Stick to the Script: Phil Handy

A few years ago, I was introduced to Phil Handy through a mutual friend James Clark. Handy was working with the Cavaliers at the time as the director of player development/assistant coach. I was covering the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals in Toronto. I arrived to the arena early on the first day of media availability and after Coach Tyronn Lue answered a few questions, I approached him and asked where I could find Handy. Lue’s disposition shifted from business to a relaxed state. He smiled and pointed me in the right direction.

Handy is a player’s coach. He is loved by all, yet fierce enough to command respect from a who’s who of people in and around the League. He embraced me as one of his own and has always made himself available for an interview or quote, as well as he has led by example and given sound advice when needed.

He was the voice of reason during the 2016 NBA Finals after Cleveland quickly dug themselves into an 0-2 hole against the reigning champion Golden State Warriors. His Game 2 postgame speech proved to be the spark his team needed, as the Cavilers won Game 3, 120-90, eventually making history with the comeback from a 3-1 Finals hole.

Last week, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, announced that he was rounding out his coaching staff with Adrian Griffin, Nate Bjorkgren, Sergio Scariolo and Handy.

I reached out to Coach Handy and we had an opportunity to catch up on each other’s lives since the season ended, as our conversation shifted from his new position in Toronto, to his online basketball academy, and a much more.

What does this stage of your career mean to you as you join the Toronto Raptors?

I am very excited and humbled to join the Raptors organization. I played for Nick Nurse in Europe and won a championship with him. I’m looking forward to being a part of his staff. This is a great opportunity for me to continue to grow and mature as a coach and give the Raptors and Coach Nurse everything I have to help make us a championship contender. Change is not always easy, but I am looking forward to this next chapter in my career.

Can you talk about your basketball journey and how you got to where you are today?

Basketball has been a part of my life since I was 5 years old. Growing up in the Bay Area with five older brothers, I just wanted to follow in their footsteps. My closet brother in age, CL Handy Jr. really taught me the game at a young age and I just fell in love with it. I played at James Logan High School (Union City, CA), Skyline Community College (San Bruno, CA) and earned a scholarship to the University of Hawaii from 1993-95 and from there went on to play professionally for 10 seasons in the NBA (Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers), and globally (Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Israel, England and Australia). Throughout my career I was always a guy who liked to work on his game, I loved being in the gym, and still do to this day. Late in my career I really took a liking to working with kids and teaching them the game. I started a training business in 1999 and I really wanted to make an impact on how players train to perfect their craft. in 2001, I started working with Tony Delk as my first NBA client and things really took off from there. Tony was a big advocate of the workouts we were doing and before long I had a long list of NBA and European pros and college players training with me. My training business really took on a life of its own and I soon started working in the international market with players and teams from Japan, Poland, Australia and China. I ran my training business for 13 years in the Bay Area and loved every minute of that process. My work ethic and attention to detail were things that really propelled my name and reputation as a skills trainer. I did a lot of work with players from all over the world and eventually took a Job with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2011. It was never a real aim for me to work on an NBA team, but Mike Brown gave me an opportunity to be on his staff and eventually follow him to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Two years with the Lakers and five years with the Cavaliers resulted in me working with some of the best c coaches and players to ever play (Kobe, LeBron, Nash, Pau Gasol, Kyrie Irving and the list continues), not to mention being crowned an NBA Champion in 2016. My journey has been one of many hours on the road driving from gym to gym in the Bay, countless days and nots working with players of all ages and gender. I tell people all the time the grind that I was on before I became an NBA coach was tough but a grind that I loved and got me to where I am today. I lived in the gym with my clients just as I have with the players from both NBA teams I have been apart of.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

You’re from the Bay Area, how sweet was it to win a championship against your hometown team—not just any team, a team that won a historic 73 games during that season?

