George Karl, the then bespectacled head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, stood from his chair and called a timeout.
It would be there, in that huddle, where Darvin Ham’s name would be etched into the basketball lexicon forever.
Karl preceded to draw up a play on the back of two observations:
1) the team’s vast collection of perimeter shooters and...
2) his stocky forward’s keen ability to make reads on the fly.
These were realizations that were informed rather than sheer hunches, but the execution and the effectiveness of his idea, however, were a gamble made in the dark. And it would be up to Ham to bring it to the light.
The action first called for Ham to receive the ball in the strong-side post. On the weak side, the likes of Ray Allen or Michael Redd would then sprint to the opposite corner with the velocity of a cast-iron ball shot out of a cannon. They would get to their destination, free of their defender, after a teammate’s timely pick helped create the pocket of space. A “Hammer Screen” (or action), would be a mainstay in the NBA lexicon for years to come.
Ironically, Ham rarely, if ever, found himself on the receiving end of his namesake. Nor even serving as the screen-setter.
Instead, his job was to get the shooter the ball. He would catch the rock, immediately turn baseline (sometimes falling out of bounds in the process) and then fire a rocket of a pass to a now open teammate for a three. A selfless maestro within a symphony of movement.
The play design’s blending of shooting, playmaking and motion has only evolved since Karl’s initial ATO. It has seeped into modern playbooks with countless variations and homages to the original recipe. Each building upon the past through experimentation and an embrace of the unknown.
In terms of what happened to that burly big with the passing chops who the play was named after, he’s en route to Los Angeles, where soon, he’ll be the one holding the whiteboard, tasked with once again proving that sometimes gambles pay off.
When it was first reported that Ham would be the next head coach of the Lakers, the knee-jerk reactions to the hiring ranged from everywhere from wildly positive, to lukewarm thumbs ups in the middle, and one notable local columnist even asking the question: “Darvin, who?”
While the latter sentiment is a bit preposterous given Ham’s career as both a player and most recently with his success as an assistant, the signing does buck the typical trend for the team. For example, among the franchise’s last ten head-coaching hires, only Luke Walton had no previous experience at the helm. Ham will be the latest.
Although he does not boast the lofty previous work history that a Doc Rivers, Terry Stotts or even Kenny Atkinson has — all whom were in contention for the opening — what Ham does possess is the element of mystery. He is a face-down card whose other side can be anything and everything. He has no floor, no ceiling, only an open window of possibilities.
Ham, more than any other candidate linked to the team during their vetting process, offers the Lakers a rare chance in injecting upside back into what has become an increasingly short-term, conservative and generally stale organization.
Between their bloated cap sheet, reliance on big (also old) names and a cupboard bare in the way of draft picks, the team has very few avenues in acquiring long-term impact this summer. Ham may present the closest proxy to do so.
Like acquiring a blue-chip caliber prospect the club can build around, Ham will need to have the right infrastructure and support around him in order to reach his full potential. This will not be without its hurdles, however.
Unlike most first-time head coaches, Ham will not only face the uphill battle of earning the respect and buy-in of a locker room, but also attempt to do so on a team with clear win-now objectives due to the presence of LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the roster. A difficult ask for any coach, but an aspect of the job that Ham may relish in tackling head-on.
“Everyone is like, ‘He’s a rookie head coach, going in there to work for the Lakers with all those veterans,’ but don’t get it twisted,” former team coach Mike Brown, who brought Ham onto his staff as a developmental assistant during the Lakers’ 2011 season, recently told The Los Angeles Times. “I would like to see who would be the first to challenge Darvin or roll his eyes because he will stand his ground. And he will make sure his point gets across and gets across within an authority a situation like that may need.”
Beyond the dynamics with his roster, Ham will also have to navigate and uphold his working relationships with those on the basketball operations side of the organization. It’s an area of importance that the team’s former head coach, Frank Vogel, could attest to after the two sides splintered this past year.
Fortunately, there are signs that Ham and those in upper management may have gotten off on the right foot.
Unlike Vogel, Ham has reportedly been granted a “large amount” of autonomy that not only includes selecting his own coaching staff, but also, assurances that senior advisor Kurt Rambis, will not be a regular presence in coaching meetings. This presents the exciting chance for Ham to sculpt his coaching style in his own image and no one else's.
Although it took them some time to do so, Ham’s hiring feels like a notable step in the right direction for the Lakers. Despite his previous ties with the team, the move does not at all feel like it was made through the same insulated lens that this brain trust’s decisions often fall prey to.
No. This is something creative, inspired and a choice that could yield dividends not only now, but perhaps even into the future.
There will be bumps in the road. Mistakes will be made. Debates on whether the risk of hiring a first-time head coach for this team was worth it. These are simply the side-effects that come with making this type of decision, and when taking any chance. A home-run caliber swing sometimes results in a strikeout.
Back in 2011, when recounting how his near-fatal shooting years earlier at age 14 impacted his outlook on life, Ham discussed how he chose to turn his childhood tragedy into a learning lesson. Something that has followed him, and molded his philosophy in everything, including coaching.
“I’m not afraid of failure, or success,” Ham said. “I’m only afraid of not being authentic, or sticking to my principles.”
This is a mindset the Lakers may also look to follow. A fearless pursuit of the unfamiliar, something new, something better, even if its home is found somewhere in the dark.