Lakers Q&A: Frank Hamblen wants to remain Lakers assistant a 'few more years'
This is the second post in an occasional series that features a Q&A with a member of the Lakers organization. Below is a recent conversation with Lakers assistant coach Frank Hamblen, who's in charge of game preparations for contests against Boston, Miami, Detroit, Milwaukee, Clippers, Utah and Denver.
Phil mentioned during training camp that, assuming this is his last season, he hoped one of his assistants would be considered to replace him. If the Lakers came up to you, would you be interested in that position?
At this point in my career, no. I've taken over teams twice on an interim basis. It's a tough thing to do. At my age, I'll be 64 in April, I would think they'd want to go with somebody young. At one time, I thought I'd get an opportunity, but it didn't work out. That's OK. I had a great run.
What point were you referring to when you thought you'd get an opportunity?
When I was in my 40s and late 30s, I thought I'd get an opportunity. But it didn't happen. But that's OK.
Presuming this is Phil's last season, do you see yourself remaining an assistant here?
I still want to work another few more years. Hopefully it will be here. Hopefully one of the other guys on the staff does get the job. I think each and every one of them would do a good job. I know it's not probable, but I would like to see Phil stick around another year or two. I don't think he will, but I didn't know if he would stick around for this year, so there's always a possibility.
Knowing Phil pretty well, is that something you try to plant in his ear?
It's too early (smiles). Too early. Too early in the season to do anything. I know Jeanie [Buss] will be working on him though.
And then once the season ends, you'll get in his ear?
Yeah. I'll ask him, "What are you going to do in Montana once basketball season starts? You're supposed to be in training camp. But if you're in Montana, what are you going to do?"
You watch the College World Series with Phil a lot [Hamblen lettered in baseball at Syracuse]. Is that an option for him?
I really enjoyed baseball. Phil and I [watch it on TV]. We always threaten when we're old and retired, we'll go to Omaha and go to the College World Series, eat some hot dogs and drink some beer. I'm looking forward to it. We both played a lot of baseball. We talk a lot about baseball.
Mitch [Kupchak] has described your demeanor and approach to coaching as being level-headed. Phil has remarked about your knowledge and preparation with the teams you're in charge of scouting. In those two respects, what's your approach?
I try to treat people the way I want to be treated when we deal with our players. That's been my philosophy all along. Alex Hannum, my first coach, told me to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open when I went out scouting. I've done that throughout my career. ... As far as when it's my team, I try and get in the other coach's head and what he'll try to do against us. How would he try to approach going against us. We all watch a lot of film. I want to know what he's going to run off a timeout, what he's going to run in a close ball game, so I'm prepared to tell the head coach, Phil in this case, what I think our opponent is going to run.
One of the things you remarked about your enjoyment in working for Phil is he allows his assistants to do their job. What does that exactly entail?
I think he's great at delegating. It's like with our teams. We have our particular teams. We set the game plan for it. If he wants to tweak it, he'll tweak it. You're responsible. You basically do most of the work and heavy lifting. You watch the film and prepare it. During shoot-arounds, you walk through it and explain how you're going to defend situations and what things will work offensively. Then you see how it works out.
It grows. As you get into the playoffs, the intensity really grows. I've been with teams where every third game you would rotate among assistants. Having teams, even though you might get stacked up with three or four games in a row ... you get to really know your team. I feel like I really know my teams. I've had Utah since I was in Chicago. I've had them for that long. I used to kid the players. One night, I told our players, "I know Jerry Sloan so well I could tell you what he had for dinner last night" in my pregame talk. I said he had prime rib, baked potato and sweet corn. I was out to dinner with him so I knew what he had for dinner. He's a friend of mine. They were like, "Yeah OK, Frank."
What's the story behind you getting a coaching job after pursuing a career in television?
