Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham keeping perspective about first NBA coaching job, state of Black executives
Ham knows his team will have to be ‘willing and patient’ while finding chemistry. He also hopes to see more diversity in front offices.
SAN FRANCISCO – When Darvin Ham walked onto the floor at Chase Center on Tuesday night, the 14-year journey he took to finally become an NBA head coach raced through his mind. Nothing has ever come easy for the undrafted former NBA journeyman.
And as he glanced into the sold-out crowd and the players on the floor, the reality of him being the new Los Angeles Lakers coach set in and he nearly shed a tear before the season opening tipoff.
“I was just unbelievably thankful as I was walking through the tunnel at the beginning of the game. Just unbelievably thankful,” said Ham, following the Lakers’ 123-109 season-opening loss to the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors. “I am walking out, I am looking up and I see everyone out there. I see Draymond [Green] before the game. I’m looking at the crowd. Looking at the arena. Looking at my team. Looking at LeBron [James] getting ready to go.
“I came this close to getting emotional. Just thankfulness. There are no other words I can use other than I am completely thankful to God. It was real.”
There is a lot of pressure on Ham, who landed a first head coaching gig with a storied Lakers franchise that has won 18 championships. This Lakers roster includes arguably the greatest NBA player of all time in James and another in forward Anthony Davis, who is on the NBA 75th Anniversary team. The Lakers, however, were injury-plagued last season and did not make the play-in game for the playoffs last season.
The coaching debut itself wasn’t as memorable Ham would have dreamed, as the Lakers trailed by as many as 27 points to the reigning champs before losing. In regard to the Lakers missing 30 of 40 3-pointers, James said, “to be honest, we’re not a team constructed of great shooting.” Guard Russell Westbrook, who has long been embroiled in trade rumors, also gave Ham an early-season challenge by stating after the Warriors’ loss that he “absolutely” believes coming off the bench in a preseason game Oct. 14 contributed to his hamstring injury.
Keep in mind that this Lakers team also had nine new players on the active roster Tuesday. Despite the loss, growing pains and the Westbrook soap opera, Ham believes this team will be a talented one once the chemistry improves.
“Chemistry is not like Malt-O-Meal. It’s not instant,” Ham said. “You don’t just throw it in the microwave. That is something that has to be baked over the course of time and we’ll get there. The more we keep getting the reps in when we are about to practice and shoot around, film work, we’ll get to the point where we know each other and it’s second nature the way we play basketball. That definitely is the goal, and it takes time. Just got to be willing to be patient.”
Ham’s professional basketball career began with challenges, as he went undrafted out of Texas Tech in 1996. Even so, the brawny and hard-playing 6-foot-7 240-pounder managed to play in 417 NBA games for six teams, winning an NBA title with the Detroit Pistons in 2004. In 2008, Ham began his pro coaching career as an assistant coach with the G League Albuquerque Thunderbirds for two seasons before becoming their head coach.
The Lakers gave him his first coaching opportunity in the NBA as an assistant coach from 2011 to 2013. Next up was tutelage as an assistant coach under longtime NBA head coach Mike Budenholzer with the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks won an NBA championship in 2021 with Ham as a member of their coaching staff.
Ham finally landed a head coaching opportunity with the Lakers on June 3. He turned down interest for the Charlotte Hornets’ head coach job. Not having a golden road on the way to becoming head coach made the journey “more gratifying” for Ham.
“No one co-signed me,” Ham said. “I wasn’t anyone’s guy. I wasn’t grandfathered into nothing. It was just meeting the right people along the way. Acquiring great knowledge that I added to my repertoire. Finally, landing with a great coach [Budenholzer] and having great relationships with people in my path.
“Now, I am getting an opportunity like the [new Sacramento Kings head coach] Mike Browns of the world as a I transition to a new position within the game, and then landing with a great Hall of Fame coach in Coach Bud and having a consistent program to study under and learn from. There were other great coaches on our staff. It is more gratifying.”
Ham said he received numerous well-wishes from coaches and former teammates before his head coaching debut against the Warriors. Budenholzer reached out as well as former Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder. So did Nebraska assistant coach Doc Sadler, who was an assistant coach at Texas Tech when Ham played there. Ham’s former Pistons teammate Ben Wallace also spoke with Ham. Several of Ham’s family members offered well-wishes, too.
“Bud sent me some good stuff. Everybody sent me some good stuff. Just great messages,” Ham said.
Every loss with the Lakers is magnified due to their history and global following. Ham, however, found a silver lining in the defeat as the Lakers still fought in the fourth quarter trimming their deficit to 12, 103-91, following an acrobatic Westbrook alley-oop dunk with 4:56 remaining. The Warriors finished the game with a 20-18 run and didn’t cause Ham to take out his starters until there was 1:52 remaining.
While Ham hates “this losing taste in my mouth,” he had a motivational outlook for his team after the defeat.
“There is a care factor,” Ham said. “You have to care about competing. You can’t look at it as this isn’t a game thrown away because it’s still early because that mentality will seep in and stay with you throughout the season. You have to have a care factor in the way you perform and compete.
“We have to be competitive at all times. We can live with the results as long as we compete and continue to compete. I told them I was proud of them because we know this team [the Warriors]. They will embarrass you. They had a push where they went up, but we climbed out way back and fought back. It just didn’t work. But we fought to shrink the lead.”
One good sign for Ham as the new head coach of the Lakers is that James and Davis are ecstatic he was hired. Davis said his former teammate Jrue Holiday, a guard with Milwaukee Bucks, and other NBA players spoke highly of him before his arrival. James said he was already sold on the first-year head coach before he coached the season opener.
“I love him and his system,” Davis told Andscape. “He is one of those coaches you would run through a brick wall for. He got your back to make you work hard for him. He’s definitely a player’s coach. He’s been great for all of us. He lets us play freely offensively and keeps a defensive edge.
“We will go back and look at [the loss] and learn. He calls it wins and lessons. There are lessons with our loss. We will go back, look at film and get better for Thursday [against the LA Clippers].”
Said James: “He is in a position where he should be. We’re delighted, happy and fortunate for him to be on our side. He is going to have a long career as a head coach.”
At the end of the 2019-20 NBA season, the league only had four African American head coaches out of 30 total despite the fact that about 75 to 80% of the players are Black. Before the start of the 2020 NBA Finals, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said that the low number of Black head coaches needed major improvement. Silver’s words came true, as now 15 of the 30 coaches in the NBA are Black, including Ham.
While Ham is happy about the rise in the number of Black head coaches, he has bigger sights for African Americans in the NBA.
“This is an all-time high for Black coaches, but I hope it spills into the front office,” Ham said. “I hope they start getting the executive positions. I hope they start really getting a foothold in ownership. It’s the NBA. We have a strong presence when it comes to who is in front of the camera. But behind the camera, not so much. We still have a long way to go.
“The league has really been great diversifying itself in terms of minorities, women, and equal opportunities for everybody. But still, the higher up you got to go, the more diverse it should be. It should represent what you see on the coaching staffs. The majority of the front offices are doing their job looking at all candidates. But we need more, more and more diversity in terms of front office decision-makers and ownership groups.”