Being from the Bay and being able to win that championship in my hometown was an amazing feeling. I grew up a Warriors fan and the first NBA team I ever played for was the Warriors. Winning there is a feeling I cannot really describe in words [laughs]. So many things that we overcame to win that championship: No. 1, Being down 3-1—no one, and I mean no one thought we could pull that off. No. 2, The Warriors dominance in the regular season with the best record of all time? That was an impressive season they put on display. No. 3, Bringing the first championship to Cleveland in over 50 years was a special thing in itself. Just an amazing feeling to forever be part of that historical come back in my home town will go down as one of the greatest moments of my career.

The Cavs as an organization have gone to the last four Finals. The outside world may not see that as an accomplishment; can you shed some light on how difficult it is to win the conference on a yearly basis?

I would tell people to ask some coaches and players who have been in the NBA for years and never made the playoffs let alone the Conference Finals or NBA Finals. Being one of two teams left, and playing four years in a row at the highest level of this sport is a tremendous accomplishment. Like I said, some never even make it once, and we have been four straight years! I am truly blessed to be able to experience the feeling of playing for a championship. It helps when you have one of the best players to ever play on your team [laughs]. Making it to the Finals has not been an easy thing and certainly not as easy as people may think from the outside. There are so many factors and variables that have to line up. Being healthy and playing well going into the playoffs are always at the top of the list and sometimes it takes a little luck. Nothing is guaranteed in this league and never can any player or coach take any success for granted. We put in a lot of work day-in and day-out in preparation for the playoffs in hopes that we would always perform at our peak to give our team the best chance at playing for a championship ring. I cherished every NBA Finals experience like it was my first and its a feeling that you will always chase. Teams get better, they add players, coaches, scout/game-plan, and as a winner, every one wants to knock you off the top. Being the hunted is not always easy as every night you get the other teams best game. As a team, we had to be ready every night and anyone who has ever played or coached knows that you will have plenty of games when your team is just not on. Staying hungry mentally let alone physically is a large challenge otherwise you would see more teams repeat. Its not easy making it to the Finals, period. Our team was blessed to say we made it to the Finals four years in a row. Even more amazing that LeBron [James] has been eight straight years!

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When did you realize that you could be a coach on the NBA level? Was it a moment specifically that you knew it was the right time?

Once I started training and working NBA players on a regular basis that was confirmation for me. Players routinely would tell me I should be coaching in the NBA, but I was really enjoying running my business and helping players of all ages. The moment that changed was when Mike Brown called and asked me to be part of his staff in L.A. I always felt I was good at what I did, but the one question that always loomed in my mind was could I help the very best players get better? This was my opportunity to answer that question. A lot of people to this day don’t know that working with Kobe Bryant was the main reason I took the job. I wanted to know if I could train the best players in the world and have an impact. The learning and growth that came from my time in L.A. helped me see that I was ready to take on new challenges—not only as a trainer, but as a coach. It’s been a great education each year as I have been given more and more coaching responsibilities to add to my expertise in developing players.

You’re on the road often, give us your top five cities.

My favorite NBA cities are NYC, Miami, Toronto, L.A., and of course the Bay. New York City, I love the energy of the city. Miami, I love the weather, Toronto has some great restaurants and the vibe of the city is cool. L.A. is where my son lives and the Bay is home for me. I pretty much enjoy every NBA city, as they all have a different feel but those would be my top five.

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You pride yourself in teaching the game. You have worked with Kobe, LeBron and Kyrie Irving, amongst others, in player development. What do you enjoy most about being a teacher?

I truly feel this was my calling. I can laugh about it now, but I am better coach then I was a player. The best part of it all is helping players get better at their craft. Getting on the floor and building relationships with players through your work is the most organic thing that can happen between a coach and player. You build trust which is a major key to any coach being successful. Watching guys like Kyrie, LeBron or Kobe find ways to get better is the ultimate feeling. The hours you spend behind closed doors working on a player’s craft—to me, it’s the most satisfying feeling. You can see the confidence and comfort they gain from pushing themselves to be better. Working with guys at this level also teaches us as coaches. I am constantly learning—not just from the top players but even young players or guys who may not play very much. I am constantly learning from them on a daily basis which always challenges me as a coach to keep improving. I love seeing a player progress and improve because I have always believed that your hard work is never in vain—if you put the work in, you will get the results. I have always taken pride in teaching the game the right way no matter who the player is.