I came out here [after graduating from Syracuse in 1969], had $200 in my pocket and drove across country. I had some Syracuse alumni who were in the TV/movie industry. They were producers and directors. I was doing an interview with them to get into that business. The L.A. Lakers shootout was going on way back then and the Pistons came to town. They were in one of the teams in the shootout. Dave Bing, who was a senior at Syracuse when I was a freshman, was playing, so we went out after the game. They were playing the San Diego Rockets the next night, and I said I had never been to San Diego. I'll come down. There was another Syracuse guy with us and he said, "Look up Max Shapiro." He scouts for them and I just happened to run into Max Shapiro at the game. We started talking. He said he was going to resign his position in two days and wanted to go in a different direction in life. Would I be interested in the job? I go, "Yeah. I don't have a job." I stayed over and interviewed with Pete Newell, the general manager, and they wound up hiring me. Well, Pete knew I played and all that, college ball. He knew my coach so he called my coach, and my coach gave me a good recommendation and they hired me. We had a good draft so here I am 42 years later.
What stood out that first year?
It was a six-month deal. If they liked me after six months, they'd keep me. It was an open deal. They needed somebody. They got some young guy cheap. We had a real good draft and then they signed me to a contract.
At the time, were you still pursuing television?
I was pursuing both avenues. I had some offers to go as an assistant coach in college when I graduated. ... Then I was introduced for Wide World of Sports ... as a production assistant and [was among] the last five. I was just like anybody who graduated from college. I was looking to get a job and looking to get into the workforce and I had basketball and I had television on the other hand.
So, you were mentioning earlier, you're the longest-tenured assistant coach in the NBA [42 years]. What has that meant to you?
It's really gone by fast. What's it mean to me? I don't know. I haven't really had time to think about it. I've enjoyed working. I met great people and have been under Hall of Fame coaches and have been under Hall of Fame basketball players. It's been a dream come true. I've learned from all of them starting way back when when my first coach was Alex Hannum. He was a Hall of Fame basketball coach. ... He first started forming me in basketball.
What did you get out of your head coaching experiences with Milwaukee [took over for Del Harris after 27 games and went 23-42] and the Lakers [took over for Rudy Tomjanovich after 43 games and finished 10-29]?
It's a hard job to do. I don't think I gained anything out of those experiences. But it's just something that had to be done. It's easier to get rid of the head coach. I stepped in and it's hard to do without the benefit of training camp and setting a foundation for the season. You have to go with what you've been doing and then make subtle changes.
How did you handle that?
You rely on your assistants to help you, and you just handle the best you can, try to reason with the players and tell them this is the situation and we have to somehow pull it together and get the job done. Then you see if you can get the job done.
At one point in Milwaukee, you said as soon as you started, the team would have to be extremely competitive for the remainder of the season for you to stay. When you're battling upstream, what measures of progress do you aim for?
Bottom line in this league, it's winning and losing. In both situations we lost. Most of the time you lose as an interim coach when you take over. Things aren't going well, and players have a tendency to see a lame-duck coach or an interim coach as one that won't be around next year. They get a little selfish and play more individually than having the team attitude. Then things kind of go haywire.
You said you didn't gain anything out of head coaching, but did it change your view or interest in that field?
It didn't change at all. With my career path, people labeled me as an assistant coach in this league. So be it. I had a great run -- 42 years. It's like living a dream.
What have been the highlights of that run?
It took me 20 years to win a championship. Now I've been a part of eight championship teams. I'm thankful to Phil for hiring me in Chicago [1996-98] and hiring me in Los Angeles [in 1999]. To be a part of this staff, it's really made my career.
-- Mark Medina
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Photos, from top: Frank Hamblen has the longest tenure of any assistant coach in the NBA. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times. Photo: Lakers coaches Jim Cleamons, Brian Shaw, head coach Phil Jackson, Frank Hamblen and trainer Gary Vitti during a 2009-10 regular-season game against the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times. Hamblen coaches the team during a regular-season game in the 2004-05 season for an ill Rudy Tomjanovich, who eventually resigned. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times