They handed him cigars, gave him giant hugs and greeted him with smiles.
Good luck walking the back hallways of Fiserv Forum looking for someone to say something bad about Lakers coach Darvin Ham because here, where he won a championship as an assistant on Mike Budenholzer’s staff, he is beloved.
He even got a quick scoreboard tribute and a nice applause from the fans.
Everything but an easy win.
The Lakers and Ham had to earn that.
With Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook having big games, the Lakers beat the Bucks 133-129 in Ham’s return to Milwaukee — easily the best win for the Lakers this season.
“Team effort,” Davis said. “We played for a full 48 minutes tonight, competing, taking punches. … But we withstood their run.”
They did with their stars all having a major impact — James called it the best they’d ever played together on one night.
Davis scored 44, his most since he scored 46 on Jan. 3, 2020. James followed a scoreless first quarter with 28 over the next three to go with eight rebounds and 11 assists. And Westbrook finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists — all without a turnover.
The Lakers committed just four.
But one play, more than any other, represented hope that there might be a path forward for this group.
With the Lakers up three late, the Bucks fumbled a pass and Westbrook barreled towards the loose ball. He beat everyone to the ball, knocking it to James, who drove and dropped it off to Davis for the dunk that gave the Lakers just enough cushion.
Ham showed it to the Lakers postgame.
“The play that says for us ‘Lakers Basketball’ is Russ diving on the floor,” Davis said.
Although it doesn’t answer all the questions about the potential for a James-Davis-Westbrook trio, the four-point win on a night when the Bucks played well does speak to the possibilities.
“I feel like tonight is the most complementary and the best game with all three of us on the floor together that we’ve played on both sides of the floor. We all felt in a rhythm. We all felt we were making impactful plays throughout the whole game,” James said.
After trading for Westbrook, that never really happened, James pointed to limited on-court minutes setting the narrative too early.
This season, that’s been different — the Lakers falling below .500 with massive changes to the roster and to the bench but now winning six of their last eight.
But of all the things Ham has learned from Budenholzer, the lesson he’s stolen the most is FIO — figure it out. That mentality, he said, means that when things break down with your plan, you just need to find some other way, that although perfection won’t happen, excellence can.
The Lakers made 53.6% of their shots — just a hair better than the Bucks’ 53.2% and finished with a plus-two rebounding edge despite a size disadvantage. The Bucks even made six more threes than the Lakers, an edge that the Lakers overcame with excellence in virtually every other facet.
The game had just about everything, the Lakers pushing to a double-digit lead on the back of Davis before the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo stormed back.
Antetokounmpo turned things on James and chased him down for a huge block. Brook Lopez denied a two-handed Davis dunk and the Bucks stormed back.
“I’ve seen how plays like that totally demoralize the other team,” Ham said of his former players.
In the fourth quarter, there was even some history, with James passing Magic Johnson for sixth all time in career assists.
“We know how much the name ‘Magic’ means to the Lakers franchise,” James said. “It’s very humbling.”
In the fourth, James got tangled with Middleton on the block. As they fell awkwardly, Middleton’s knee pressed into James’ oft-rolled left ankle and forced him to quickly grab at it in pain. He was able to limp to the bench before staying in the game.
The win meant Ham could fully enjoy his trip back to Milwaukee, where he won a championship as an assistant coach. He savored his favorite Italian meal in town and hit his usual cigar lounge Thursday night after the team arrived.
It was good to be back.
But the way his best players led the Lakers to a win against the Bucks, leaving Milwaukee had to feel pretty good too.
“This one, without it being said before the game, we wanted to win it for him, obviously,” Davis said. “Seeing as we only come here once a year, once a season. So we wanted to get that victory for him and I mean, it feels good.
“I mean, it feels good when your coach is doing everything for the players to try to put them in the right position to get victories and then we can also return the favor and get this win back home for him.”