Coach: GBN grad's basketball journey all about a little luck and love of the game
Northbrook's Zach Hamer has been a basketball junkie since he was a little kid.
Even as he started high school, he knew being around the hard court was something he wanted to do for a career.
Surely, though, he never dreamed that this early in his post-collegiate career he would already have the Los Angeles Lakers, the Indiana Fever, Vanderbilt University and the University of Illinois on his rapidly growing resume.
That is what you might call "fillin' up the stat sheet" on the old resume board.
The journey for Hamer (GBN '13) began growing up in Northbrook and playing basketball from an early age, working his way through park district programs, junior high teams, feeder teams and then the high school program.
"I think my love of the game came from watching games on TV, going to occasional Bulls games during their championship years, and also going to Glenbrook North games in the Jon Scheyer, Sean Wallis era where the gyms were packed and the team was so good," says Hamer. "I just kind of fell in love with the game."
Hamer was good enough to be a varsity player for the Spartans and was on some of their better teams, playing with future college players like Andrew McAuliffe, Jason Markus and Kurt Karis, but when his playing career ended, he immediately started thinking of the next step.
That next step led him to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where the coach at the time, Kevin Stallings, was a friend of Bruce Weber, brother of his high school coach, Dave Weber. Both Weber's put in a good word, and as luck would have it there were openings to be had. So Hamer, as a young freshman, joined the Commodores as one of their team managers.
For those uninitiated, in the world of basketball coaching, being a manager for a college team has become a very common steppingstone for young coaches wanting to get into the profession. Especially for those young coaches not gifted with 6'6 height, leaping ability for dunks and blocks, or outside shooting range beginning at just inside half court.
Hamer, although an excellent shooter himself, knew his path to coaching was best accentuated by becoming a team manager in college.
"It was great experience," says Zach. "I learned a lot from Coach Stallings and got more responsibility each and every year. Just being around that level of play and absorbing everything that I could really helped me a lot, and it convinced me that this was something I could do for the rest of my life."
After four years at Vanderbilt, it was time for the next move in his coaching journey, but that next step was in doubt: Where would he go and how would he get that next job?
"Yeah, I was starting to worry a little bit," Hamer recalls. "All my college friends were getting jobs at Goldman Sachs and consulting jobs with high pay, and my parents were kind of like, 'hey what's the story here?'"
Fortunately, "the story" took a major turn for the better. Hamer had done work in the summers for the WNBA's Chicago Sky and Indiana Fever, and because of that got to know Sky assistant coach Jonah Herscu, who later became the video coordinator for the Los Angeles Lakers.
In one of the ultimate examples of good timing, Herscu happened to be leaving the Lakers for another job, and the position was open. He recommended Hamer and, amazingly, after acing the interview process, the young kid out of Glenbrook North High School and Vanderbilt University was suddenly working for one of the great franchises in all of sport, the Los Angeles Lakers!
Suddenly, his Goldman Sachs and consulting friends weren't giving him such a hard time anymore. Even his parents backed off a little bit, thinking, "Hey, maybe the kid is on to something?"
"It also happened to be the first year Lebron (James) was with the Lakers," Zach explains, "and that made it especially exciting. I was a young first-timer, so I had to earn their respect, but it went well, and pretty soon I was doing more than video work. They had me advance scouting, and I would travel the country going to NBA games. I think my first year scouting I went to 99 different games, sometimes waking up as early as 5:30 a.m. to get to the next game."
Hamer adds painfully "I even had to scout against the Bulls -- my favorite team, who I rooted for as a kid. But at the time, I was all about the Lakers; they were my favorite team."
The world of coaching, however, is all about adjusting on the fly, readying yourself for change, and being prepared to take the next step. Sure enough, after two years with the Lakers, Coach Luke Walton was let go and a new staff came in. It was time for the next stop in Hamer's coaching journey.
Destination? University of Illinois.
"I got lucky again," says Hamer, "I contacted a few people and heard Illinois was looking for a video coordinator, so I interviewed with Coach (Brad) Underwood, and we got along great. He hired me, and it was like a dream come true, because Illinois was the college team I rooted for the most when I was younger. I really take great pride now in representing my home state and to wear the Block I as a member of the Fighting Illini."
Hamer did so well that he has now been promoted to his current position as assistant to the head coach. Officially a member of the orange and blue coaching staff. His responsibilities include scouting opponents, offensive game plans, and preparing individual workout programs for the players.
No more videotaping anymore; he is on the bench and part of the coaching staff. Just another step in the journey for the homegrown Northbrookian.
What the future holds, he does not know. The ultimate goal is to someday become a college head coach. Zach well knows a basketball coaching career is a carousel of sorts, and you never know what stops and where and when along the way you will find yourself. But rest assured, Hamer is thrilled about how things have gone so far and where he is right now.
"Sometimes I have to pinch myself," he says, "just realizing how fortunate I have been so far."
• Jon Cohn of Glenview is a coach, retired PE teacher, sports official and prep sports fan. To contact him with comments or story ideas, email email@example.com.