Twenty-two years of working as an NBA assistant coach would try any man's soul, but Frank Hamblen always felt he had one of the best jobs possible.
"There are only 27 head jobs available in this league, and whether I ever became one wasn't a major concern. Either way, it's been a great life and a hell of a ride," said Hamblen, who worked as an assistant in San Diego, Houston, Denver, Kansas City and, for the last three years, with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Tonight, when the Bucks play the Washington Bullets at the Capital Centre, Hamblen will be in charge. When his turn finally came, it was a surprise.
Del Harris shocked everyone Dec. 4, when he announced that his dual role as coach and general manager of the Bucks had proved too taxing, and that he was passing the coaching reins to Hamblen.
"I wasn't totally surprised," Hamblen said yesterday. "Del told me what he intended to do the night before it was announced to the media."
Usually, a coaching change results when a team is in a steep decline or failing to fulfill its potential.
But Harris, 54, was one of the league's most respected coaches. Heguided the Houston Rockets to the NBA finals in 1981 and directed the Bucks to four straight playoff appearances. Last season, however, Milwaukee was swept in three games by the Philadelphia 76ers.
Health concerns prompted Harris to undergo medical checkups in October and November. Both times he was told he was in excellent condition.
"There was nothing wrong, but I was beat," said Harris. "The bottom line is that in today's NBA, it is difficult for one person to be chief of operations and coach. I had a unique clause in my contract which allowed me to make a choice."
Harris, who apprenticed under Don Nelson, now the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, said he missed not having a general manager to turn to for advice and comfort.
"There were a lot of times I wanted to ask someone, 'Hey, what do you think?' " Harris told the Milwaukee Sentinel. " 'Can we do this or that.' Now I can give Frank that opportunity."
Harris said his decision was not based on the Bucks' slow start, including an 0-3 road trip.
"I'd like to think I didn't end a 32-year coaching career because of a few losses," Harris said.
The Bucks (9-12), with a predominantly veteran team, have won only one of four games under Hamblen, who blames inconsistency for the slow start.
"I don't plan on making a lot of changes," he said. "Del's system worked, and I had some input. If it's not broke, don't fix it."
Harris was a scholarly type with a "no-nonsense" image. Hamblen, 44, has a quick sense of humor and enjoys a practical joke.
"I'm not a screamer," he said. "I don't think that works with players today. I've known these players for four years. It's just up to me to get them to play hard."
The Bucks were surprised by the coaching change, but support the choice of Hamblen.
"Frank knows the system," said forward Larry Krystkowiak. "At least we have continuity. It's not like a new coach coming in and making wholesale changes."
Hamblen, a Syracuse graduate, was only 22 in 1969 when he made his NBA debut as a scout for the then San Diego Rockets. He said he was fortunate to have worked for Alex Hannum, Tex Winter, Larry Brown, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Harris, but has coaching ideas of his own.
"You have to do what suits you best," he said. "That's my personality. But this is like a dream come true. The only thing is that after the first night on the job I woke up with a few new gray hairs."