The image of the lifeless rim hanging there, barely clinging to what was left of the spider-web-cracked backboard, still lingers.
The call on TV: “Oh! Look at Ham!” followed by 10 seconds or more of stunned silence from the CBS broadcast crew, let the roar of the neutral-site crowd at Richmond Arena do the talking.
Watching the undersized power forward with arms bigger than your head bask in the downpour of broken bits of glass, each glancing off of him as if his skin was somehow impervious to sharp objects, left an indelible mark on the psyche of a generation of young basketball fans.
“We will have — obviously — a delay,” the color commentator said in the immediate aftermath of Texas Tech legend and current Los Angeles Lakers head coach Darvin Ham’s iconic moment: crashing down from above on an offensive rebound off the back iron to tear apart an NCAA backboard with a vicious putback jam in the second round of the 1996 NCAA tournament against the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The brutal dunk tied the game, 16-16, with just over 12 minutes to play in the first half. The delay would last 29 minutes as arena crew cleaned the floor and rushed in with a replacement rig, according to the Associated Press, but the play itself was all 12-year-old hoop fans like me wanted to talk about for the next six months.
You see, manufacturers of backboards, basketball rims and stanchions had just been through the industry crisis that was Shaquille O’Neal’s rookie year with the Orlando Magic and had more or less “Shaq-proofed” their products with that kind of heavy hitter in mind after 1993. Fans, especially young fans, hadn’t been treated to this kind of awe-inspiring spectacle of athletic destruction for a couple of years.
The most crucial adjustment in backboard engineering had to do with bolting the rim directly to the support stanchion itself, which now has a single arm coming out of the back of the backboard. This allows weight to be transferred from the dunker to the rim to a stanchion bar built to withstand that sort of impact. In contrast, a lot of the most breakable backboards at the NBA and college level were those with support bars coming from the sides of the backboard, with no additional bolt support behind the rim. Sports Science did a great breakdown of modern developments in NBA backboards starring Amar’e Stoudemire.
It appears from the highlight video above that the backboard Ham broke had support bars coming from its sides.
Basketball at the time was only ankle-deep in its transition from the rough-and-tumble vibe of the late 80s and early 90s to more of a finesse game, and Shaq was a reminder that rough-and-tumble wasn’t going anywhere while he had something to say about it. Ham’s backboard breaker and his subsequent career as an NBA role player was a supporting argument that ferocity would still be a welcome trait in the new game.
The moment made for an iconic Sports Illustrated cover in late March 1996, which, of course, carried far more cultural cache then than it does today. Sports Illustrated magazine moved from weekly to monthly print publication in 2020.
Ham told the Los Angeles Times in a 2011 interview that he still owns several copies of the magazine but doesn’t dwell on moments big or small from his playing days.
“They sent me a big huge picture of it and I gave it to my grandma,” he told the Times. “My playing career was what it was. I don’t walk around constantly trying to relive it. I’m on to the next thing. ... But at the same time, it was a special, special moment for me.”
“Being in the tournament, being a relatively unheard of team even though we were ranked in the Top 10 at the time, playing North Carolina, probably the best program in college basketball,” Ham continued. “It was just a moment that no one expected. They had about five NBA players on that team. It was just an exciting — very exciting — moment. It gave my teammates a lot of energy. We relished it.”
The 3-seed Red Raiders went on to blow the doors off 6-seed North Carolina that day, 92-73, in the biggest win to date in Texas Tech men’s basketball history. Both Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter were true freshmen on that North Carolina team, while Tech was led by Southwest Conference Player of the Year, forward Jason Sasser, two sophomore studs in Cory Carr and big man Tony Battie, and Ham. Sasser and Ham provided the senior leadership that year, and Texas Tech rode that experience all the way to the Sweet 16.
Tech finished the season 30-2, losing to 4-seed Gerorgetown at the Georgia Dome in the next round. Ham averaged 9.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game in his senior season.
He went undrafted after his time at Texas Tech but caught on as a role player with the Milwaukee Bucks for the first three of what would be an eight-year NBA career, with one additional season played in Spain. Ham was an imposing presence in the lane and on defense, averaging 2.7 points and 2.3 rebounds in just over 12 minutes a game.
Ham is also credited with the creation, along with former Bucks’ coach George Karl, of what’s become known as the “Hammer Play.” Ham describes the play as a simple drive-and-kick or post-and-kick to suck the defense in, while utilizing some form of misdirection to find a waiting 3-point shooter. He was one of the first to consistently make that pass (often to Ray Allen) while sailing out of bounds on a drive along the baseline.
It was speculated at the time that during the 2023 Western Conference Finals, the Lakers, coached by Ham, saw the Hammer Play coming on a late drive by Draymond Green in the waning moments of game 4, sniffed the play out and forced an errant pass to seal the 104-101 win and take a 3-1 series lead.
Ham started his coaching career in 2008 with the G League’s Albuquerque Thunderbirds, who would later become the New Mexico Thunderbirds and have since moved to Cleveland. Three seasons later he won an assistant job with the Lakers before moving to Atlanta, then followed head coach Mike Budenholzer to Milwaukee as part of his Bucks coaching staff.
Ham was an assistant coach for 10 NBA seasons, including the 2021 NBA Championship run with the Bucks, before getting hired as the Lakers’ head coach before the 2022-23 season.
“Every team needs a Darvin Ham,” said basketball coaching legend Larry Brown, for whom Ham played during the 1997-98 season with the Detroit Pistons. Ham credited Brown with much of his development as a coach in the interview with the Times.
Ham may have resembled a pro wrestler flying from the turnbuckle for a suplex more than a future NBA head coach on that day in 1996, but what that ferocious dunk and his future coaching career both show is that Darvin Ham cuts his own swashbuckling path without regard for any obstacles in his way.
Here’s hoping the Mavs can provide a little more of an obstacle to his Lakers’ success at the AAC than the North Carolina defenders did on his way to shattering their hopes in 1996.