Getting to Know: Darvin Ham
MT: Let’s go back to your days growing up in Saginaw, Mich. What was your first exposure to the game?
Ham: I didn’t play organized basketball as a kid, but back then, every elementary school had a team, and there were parks everywhere. It was just what you did, whether it was after school or on the weekends. We had four major parks that were very vibrant on different sides of town. I had an older brother, DeRonnie Turner, who was four years older and deep into basketball. We integrated a lot as far as who got to play with whom.
MT: Were you always big?
Ham: No, I was small for a while. When I first went to high school I was only about 5-9, but by the time I left, I was 6-5. During my sophomore year I had a big spurt, and some really, really sore knees as a result.
MT: Did you play other sports?
Ham: I played hoops for fun, but I was really more of a football player. I only played one year of high school basketball. My transition from football to basketball had a lot to do with my growth spurt, my getting taller but not heavier. I was very skinny, about 6-5, 185, during my senior year, so I decided to give football up. I was losing focus in the classroom, and my dad said I couldn’t play until I got my grades back up until they were way above average. I’d lost the appetite for football based on seeing other guys that were getting bigger by lifting weights, but I was just a lanky kid.
MT: It would seem that your parents had a big, positive influence on you?
Ham: Most definitely. My mom was a school teacher and adult educator who helped get people their G.E.D.’s and eventually got into politics, and my dad worked on the General Motors assembly line. We were a blue-collar family living on the east side of Saginaw directly behind a liquor store and a night club. My bedroom was in the back of the house, so I would hear wild parties, gunshots and fights all the time. It was crazy. I had my share of friends who were into mischief, and back then, crack was just entering the area, and that changed everything. It changed Michigan and particularly Detroit, Flint and Saginaw, which were and still are some of your most violent cities. I thank god for my parents though, because it was tough for them as they had to be very, very careful. They didn’t want to keep a chokehold on me, but it was just difficult. I lost two of my best friends, who both got shot due to the drug game. Not only that, but I got shot myself due to being in a crossfire when I was 14 years old, and then served as a pallbearer for my friend Shaka’s funeral. And the guy who actually talked me into playing basketball in high school got shot and killed. It was an awakening for me.
MT: Would you mind taking us through the circumstances around your shooting?
Ham: I got shot when I was 14 years old, in 1988. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the 20th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and that next day it was one of the hottest days of the year, 85 or 86 degrees. My brother and I went to eat a pizza, and drove by the parking lot of a chicken (restaurant) right before we made a left onto our block. Then we saw a trunk open, and started to hear all these pops. My brother was driving and I had a window down in the passenger seat, and I saw a guy just running towards me while three other guys in the parking lot were shooting at him. As we’re getting ready to turn, the guy who is running is shooting backwards behind him, and one of the bullets that missed him hit me. I was one of four or five people who got shot that day. I took it in the jaw, and the bullet was lodged in the back of my neck. The doctor came and showed me the bullet he took out, and he told me how lucky I was. My face was totally swollen; I could barely turn my head. Turns out it was a drug deal gone bad; we had to testify a month or two later, and obviously we couldn’t really see anything. The dude that was getting shot at did not implicate the shooters, so it ended up being a mistrial. I could have been dead so easily, without anyone being convicted. But that was a life changing experience, man. It set a foundation in me to never take anything for granted. So I’m not afraid of failure, or success. I’m only afraid of not being authentic, or sticking to my principles. Now, having three boys of my own – a son in college (Darvin Jr.), a 14-year-old (Donovan) and an 11-year-old (Dominic) – I was just thinking when I was the age of my oldest boy, I was hearing gun shots every night. Some of the stuff I saw was straight out of a bad movie. For the city of Saganaw, we probably had 50 shootings and 21 homicides in a two-month period from April to August of 1988, and that was all on the east side of town. But it’s no different from what people went through in New York, Chicago, L.A. and other places during that volatile time period.
MT: That’s quite a story … If we can make an unnatural transition back to hoops, how did you turn an atypical, unorganized basketball past into a future?
Ham: I was an undersized power forward who could handle the ball and defend, and I was a crazy athlete. When I left Saganaw to go to Texas Tech in 1993, my oldest son was just a one-year-old. I was playing and trying to succeed for a whole different reason than most. I had to feed my kid. I wasn’t worry about the spoils of basketball, just a way to take care of my style. Playing basketball afforded me a scholarship, which afforded me the chance to get educated and the chance to eventually get to play in the NBA. I didn’t grow up like these little kids now playing AAU all the way up. Lots of that time, I was just running right around the streets. The game introduced itself to me late, but I think that gave me a greater appreciation for it.
MT: “Undersized” in terms of height, perhaps, but not strength/mass. When did you first realize that, maybe, you could play in the NBA one day?
Ham: In the summer of 1995, before our tournament run at Texas Tech, I had a roommate named Mark Davis who would go on to play five or six years in the NBA. He left Tech a year before I did, and his agent had him situated in Houston. It was a place where all the pros would go play pick up, and I had a chance to join them; that’s when I knew I’d be able to do a little something with the game beyond collegiate sports. You had Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Kenny Smith and Dream (Hakeem Olajuwon). Even Moses Malone would come and play pick up. In those games, I was guarding everybody. That was my thing. I wanted to be able to guard whoever they put me in front of, and I think that’s how I was blessed enough to have the career that I did. It wasn’t all about scoring the ball: defending, rebounding, running the floor. I guarded everybody from Nick Van Exel to Dream, from the 1 to the 5.
