Column: New Lakers coach Darvin Ham brings emotion for players

New to coaching in 2011, Darvin Ham was in his third professional job, starting with an NBA team. Then-Lakes coach Mike Brown had hired him as player development coach, a role that hasn’t received the spotlight and proved more important in shaping Ham than he thought possible.

Ham spent hours on the practice field and in the movie room with Laker players nothing more intense than with Kobe Bryant. They would push each other, test their limits. Ham marveled at how Bryant saw the game so well on so many levels.

“When I went back and forth with him and he disagreed and then came back and told myself I was right, we all know how stubborn he was, man, it just gave me an abundance of confidence in myself as a coach ‘ said Ham recently.

These sessions also taught Ham the importance of working with star players, not just working. He used that as an assistant in Atlanta and Milwaukee. “It’s a one-way street. Not only does this trainer think he knows everything, he just barks orders. No, you need to be able to work together, communicate and understand each other again,” Ham said.

“It’s not your way or my way, but what’s the best way to move forward? What’s the best plan for all of us? Kobe has been at the forefront of my own development as a coach, just training with him on the court, the types of movies we watched, dinners we had, offline, just getting away from it all. He made a significant contribution to the fact that I was able to develop as a coach.”

Ham, who was unveiled Monday as the Lakers’ head coach at their El Segundo practice facility, is easy to like. He was born in Saginaw, Michigan, and grew up in a house behind a liquor store and nightclub, he said in a 2011 interview published on the Lakers’ website for the city. He lost friends to drug-related deaths. He took a bullet meant for someone else and had to have surgery to remove it from his throat. He was one of the lucky ones.

Ham, now 48, paid his dues as a player. He wasn’t drafted by Texas Tech but still managed to build an eight-year NBA career and win a championship with Detroit in 2004. He learned a lot from his career as a laborer. “I think it prepares you,” he said Monday. “It creates a certain kind of mentality where you don’t want to cut corners. You have to make sure you get to the point and understand the details.”

He spent his time alongside Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta and Milwaukee and was the senior assistant when the Bucks won the 2021 NBA championship. Ham didn’t want to leave the man who had become his brother, “but sometimes you have to walk that walk alone,” Ham said during a news conference, which reflected his passion for coaching and his enthusiasm for the near-impossible task that Bringing Lakers back to prominence demonstrated.

The Lakers haven’t settled on a “name” coach. You haven’t decided on a retread. And for that, a heartfelt thank you to General Manager Rob Pelinka and the inner circle of the Lakers Coaching Search Committee for recommending Ham owner Jeanie Buss. Doc Rivers, even if he had been available, would not have brought anything new. The same goes for Quin Snyder. Ham at least brings a fresh perspective and voice. And while he didn’t play for the Lakers, his two years as a player development coach gave him a credible connection to the organization without his hiring being a case of nepotism or remaining in the Lakers family.

New Lakers coach Darvin Ham and general manager Rob Pelinka.

New Lakers coach Darvin Ham, right, and general manager Rob Pelinka Monday at the UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo.

(Jay L Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

He deserves this chance and it’s easy to lead him to success. Too bad he’s inheriting a terrible team that needs to get younger and faster but is tied too much in this group to change anything – and doesn’t have a first-round draft pick until 2027 to avoid any potential roster overhaul trade to sweeten.

LeBron James is approaching 38, Anthony Davis is coming off another injury-plagued season, and turnover machine Russell Westbrook is, well, Russell Westbrook, but older. Ham’s insistence that Westbrook will see the light defensively was eloquent but sounded like wishful thinking. Ham has prided himself on forging a good relationship with stars – James sent his congratulations via social media last week and Westbrook was at the back of the gym for Monday’s press conference – and while that should come in handy, that alone won’t bring the Lakers back to the fore playoffs

Ham’s press conference had that new coach smell fueled by optimism and buzzwords. “We will work together, communicate and make sure we also demonstrate,” he said. He often talked about preparation and accountability, and it all sounded good. Let’s check back in December and January to see how it’s going.

He also said repeatedly that defense will be the foundation of the team and where have we heard that before? Frank Vogel preached defense, and players stopped for a while and won the 2020 championship in the NBA’s COVID-resistant bubble. As Pelinka began selling the tough, gutsy defensemen who were key to that win, the Lakers grew into a top-ranked all-star team with a roster that wasn’t designed to endure the drudgery of an 82-game season or to withstand the unforgiving pace of the playoffs.

The day he was introduced, Ham put hope above all else. “I’m going to put together a strong staff and I guess the sky’s the limit. We don’t put a ceiling on our situation,” he said. “We will go as far as our daily preparation requires. … We will get better every day. That’s what we’re going to do, and the things we’re going to do in that day-to-day process will lead to the kind of success this franchise and this city is accustomed to.”

He spoke passionately, convincingly. When players can pick up on his emotions and bring them onto the pitch, that’s progress. We’ll see what he can do beyond that. Column: New Lakers coach Darvin Ham brings emotion for players

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