It became something of a ritual for those championship Bulls of the late 1990s and then the Los Angeles Lakers. They were dominant teams, the class of the NBA at the time, teams of destiny, if you will. The question often were not how, but how many. Yet, those NBA seasons could be long and tedious, at times, when everyone was telling you only the playoffs mattered. So there’d be stumbles, maybe one of those narrow victories when it might have or should have been by 30 points.
“Pros have a way of congratulating themselves even when an accomplishment is not really an accomplishment, and they knew it,” said Chip Schaefer, the Bulls Director of Sports Performance. “Frank would come in with that little grin and say, ‘Way to kick the crap out of a horse crap team.’ But everyone got it.
“He was the kind of guy who really kept people and players grounded with his honesty,” said Schaefer, the Lakers’ Director of Athletic Performance in their 2000s championships. “I can’t imagine a better assistant coach. It’s a job that often can be dismissed, but it’s so important over that long season. If there’s a Hall of Fame for assistant coaches, Frank Hamblen is in the first class.”
Hamblen, who was an NBA assistant for more than 40 years including seven championships with the Bulls and Lakers, died Saturday of a heart attack. He was 70. Hamblen had been living in San Diego since leaving the Lakers when Phil Jackson did in 2011. But in many ways he was long the model of the premier NBA assistant, knowledgeable, respected and experienced, admired by players and irreplaceable for coaches.
“When we won in 1997,” Phil Jackson recalled Saturday, “MJ got up before the team and said to Frank, ‘We won this one for you, Frank.’ Frank loved being part of a championship team’s effort. He got seven rings and loved each one and the challenge for the next season when the team was in the hunt once again.
“I remember at our orientation meeting before training camp when I introduced Frank,” Jackson recalled. “He got up and said, ‘I’ve been coaching for 30 years and have never smelled a chance at winning a ring. I want to be part of this.’”
Hamblen was a big part, as the tribute from Jordan suggests. Kobe Bryant on his Twitter Saturday posted a photo of he and Hamblen in a hug, writing, ‘Thank u Coach Frank for your deep understanding of the game, your patience and for challenging me to defend @ the highest level. I will miss u.”
Thank u Coach Frank for your deep understanding of the game, your patience & for challenging me to defend @ the highest level. I will miss u pic.twitter.com/QoDi9TXOT9
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) September 30, 2017
Hamblen was one of the elite analysts of the game with a specialty on defense in a long road which started in Indiana, where he’d play some pickup ball against another kid with a good shot, though not as much game, Neil Funk, the Bulls longtime play by play TV broadcaster.
Both attended Syracuse after growing up in Indiana, Frank in Terre Haute, where he led his team to the state finals, and Neil in Indianapolis, where he didn’t.
“Frank had a really good defensive mind,” said Funk. “He’d tell you how and why a team would be good, what would work and what wouldn’t.”
Hamblen in his husky voice used to enjoy joking with Jackson about that. Phil would rely on Hamblen for his wealth of experience, working on staffs with and for most of the great minds of the game, including Pete Newell, Tex Winter, Alex Hannum, Larry Brown, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Del Harris. Jackson would wander up to Hamblen during the timeout and ask what he thought the opponent would run. “You make $5 million, you figure it out,” Hamblen would joke. Phil always loved that as Hamblen invariably would know the play coming as if he’d drawn it up on the opposing huddle.
“Great, great coach,” Harris said Saturday. “Great friend; the players loved and respected him. He was the perfect assistant. I gave him his first opportunity to be a head coach.”
Of course, that was when the Bucks fired Del and Frank became interim coach to finish the season. But one of the great attributes a person can have is knowing what they want to do, being comfortable at it as well as excellent. Hamblen loved being the assist man, setting up the head coach. Both in Milwaukee and in Los Angeles, the latter when he was interim coach after Rudy Tomjanovich resigned, the humble and unassuming Hamblen accepted the jobs reluctantly, only to help the organization. Given a chance, he opted to return to being an assistant.
“Frank was one of those unique guys who knew who he was, accepted it and embraced it,” said John Paxson, Bulls Executive Vice-president of Basketball Operations. “He was such a smart basketball guy and when he came to us (with Jim Cleamons hired to coach Dallas) he was the perfect fit. Like Phil Johnson with Jerry Sloan in Utah. He could have been a head coach if he wanted, but he wasn’t like that. He didn’t need the attention, the interviews. He was just a no b.s guy.”
Hamblen’s journey after playing at Syracuse with Dave Bing the good player and the not-so-good player Jim Boeheim began with the old San Diego Rockets and Winter. After that it was Denver with Brown and Doug Moe and Kansas City, where he ended up living with his old Hoosier buddy Funk, who was the team broadcaster.
“The Kings figured they could save some money if Frank stayed with me,” recalled Funk. “About as laid back off the court as you’d find in the NBA, but one of those coaches who got his point across, who knew what he was talking about and could relate to the players. I never once remember any player ever unhappy with Frank. But on the bench you could hear him. He had plenty to say, but everyone understood he really knew what was going on.
“Frank never sought the spotlight,” Funk added. “He let whomever do their thing; he knew his thing. Just a down-to-earth guy. Yeah, an Indiana farm boy.”
After moving with the Kings to Sacramento, Hamblen moved onto the Bucks for a decade with a brief cover for the departed Harris and then to the Bulls for the last of their two championships. And then it was with Jackson in Los Angeles through the Lakers five titles, one of the most accomplished men in pro sports who many either never heard of or knew little about.
“He had so much credibility,” said Schaefer. “He could be completely honest even with criticism and I never saw a player offended by anything Frank said. It’s a very important role and it takes a real knack to not always be aspiring to something. It’s one thing to have ambition, but it’s special to be comfortable knowing you are great at what you do, that you love doing it, others respect you and it’s a very important job.”