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You have your own coaching corner through your new website. Can you tell me what that is all about and how people can sign up?

I have always felt that I wanted to be an ambassador to the game on a global scale. Over the years I felt that basketball in the states took a major hit in terms of development. There are a lot of things that attributed to this, but the No. 1 thing is just simply lack of knowledge. I have received tons of emails, phones calls, letters and texts over the years from coaches, players and trainers asking about my training techniques, etc. “Coach can you send me a workout? Coach, how do I improve my game, my shooting, my ballhandling? Coach, how do I help my team with this drill or that drill, etc.?” I always wanted to be able to share my knowledge of the game, my training philosophies and techniques, and I was finally able to find the right outlet to answer a lot of questions for players, coaches, and trainers alike worldwide. I partnered with a company called Starvizn, who really wanted to capture my training concepts in the right way. It was created to help any player, coach or trainer continue their education of this game and I tried to be as detailed as possible with a great amount of content. I have broken down many aspects of the game from ballhandling, shooting, breakdown moves, passing, pick-and-roll actions, two-man actions and post-ups, but more importantly, the proper balance and footwork needed for players to be successful. This has been an amazing project for me to work on one that was a long time overdue. Coaches, players and trainers can go to www.starvizn.com/philhandy and gain access to all the videos.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Have you found it challenging to teach and work on the fundamentals with players today as opposed to 20 years ago or do you not see any differences in pros today from the pros of yesteryear?

The game has definitely changed over the years. Player development is more prevalent now then say 10 years ago. Even in my seven years in the League, I have seen the shift. When I first came in, the Lakers never had a “player development coach.” Now you look around the League and I am pretty sure all 30 teams have one. Players today present a bit of a different challenge as they are more athletic and bigger overall by position. Now you have 6-7, 6-8 guards and wings. Seven-footers are no longer just post-up players—some of them can handle and shoot threes. The game has changed in many ways, which means the way we coach and train players has had to change. I have never had a challenge getting players to work. Setting the standard of how you work is always at the forefront. Sometimes your challenge comes in helping a player change his game from one position to another, or helping a big man who has never shot threes try and become a three-point shooter because of how big men play now. There is such a premium on three-point shooting now. Every player must have the ability to shoot the ball. The game is much faster overall, so teaching players how to play faster with and without the ball has also changed. Some staples that will never change for me are always teaching footwork and balance—those two things will never change no matter how much the game changes.

Every coach has a coaching tree. I know one of your pupils, James Clark, very well. He is now working out athletes, including Ben Simmons and Dejounte Murray, before the draft. How rewarding is it for you to see your protégés put in work?

This just gots back to being a true ambassador for the game. I see a lot of trainers out there who compete with one another instead of embracing the basketball culture and teaching together. This is one thing I have always tried to encourage. #Shareknowlegde is hashtag I use a lot on IG because I want coaches and trainers to be more willing to share the knowledge they possess with others. When I see guys like [Clark] and so many others I mentored doing well its a great feeling. Until a few years ago I didn’t realize how many young trainers looked up to me or valued the work that I do. I almost felt instantly that I had a responsibility to give back and help the hoop culture improve. I love this game more than some people can possibly understand and I always want to see it grow and continue in the right way. If I can have a coaching tree, which I also call my #familytree on IG, then I know I have left a positive imprint on the game. Seeing players that I once trained now have their own training businesses is the ultimate compliment.

Last question, who did you enjoy watching growing up and who did you look up to in a basketball sense?

Growing up I had a few players that I looked up to. I loved watching Dr. J, Walter (Greyhound) Davis, Michael Jordan, Xavier Mcdaniels, Run TMC, to name a few. I was a big fan of Grant Hill’s game and used to really try and pattern my game to his. The player I looked up to the most was probably Hakeem Olajuwon—he was a smooth big man with footwork out of this world. I was always drawn to the way he played the game.