happy and thankful he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s showing these kids how to really get it done, man, in such a classy way and such a real way. The kids from Akron, Ohio. I’m a Midwest kid, Saginaw, Michigan. I resonate with that. It might be different states, but a lot of that s— is all the same. So, him being an Akron kid and me being from Saginaw, I totally resonate with him, and to see his ascension, how he’s handled all of that pressure and expectations and has delivered on and off the floor, he’s a one of one.
How do you get on the same page with LeBron?
We just make it about the principles. How are we going to help each other? We’re going to keep it simple. We’re going to hold each other accountable. Three words, I told them. I said they’re going to hear it until they’re blue in the face. Competitiveness, togetherness and accountability. That’s for all of us. Competitiveness, togetherness and accountability. That’s how we’re going to be on the same page.
What are your thoughts on Anthony Davis?
With AD, I would say he’s the biggest factor. I’m looking forward to him having a huge year this year. I know the way we’re going to play is going to benefit him. The way I’m going to take care of him, make sure we take care of him, it’s going to benefit him. That size, that skill set, that approach. What you saw in the bubble, we’re bringing that back. And again, we got to make sure we take care of him, meet all of his needs physically and make sure he’s in a good space mentally, spiritually, but he’s the factor. This s— ain’t going to work without AD being right.
What are your thoughts on Russell Westbrook?
Counted out prematurely. Counted out. Prematurely. I’ve had some great interactions with Russ, in person, over dinner, over the phone, over text messages. I love Russell Westbrook, man. Just his mentality, his approach. Just to see him, a guy of that magnitude and everything he’s done in the league to get hated on. But being me, I got a wholehearted plan, a clear plan on how I’m going to use him. I showed it to him, sat down, brought stuff up for him. I think he’s going to flourish. We ain’t going to try to curtail his energy. We’re just going to diversify it, redirect it.
You see Westbrook as a starter under you with the Lakers?
Yes, indeed. It’s just the way we’re going to play and the type of people that’s going to be out there on the floor, that’s the biggest thing.
“With [Anthony Davis], I would say he’s the biggest factor. I’m looking forward to him having a huge year this year. This s— ain’t going to work without AD being right.”— Darvin Ham
Do you plan to preach about the expectation of winning an NBA championship daily with the Lakers next season?
I’m preaching daily preparation, man. That ring and them banners, that s— don’t come if you ain’t on your thing every day. You’ve got to be focused every day. You got to make every day count, bro. You don’t just start training camp and just sleepwalk through a season, then OK, now we’re at the playoffs. Now we’re about the win. No, it’s your habits. Winning habits are built daily. Daily habits from the rest you’re getting, how you’re taking care of your body, your sleep habits, your nutrition, your workouts, your recovery, your film work, being efficient with your practice time, being efficient with your shootarounds.
Knowing when to fall back, knowing when to go do some other s—. ‘OK, I know we’ve been on a three-game losing streak, but instead of having a kick-ass practice, we’re going to go to this museum and check out the African American museum. How about that?’ Knowing how to have balance. To constantly just walk around talking about championship, championship, championship, at some point the lip service gets old, bro. You’ve got to go do it.
You mentioned taking the Lakers to African American museums. Is it important to build camaraderie with the team outside of the arena?
During the course of the season, we’re going to do some things that trigger the human being. Not just doing stuff in the gym trying to trigger the basketball player. We’re going to trigger a mentality. We’re going to be well-rounded. We’re going to have balance.
You got to have balance. We live in a bubble, the NBA bubble. Not the physical bubble but the bubble mentality of, ‘OK, we’re NBA guys and we’re out of touch with society.’ No, we ain’t going to be that. Just like I want the people in Bel Air and Brentwood and Beverly Hills to be proud of the Lakers, I want Compton, Watts, South Central, Inglewood, Carson and Long Beach to be proud of us, too.
When you think back to your journey, what advice would you give to somebody who feels like, “Man, I ain’t got no hope”?
I would just tell them keep God first. And I’m talking about the universal god. There are good lessons in all of those books, the Bible, the Quran, the Torah. But keep God first. That’s first and foremost. Second of all, we’re all human. Everybody is human first, so don’t think you are better than or less than anybody that’s to your left or your right, in front of you, behind you. Don’t think you’re better than or less than. We’re all human, bro. Again, the only thing that separates us is our gender and our energy.
And the third thing is you’re only going to receive what you put out. I’m talking about your energy in your interactions. If I wanted to feel sorry for myself and, ‘Man, all the world is against me, this, this, that or the third,’ and constantly walk around feeling sorry for myself, I’m going to get some sorry ass results. I think about how blessed I am just to wake up. When I open my eyes in the morning, it means something different to me, bro. If I’m able to open my eyes and take that first breath, I won. I feel like a winner already because I know there’s so many people that would love to see me in this seat right now and be celebrating and partying with me that died years ago, that ain’t even here to enjoy this with me.
And this makes me sad. They keep saying, ‘When is it going to hit you that you’re the Laker coach?’ There are some good, really special people that played a role in me getting here and they ain’t alive no more, bro. So, whenever I get to open my eyes and take that breath and see the world and see sunlight, I’m already ready to put some positive energy out.