Los Angeles — The job, as much as it is anything else, requires a coach to stand next to LeBron James, a player who has been one of basketball’s most famous since he was in high school, and forge a partnership.
So, naturally, the Lakers went and hired Darvin Ham, who spent most his one-year high school basketball career on the bench.
“I didn’t know him,” former Saginaw High coach Marshall Thomas said with a laugh.
That Ham struggled to make the team at Saginaw High and still has come so far speaks to an essential part of his character — his relentlessness. Going from a 10th man as a senior in high school to an NBA champion as a player with the Detroit Pistons to a title winner as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks, it can be traced to a single reason.
“There’s nothing we can do as far as making any claims for him. Darvin has carved his own path,” Thomas said. “And he started his own path by not giving up.”
The news of Ham’s hiring — which still hasn’t been announced by the Lakers — has been met with endorsements from those who crossed paths with Ham during his career: former coaches, teammates and colleagues lauding the Lakers for handing things over to a first-time coach.
“He’s going to be honest as a coach of the Lakers, which is what I think you need in the NBA today — somebody that’s going to be honest but know how to be honest without actually just tearing you down,” former teammate and Pistons great Chauncey Billups, now the coach in Portland said Saturday. “What can you say? He’s won as a player. He’s won as a coach. I mean, this dude is more than qualified for the task at hand. I’m so happy and proud of him. I spoke to him last night and he was so excited.”
Billups thinks the Lakers got it right.
“He’s ready for this job. He’s the right guy for this Lakers job,” Billups said.
Back in Ham’s hometown, former high school teammate Julian Taylor could hardly believe what he heard.
Taylor, like so many people in Michigan, loved the Lakers because of Magic Johnson. While Taylor saw Ham work his way from high school afterthought into an NBA player, the latest achievement was almost too much to believe.
Saginaw has produced NBA players — a lineage that includes Draymond Green, Mark Macon and Jason Richardson.
Ham is different.
“Darv being their head coach, a guy who beat all odds, wasn’t picked to make it … he just worked,” Taylor said.
At Saginaw High, Ham didn’t even play basketball until his senior year, a growth spurt over the summer jump-starting his career. Back then, Thomas trusted his returning players to help build the team’s roster, and nearly all of them said Ham should make the cut.
He wasn’t a star — he barely played — but Ham possessed one trait that made Thomas comfortable recommending him to a junior college coach.
“Darvin just kept getting better and getting better. He’s a true competitor, has always been a competitor,” Thomas said. “… The biggest thing about Darvin never was his ability. It’s that Darvin was always a great person. Hard-nosed, hard-working, but a great person.”
Years later, Billups experienced the same things with Ham as a teammate with the Pistons, one of Ham’s six NBA homes.
“I’m sure if you talked to the guys that he played with, he was probably their favorite-teammate type dude. He was always so competitive,” Billups said. “He brought the heat to practice every day. Every time he got in the game, he just raised the level of play. He’s the man. Not one person would say anything bad about him.
“He’s that guy.”
Former NBA coach and current Indiana Hoosiers coach Mike Woodson was an assistant on those Pistons teams. He remembered Ham as someone who would never “bulls–- in practice” because he was too committed.
“His work ethic in practice and when we put him in the game, he always seemed to deliver,” Woodson said. “And it was based on his hard work. He put the time in on the practice floor and it was always a nice carryover in the game. So, you knew that the fact he got into coaching, I knew it would work because that’s a big part of being a good coach. You got to work.”
Ham got his first chance to coach NBA players with the Lakers in 2011 as a developmental coach on Mike Brown’s staff after three seasons coaching in the developmental league. Metta Sandiford-Artest — then known as Metta World Peace — was on that Lakers team and remembers tabbing Ham as a future coach.
“He was working hard, working all the players out, worked me out,” Sandiford-Artest said. “He worked out everybody. He was involved heavy and was very direct; very, very direct, which I really loved.
“… He definitely understands modern basketball. He also is capable of communicating in a way where you can receive it the right way. He’s definitely a presence, but he also has a communication about him that is, I’m not going to say soft, but you understand that he has your best interest at heart.”
As the Lakers coach, he’s going to be asked to communicate with some of the NBA’s biggest stars, including James, maybe the biggest. Following news of Ham’s hiring, James tweeted his support — a promising early step.
Everyone who knows Ham, from his time in the NBA or from his time in Saginaw, knows he’s equipped to tackle a challenge. It’s who he is.
“In Saginaw, we’re cut from a different cloth. We come from hard work, from toughness, that take-no-mess attitude. That’s Saginaw basketball,” Taylor said. “… Darvin was such a hard worker. And once he grew and got physically strong, Darv couldn’t be denied.”