The Cleveland Cavaliers did what most thought was impossible when they overcame a three games to one deficit to win their first NBA title. During the Eastern Conference Finals, I had an opportunity to meet Phil Handy, one of the Cavs’ assistant coaches. Prior to Game 4, he was on the court working with Kevin Love and once he was finished with drills, I introduced myself and let him know that we had a mutual friend in coach and trainer James Clark.
We had an immediate respect for one another, and I learned that day that the Cavs would not only win their series against the Raptors, but also that they finally had what it took to win a Championship. Coach Handy makes people feel good about themselves, and the confidence he exudes is contagious.
Now that the celebrations, fanfare, and parades have slowly come to an end, Coach Handy and I had an enriching 30-minute conversation where I learned what he brings to the table, and why his players love him so much.
SLAM: Tell me a little bit about your basketball journey.
Coach Handy: I’m from the Bay Area and went to James Logan High School in Union City. After high school I attended Ohlone Junior College for a year, and then I transferred to Skyline Junior College for a year. I had about a good 40-50 mid-major, high-major Division 1 schools offer me a scholarship. Now how I ended up at Hawaii, that was a total fluke.
I ended up going there because I had an opportunity to get my friend a scholarship so we could go to school together. It was a happenstance type of thing. It wasn’t planned. My original plan was to go to Cal or the University of Arizona. I ended up at Hawaii, and from there I went undrafted, but I had a chance to make the Warriors team through a free agent minicamp. I spent part of the season with the Warriors and then I went and played in the CBA for the rest of the year. Then the next year I signed on with the Trail Blazers and I spent part of the season with them before I went back to the CBA.
Then after that year, I just wanted to hoop. I felt that I had made it to the League, I saw what that was about and I just wanted to play, so I took my talents overseas. I went over to Europe and I never came back. I played in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Israel, England, and Australia. I had a chance to just travel the world and play basketball. It was a tremendous opportunity and blessing.
I had always been the type of guy to take the time to work on my game. I had a lot of different coaches that showed me a lot of different philosophies. I tried to be as complete a player as I could be. I wasn’t great at one thing, I was good at a lot of things. I played multiple positions and when I retired, I wanted to do something to give back to the kids. I knew I didn’t want to work a 9-5, and becoming a basketball trainer fell into my lap. [Former NBA guard] Tony Delk was a guy that pushed me into the business. He lit the fire under me. We used to train together and when I retired he asked me to come train him. I started working with him on a regular basis and I just fell in love with it. I liked where things were going and I felt like that was my calling. I fell in love with being able to help guys get better at their craft.
My wife played a big part in helping me develop the whole business concept. I figured out a way to have a blueprint of what I wanted to be known for. I laid down a foundation. I wanted to train players to be as complete as they can be, no matter what position, what age. If you are a guard, you work on post moves; if you are a post player you work on your ball handling. I wanted to help players become complete. Everything I do is built around footwork, balance, and that model mushroomed into a huge business over a 13-year span. I had an opportunity to work with a lot of NBA players, college players, European players. I became known for my work ethic.
Then I had an opportunity to get back in the League via connections. Mike Brown was someone I did not know personally, but he knew a coach that I worked with closely and that I trained a lot of his players. When Mike Brown got the job with the Lakers, Randy Bennett, the head coach of Saint Mary’s College, was a key part in helping Mike Brown discover me as a player development coach. Mike Brown gave me my first opportunity in the NBA. I stayed in LA for two years and when he was let go and went to Cleveland, he asked me come come with him and I’ve been there ever since.
That journey right there, the part that people don’t understand is the 13 years that I had my business. It was a grind. There were no cameras, no Internet, it was just all about the work. I would have 14-hour days. Sometimes I would drive 500 miles a day, traveling from gym to gym all over Northern California, I loved it. That’s how I came to be and what has led me to where I am now. I’ve had an opportunity to work with some of the best in the game and it is a tremendous blessing.
SLAM: You have learned so much from the game, what types of things are you teaching players now?
Coach Handy: At this level, when you get into the NBA, those guys are gifted. They are physical, they have natural talent and ability. I think with a lot of these guys, they have to master the mental part. How do you prepare day in and day out, not only your mind, but your body. They have to prepare themselves to get an edge. You look at guys like LeBron, and Kobe–two guys I have had a chance to work with–those two guys are at the pinnacle of what they do in terms of preparation. It’s unbelievable to see the stuff that they do to keep themselves at the top of their game. It’s not a fluke.
I use the term ‘hard work is undefeated’ a lot, and it’s true. Those guys have put in the time over the years to try and master their craft to the best of their abilities. At this level, we work on the physical part because you have to continue to work on their skills, continue to sharpen and continue to get better, but it’s more the mental aspect of how they look at their preparation as they continue to advance their careers.
SLAM: You work with Kyrie Irving a lot and he talked about having Mamba Mentality. What does that mean?
Coach Handy: One of the first things that I tried to do when I became part of the Cleveland coaching staff was to connect him with Kobe, and Kobe was really gracious and he really took a liking to Kyrie. I put them together because I felt like Kyrie was a phenomenal talent and he just liked to play basketball. Over the last three years, he has really learned how to work on his game, and appreciate working on his game. Kobe played a big part in that in terms of talking to him, and giving him some mental aspects of the game. Kyrie looks up to that man and he respects the body of work, and I think Kobe saw something in Kyrie that was untapped. Kyrie and Kobe created a nice relationship and Kyrie has tried to take pages from his book and apply it to his approach to the game. He’s come a long way.
SLAM: Looking at your basketball career and experiences, how special is it to become an NBA champion?
Coach Handy: All the hours in the gym, all the road trips, just everything that you go through as a player and as a coach–the Championship is the dream. I can’t even put it into words. There was a lot wrapped up into what we just did as a team, as an organization. [GM] David Griffin, [Owner] Dan Gilbert, down to the players and coaches, that was an unbelievable accomplishment. I still find myself thinking, is this real? More than anything I’m blessed, because it could be someone else here. I’m grateful to the organization, I’m grateful to all the people who have helped me get to where I am, and I’m relishing in the moment. I’m still not comprehending that I’m an NBA Champion.
SLAM: After going down 0-2 in the Finals, you gave the team a post game speech.
Coach Handy: I don’t know if I can repeat it verbatim, I had a lot of curse words in there. It was after Game 2 and we knew we didn’t play hard, and we knew we weren’t giving our best and I was just frustrated. Coach Lue was gracious because I made a comment to him before the game was over about how soft we were playing and what I thought the Warriors thought of us and he leaned back in his seat and said you should tell them that.
It wasn’t anything meant for the media, it was for us as a team, I wanted us to win. I’m from Oakland, I have family members, friends, texting me, talking all kinds of mess and I got to a boiling point. I wanted us to take this series personal and leave our best on the floor. And they did that in the best way possible.
SLAM: You have some of the best sneakers in the league, let’s talk about your footwear.
Coach Handy: [Laughs] Hey man, I wear the same size shoe as Kyrie Irving, and he’s gracious with me. He really looks out for me and other guys. He will do whatever he can for everybody. I just so happen to wear his size shoe and he takes care of me really well. I appreciate the young fella for always keeping me laced up with some of his nice kicks.