He'd barely had a chance to introduce himself as one of the Lakers' new assistant coaches before Darvin Ham had a 15-year-old grievance to settle with Kobe Bryant.
"Kobe, you got my trophy at your house," Ham recalls saying during the team's first practice.
Bryant has many trophies. Five championship rings, one Olympic gold medal, two Finals MVPs, one regular-season MVP and four All-Star MVPs come to mind. But Ham was referring to the 1997 NBA dunk contest, which the 18-year-old Bryant won with a between-the-legs slam. Ham didn't even advance past the first round.
"I lost to one of the top five players in history," Ham said during the days leading into tonight's NBA dunk contest. "It's a pleasure for me to lose to that guy. I think I can get him right now. He won't admit it. I think I can get him right now."
A few minutes after processing the news that Houston Rockets small forward Chase Budinger would compete in the 2012 NBA dunk contest, Ham finally let me quote him to capture his disappointment.
"Shouldn't he be in the three-point shootout?" Ham asked.
Perhaps. But with Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard publicly expressing a lack of interest in participating in Saturday night's contest, Budinger remains one of the fallback selections. The other three go to Minnesota rookie Derrick Williams, Indiana's Paul George and Utah's Jeremy Evans, who replaced New York's Iman Shumpert this week after Shumpert bowed out because of tendinitis in his left knee.
Ham, a Lakers assistant coach, has a unique interest in the competition. It was his glass-shattering dunk that helped Texas Tech beat North Carolina in the second round of the 1996 NCAA tournament, and that feat landed him on a Sports Illustrated cover. Ham also has joked with Kobe Bryant that he, not the Lakers' star, should've won the 1997 NBA dunk contest. Ham even revealed he posterized Lakers forward Devin Ebanks at a recent practice. But this contest hardly gets his blood boiling.
"I dunked on some Hall of Famers," Ham said. "So that dunk contest really doesn't impress me."
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.