MT: Could anyone really guard Hakeem? Nonetheless, when you made the NCAA tourney run with Texas Tech, you were photographed after breaking the glass with a thunder dunk on North Carolina to advance to the Sweet 16. The title: “Smashing!” What kind of play did that get in Saginaw?
Ham: Oh, man, everyone was blown away. All the people from the neighborhood couldn’t believe it. My parents and my grandmother Evalena Jones – who is 87 years old now and was born in 1924 – were amazed. All the things my grandma has seen over the years … where we come from as a family, it was mind-boggling the opportunities we have today, (epitomized) by the cover. We’re originally from Ludowici, Georgia (population: around 1,500), where I still have cousins. They were sharecroppers, and were a part of the Great Migration pilgrimage coming up from the south, my grandfather from Mississippi and my grandmother from Georgia. They were making $1 an hour all of a sudden after getting paid 15 to 20 cents as sharecroppers. It just goes to show you how far we’ve come.
MT: You happened to come out of college in 1996, perhaps, the best draft class in NBA history. Were you at all surprised not to be drafted?
Ham: Heck no! In 1996? No, no. I started off with the Jacksonville Barracudas of the USBL (United States Basketball League), but (current L.A. D-Fenders coach) Eric Musselman traded for me when he was coaching the Florida Sharks down in Sarasota. E* did a good job of creating an NBA atmosphere, the way we studied film, prepared for games, as his dad the late great Bill Musselman was still around and would come visit practices and games. We won the title, and that league totally prepared me for the NBA summer league.
*Ham's nickname for Muselman.
MT: How did you manage to make the transition to actually making an NBA roster?
Ham: I played well in the Rocky Mountain Review, and in Denver, Bernie Bickerstaff was the coach, and they brought me in to training camp along with another rookie, Jeff McGinnis. We had to be there early, the day after Labor Day, and Mike Brown happened to be there as the video coordinator in his first job. Mike was a hungry, hard worker, who really encouraged Jeff and myself that being tired was nothing but a misconception. We’d get up a 6 a.m. to run sprints and lift, do some on court stuff with Mike, and then the veterans would show up. It was hell going through it, but I just appreciated Mike’s work ethic, because he’d never cut any corners. I got traded at the end of that year, but eventually went back with Bernie and Mike with Washington the following year. Mike Brown is a guy that made it off of what he knew. He worked his butt off. He made it himself. They should make a movie about that guy, the way he made it through the ranks.
MT: How do you reflect upon your playing career, which ended in 2008?
Ham: I just remember having an effect on every team I played on. The early days in Denver and Washington, to the lockout happening in 1998, when I went to Grenada, Spain, and had a great experience despite people saying it would be tough to get back in the league. But I did. I had to make the first three NBA teams I played on. And to eventually end up in Detroit and win a championship was something else, as well as getting back to the Finals the next year. But my body was starting to get worn out, and I tore my calf muscle in New Jersey in 2006-07. Still, I always enjoyed my career. Fans may not recognize my name, but people in the game and that pay close attention to the game knew what I brought. I didn’t mind being called a role player. But just to make it, and to play eight active years? I’m very happy about it.
MT: With what you went through to make it, were your emotions what you expected they might be after raising the trophy?
Ham: Of course. It was great. Not just winning it, but being back home, and having the type of guys we had on that team … it was priceless. They were calling us a bunch of castoffs and unwanted players, guys that had never done anything in the league. But we did have a lot of talent on that team, and I think it was the right group of guys with the right coaching staff. Larry Brown was just relentless (after holding teams to 70 points during a seven-game winning streak, he’d come to practice like we’d lost 10 in a row), and it all paid off.
MT: How did you make the move from the court to the sideline?
Ham: I actually talked to Avery Johnson, who was the coach of Dallas at my last training camp in 2007. I got waived at the last cut, and as we were talking, he recognized that I’d be working a lot with some of the younger guys. I ended up with an opportunity with the New Mexico Thunderbirds as a player-coach, and the next year, (current Wolves GM) David Kahn called me up. He owned that team, and told me he wanted to be the one that got me into coaching because he said he thought I’d do a fantastic job, instead of my taking a playing job in South America. So I was an assistant for two years, did most of the game prep, and fell in love with it. Being that close to the game without playing suited me fine. Last year I had the chance to be the head coach of the Thunderbirds, and I had a great experience there.
MT: Finally, Darvin, how did you wind up here in Los Angeles on Mike Brown’s staff?
Ham: Mike and I have a mutual friend, Bryant Moore, who is at Pepperdine and back in the day played point guard at Texas Tech. He was trying to track me down and let me know that Mike was interested in interviewing me. We just hit it off right away. Then when I saw who else he had on his staff, all guys I’ve worked with or played against and I was ecstatic. Now I’m going to work my butt off for him. I don’t want that guy to be unsuccessful here; I really want to be a part of him getting his first championship as a head coach. I plan to work with guys on footwork, explosion, balance around the basket and more. I was a little guy playing amongst trees and I was able to be effective using certain techniques and tools, and I want to share that.