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Lakers' Darvin Ham works first NBA coaching gig

January 13, 2012 |  8:00 am

Images of a high-flying Darvin Ham racing toward the basket, dunking the ball and shattering the glass always follow him. 

It follows him at home. Ham still keeps several copies of the Sports Illustrated cover titled "Smashing," which showcases his memorable dunk that helped Texas Tech beat North Carolina in the second round of the 1996 NCAA tournament.

It follows him at work. As a Lakers assistant coach, Ham said Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak and Assistant Coach John Kuester, both former Tar Heel standouts, have teased him about it. They recently read a Times story that described the footage of Ham's dunk on YouTube as "grainy," allowing Kupchak and Kuester to fuel the notion that the 38-year-old Ham is too old.

And it follows him in many interviews. Ham spoke with The Times this week in a sit-down video interview for 23 minutes on his eight-year NBA career, his four-year coaching stint with the NBA Development League's Alburquerque Thunderbirds and his first NBA assistant coaching gig with the Lakers. Yet it's inevitable conversation shifts toward Ham's dunk. 

"I don't constantly try to relive it," Ham said. "I'm on to the next thing."

That's also why Ham never teased Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher about his role in helping Detroit beat the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals. That's why Ham only joked just once as an icebreaker to Bryant that he unfairly won the 1997 NBA Dunk Contest over him. As the Lakers (8-4) host the Cleveland Cavaliers (4-5) Friday at Staples Center in only the 13th game of a compacted 66-game season, Ham's concentrating on carving out his niche within Mike Brown's coaching staff. 

"I'm working my butt off trying to put my best foot forward," Ham said.

He split scouting duties with assistants Chuck Person, Quin Snyder and Kuester. Because reserve forward Troy Murphy remained ill this week with gasterorenteritis, Ham suited up during a recent morning shoot-around. And he's taken a large role in working with center Andrew Bynum.

That's proven to be Ham's most crucial responsibility. Bynum's 17.1 points and 13.9 rebounds per game is an improvement over last season, when he averaged 11.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. It's also sparked enough attention for the seven-year center to attract 496,597 votes thus far to play in this year's All-Star game Feb. 26 in Orlando, the highest number thus far among Western Conference centers. Yet Bynum has averaged only 12 points on 38.36% in the last four games, partly because of increased double teams.

Ham, whose job description follows Lakers assistant coaches that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kurt Rambis and Brian Shaw, has emphasized to Bynum in practice and pre-game drills specific instructions on how to improve, including better balance, posture, awareness on pick-and-roll defense and defensive communication. 

"He has a long ways to go," Ham said of Bynum.

Ham faced a much different routine only months ago. This summer, Ham accepted a job as the director of basketball development at a YMCA in New Mexico. But Pepperdine assistant and former Texas Tech teammate Bryant Moore alerted Ham that Brown expressed interested in interviewing him. Brown and Ham struck up a kinship dating back to his rookie season with the Denver Nuggets (1996-97) where Brown scouted.

Brown's coaching staff also had connections with Ham. Kuester was an assistant at Detroit when Ham played for the Pistons from 2003 to 2005. Ham also played for Snyder in 2008 with the D-League's Austin Toros. And Person matched up with Ham in the NBA for three seasons before his own retirement in 2000. 

Even with those connections, Ham drew up practice plans for Bynum and Pau Gasol and game-specific plays during his interview to show he can compensate for lacking NBA coaching experience.

"If you can coach in that league," said Ham in regards to the D-League, "you can pretty much coach anywhere." 

Through 13 games, Ham says "I've done a great job," but concedes everything is "100 times more intense in the NBA."  Ham has adopted the philosophy he stressed to his D-League players about compensating for their weaknesses through strong fundamentals. He often consults with former Pistons Coach Larry Brown, who once said "every team needs a Darvin Ham" for his hard work as a role player. He leans on Person and Kuester for mentorship. And he remains eager to accept more work as time progresses.

"He's allowing me to grow at the right pace," Ham said of Brown. "He's not putting too much on me, but he's still giving me a lot of responsibility." 

And this time, it has nothing to do with shattering a backboard.


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--Mark Medina

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