Darvin Ham continues to relish Texas Tech roots
By Stephen Hunt
DALLAS — Mention Darvin Ham to any longtime Texas Tech basketball fan and one image immediately comes to mind: the 6-foot-7, athlete shattering a backboard during the 1996 NCAA Tournament.
It’s a moment that was forever immortalized on a Sports Illustrated cover and something Ham, now an assistant coach with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, still loves talking about considering his squad upset the Tarheels on the way to advancing to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.
“I just signed some magazines in Washington DC last week, so there’s people still out there with that cover,” Ham, 45, said after morning shootaround during a Feb. 8 trip to Dallas. “I love it, man. It’s great. It was a great moment in basketball history and a big smile lights up every time I see one. I thank God every day for that moment.”
Ham certainly has plenty of memories to recount from a career which spanned from 1993 and 1996 with the Red Raiders. He went on to play professionally for 11 seasons, eight in the NBA, including winning an NBA title with the Detroit Pistons in 2004.
Soon enough, though, he knew it was time to hang up his shoes and decided to stay close to the game by moving his seat on the bench a little closer to the head coach. His journey began in the NBA Development League, or D-League, now known as the G-League and is now going on year eight as an NBA assistant — first with the Milwaukee Bucks.
But no matter where basketball has taken him, he has remained a Red Raider through and through, someone who takes great pride in the program’s current success. Ham knows plenty about success being named to the Southwest Conference Defensive Team, the All-SWC Second Team, and winning the 1996 NCAA Slam Dunk Championship during his collegiate career.
“I’m ecstatic. Chris Beard and his staff are doing a phenomenal job of not only getting people excited about the program, really taking the program to the levels where it was when I left,” Ham said. “He’s doing a great job of reintegrating former players. We went back this summer-myself, Tony Battie, Ronald Ross, Martin Zeno. He had a lot of the former players back to do the fantasy camp and it was awesome. I love Chris, his energy, he’s organized, he’s humble. I love what he’s doing and the type of person he is.”
Of Ham’s tenure as an NBA assistant, two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers and five with the Atlanta Hawks, he has spent the past six seasons working under Mike Budenholzer, who coached Atlanta for five seasons before being hired by Milwaukee after last season.
And it’s safe to say that “Coach Bud” as he is called, a former longtime Spurs assistant under the legendary Gregg Popovich, considers Ham indispensable.
“It’s hard to put into words everything that Darvin brings, but he’s incredibly important to me, to our players,” Budenholzer said. “We want to be tough and there’s nobody tougher than Darvin. He just brings a toughness, a realness and honesty. The players respect him, his player development with bigs and really everybody. He’s just got a great feel for the sport. He’s special.”
Even though he and Budenholzer know one another well from their time in Atlanta, coming to Milwaukee meant Ham would now work with an entirely new group of players. As of Sunday, following a 103-83 loss to the Orlando Magic, the Bucks were an NBA-best 41-14.
The record is something the ex-Red Raider attributes largely to Milwaukee’s young superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, better known as “the Greek Freak,” who has emerged as a strong NBA MVP candidate.
Ham named Sterling Brown, Eryan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez as Bucks he’s enjoyed working with thus far, but admits players like Antetokounmpo don’t come around every day.
“I love him, man, just the tone he sets. When your best player is your hardest worker, humble and wants to be coached, it puts that much more pressure, the right kind of pressure, on the rest of the team to take heed to what directions are being given,” Ham said. “He allows himself to be held accountable so everybody else has to fall in line. It’s been awesome being around him, coaching him and just being able to experience this.”
Two season from being an NBA assistant for a decade, Ham continues to draw upon his experiences as a player in the NBA and from his time abroad, from his three seasons coaching in the NBA D-League and his previous stops in the league as an assistant.
Over the years, he’s developed a simple yet effective coaching philosophy, a mentality which has served him incredibly well over the past decade-plus.
“You got to be a bottom line guy,” Ham said. “There’s a lot of gray areas in basketball, but as a coach sometimes you got to speak in terms of black and white. I don’t mean race, just being matter of fact about what you’re explaining to these guys. And if you’re wrong you have to be able to listen too. I feel like you don’t serve your coach in a proper way if you’re not honest with him. You just can’t disagree just for the sake of disagreeing. It has to make sense. But when you’re able to have that honesty with the guy you’re working for, it not only makes you more valuable, it makes the staff more valuable because we’re speaking in honest terms.”
After a successful 11-year playing career, Ham made a successful transition to coaching in 2008, starting out in the NBA D-League. Since 2011, he’s been an NBA assistant. And as someone now in his eighth year on an NBA bench, he aspires to one day be a head coach.
But for now, he’s content to be Budenholzer’s able lieutenant while continuing to learn more about the game he loves.
“I truly enjoy the journey of it,” Ham said. “Do I want to be a head coach? Definitely. Do I think I could be a head coach? Certainly. But am I chomping at the bit or anxious to step in? No, I’m very patient. My time will come. I’m 45-years-old. This is my eighth year coaching in the NBA and 11th year coaching total. I’ve made a lot of ground, I’ve been around a nice length of time, but I’m in no rush. As long as I’m able to contribute at a high level, help him (Budenholzer) out, be there for him, you have to be a loyal soldier in order to (one day) be a general. Right now, I’m in my loyal soldier stage, and I definitely think that’ll help me be an effective general.”