Darvin Hams' the man to lead Thunderbirds
Darvin Ham gained the nickname "Ham Slam-wich" after the Sweet 16 dunk against North Carolina. He was featured on the cover of Sports Illusrated after the shattering showcase of strength.

Possibly the best way to get a snapshot of the kind of man Darvin Ham is is to hear him talk about his basketball career.

Ham, formally introduced Tuesday morning as the new head coach of the New Mexico Thunderbirds, acknowledges he had a fine career, including three seasons at Texas Tech and eight seasons in the NBA.

But what this 37-year-old coach wanted to mention first was an accolade he’d received from longtime NBA coach Larry Brown after Ham and the Detroit Pistons won the world championship in 2004.

“Every team needs a Darvin Ham,” Detroit Pistons head coach said after the Pistons won the NBA title in 2004, beating Shaq and the L.A. Lakers four games to one.

Now, the New Mexico Thunderbirds have one.

“To hear that from Larry Brown means more than anything,” Ham said. “It’s a team sport, individuals (can wreck) a common goal.”

Ham, a former T-Bird player and assistant coach, becomes the fourth coach in team history. The Thunderbirds will play their 24 regular-season home games at Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, where they played two D-League games last season.

Team President Jackie Bregman said Ham was a good choice to replace John Coffino, head coach the past two seasons, who resigned in April.

“When Darvin was a player, first of all, he had a passion for the game and it really translates to the other players,” she said. “And as a coach, he’s going to be able to do that.

“The one time he had to go in last season and take over as head coach (after Coffino had been ejected), the players went all out for him,” she recalled. “They relate to him because he’s been in their shoes.

“The interesting thing is this guy raised himself, with the help of his mother — who happened to be the mayor of Saginaw (Mich.) — and he, at the age of 14, was shot,” she added. “To overcome a near-death experience like that, and to go on and actually make something of yourself and be productive, and not fall prey to the gangs and the drugs and all the bad elements around you is significant.

“I think he has a lot of lessons to share with the guys.”

Ham flew into Albuquerque last weekend, after spending time coaching his son’s AAU team at a tournament in Michigan; Ham next flies to Europe for a camp sponsored by Spalding and then to Spain.

Although as a youngster he said he was a big fan of the University of Michigan’s “Fab Five” championship team, and later played with three of them — Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard —Michigan State and Lakers great Magic Johnson was his basketball hero.

Ham’s college start was in 1991 in Colorado, at Otero Junior College — where former Rio Rancho stars Tracy Fosterling and siblings Daniel and Ashlynn Steffensen are headed after graduation. Ham was named an All-American at Otero, and was “discovered” by Texas Tech during a junior college tournament in Indiana.

“It’s a testament to the way God works in your life,” Ham explained. “I grew up playing football, but I let my grades slip, so my dad took me off the team. After I got my grades back up, a friend talked me into trying out for the varsity basketball team in high school — he was living the street life. I did more than hold up my own.”

After a season at Otero, Ham headed to Lubbock, where he averaged 8.1 points a game in three seasons for Texas Tech. He played in Granada, Spain, in the 1998-99 season and then he signed a contract as an undrafted free agent to play for the Denver Nuggets on Oct. 1, 1996.

He also played for Indiana, Washington, Atlanta and Detroit, but the bulk of his career (1999-2002) was spent with the Milwaukee Bucks. By the numbers, his best season was with the Bucks in 1999-2000, when he had 21 starts, with career highs of 5.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game.

“It’s safe to say I won’t be voted in the Hall of Fame; I’m not waiting for that phone call,” Ham quipped.

After his NBA career ended, he played in the Philippines and Puerto Rico and spent time with Fox Sports Southwest and NBA-TV as an analyst.

He obviously missed playing the game, though: The T-Birds selected him with the third pick of the 2007 D-League draft and he played for them that season; on April 4, 2008, the T-Birds traded him to the Austin Toros, where he played briefly before being named an assistant coach for the T-Birds in October 2008.

He’s elated to have the new position.

“Ah, man, I can’t wait,” he said. “I’m up to my ears in basketball: summer leagues in Orlando and Las Vegas. I’ve been talking to Jason Terry (of the Dallas Mavericks) about everything and players he knows. I can’t wait to get started.”

Ham said his coaching style will be a blend of what he’s gleaned from the many coaches he’s played for in college and the NBA.

“The manuscript is in me: what I went through the final two years in Detroit, bits and pieces, and I added it to my repertoire,” Ham said. “I love the game — if I could, I’d be an NBA lifer or involved in some way. I’m thankful to Jackie, John Coffino and (former T-Birds coach) Jeff Ruland, who help me hone my skills.

“I have no worries whatsoever.”

Without a roster, and the D-League draft not taking place until November, Ham couldn’t promise a championship for the T-Birds.

“We’re going to be active, from the standpoint of we’re going to play hard every night. We’re going to win and establish that building as the toughest place to play in the D-League,” Ham said. “We want to go on the road and bond, be active in the community — every team I played on (I was active in community services).”

Winning a title is nice — Michael Cooper took the T-Birds to the D-League championship in 2005-06, the team’s inaugural season — but there’s more to basketball than Wins, Ham said.

“I’ve got to prepare these guys to be great professionals, (tell them) ‘Don’t forget what you need to be a total pro, because that’s what the NBA is looking for,’” he said.

Because he’s a guy who played in “the association,” like two of the former coaches (Cooper and Ruland), this year’s players “all know what kind of player I was,” Ham said.

“I just think I have instant credibility from standpoint of winning the title, going to back-to-back finals) … The only way you can make a mistake in my mind is not playing hard,” Ham said.

Bird tracks: Yaroslav Korolevho, who played with the Thunderbirds last season, is headed to Spain for the 2010-11 season because he’s signed with CB Granada, according to the team’s website. The 6-foot, 9-inch forward and former 12th overall pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2005 NBA Draft averaged 10.4 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting 43 percent from the field last season in the D-League, splitting time with the Thunderbirds and Reno Bighorns.

… The T-Birds’ “Select a Seat Night” is Friday, from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Fans are invited to “test cheer”, tour the Star Center, have their photo taken with Trey, eat $1 hotdogs and even shoot baskets on the court.