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New Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse has added a former Cleveland Cavaliers assistant to his staff.
Phil Handy, who was not brought back by the Cavs after last season, is joining Sergio Scariolo, Nate Bjorkgren and Adrian Griffin as assistants on Nurse’s staff with the Raptors.
He was a player development coach in Cleveland and was director of player development and assistant coach when he was let go at the end of last season.
Handy, a Hawaii Manoa graduate, has spent his playing coaching career all over the globe, having been in the NBA since 2011.
He and Nurse have experience working together as Handy worked under him with the Manchester Giants of the British Basketball League, where they won a league championship.
Handy has experience working with players at all levels, from rookies, to veterans looking to hang on, to superstars, such as Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
“When I first got to Cleveland, Kyrie was still young — he was 21,” Handy told Mark Woods, senior writer for Give Me Sport. “But his work ethic was on the brink … it wasn’t quite there in terms of understanding what it meant to work on his game on a daily basis.
“That’s one of the reasons the Cavs brought me to Cleveland, to help him develop a better sense of a developmental culture for the Cavs. Mike Brown had a very young team. That developmental piece was very big.
“So he gained an appetite. Kobe Bryant played a huge role in that in terms of mentoring Kyrie. And Kyrie, as he gained success, he became much more aware of the effort he was putting in and continued to work on his craft on that basis.”
While Irving was considered a diamond in the rough, James was a crown jewel when he returned to Cleveland in 2014.
“The guy is a consummate professional. He takes care of his body on and off the court,” Handy told Woods. “He understands what it takes every day to push himself to the limit. And even though he is at that level, he still wants to push himself to improve his skills in as many different areas as he can.
“As a coach, those two guys have been pretty easy to work with because they want to be pushed. That’s been easy, in creating relationships with them and a sense of teamwork.
“They have ideas of what they want to work on. I have some ideas of what they should work on,” he continued. “It’s a combination of the both of us communicating — and the rest of the coaching staff.”
Handy’s journey in the fast lane of the NBA did not begin with that in mind. After a fine high school career in Oakland, growing up the youngest of six brothers and a daughter 10 minutes from Oracle Arena, Handy didn’t have a Division I offer until Hawaii came along and offered him a scholarship.
The shooting guard played well enough to earn brief stints with Portland and Golden State in an eight-year career that took him across the globe.
While coaching was not part of Handy’s plan when Brown hired him when he became coach of the Lakers.
“I think I have a reputation as a worker so guys understand the work I’m going to put in,” Handy said. “I try not to leave any wiggle room. I’ve been pretty blessed with teams — the Lakers and the Cavs.
“At the Lakers, I arrived and there was Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Metta World Peace, all self-motivating guys. They made our jobs easy as coaches when it comes to working with the younger guys.”
Handy said when the best player or players on a team are the first in the gym and the last to depart, it sets the tone.
“There is no wiggle room if Kobe Bryant is in the gym first thing in the morning — and he’s staying late — if LeBron and Kyrie and Kevin Love are in the gym early and they’re staying late, if they’re in the gym working, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the young guys to lose the motivation to live up to those standards,” he said.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate to coach on veteran teams with guys who have been successful for a long time. And you see the reasons why they’ve had those careers.”
While Handy’s intent was not to become a coach, now that he has and will be reuniting with Nurse he has a much greater appreciation for all sides of the NBA game.
“Once I became a coach, I really saw the other side of the business,” he confirms. “For many years, I was a player, in the NBA, playing at high levels in Europe. You’re not privy to meetings with general managers and owners, the trade talks, just the business side of it.
“When I became a coach, I had a sense of trying to be sensitive to what players go through because I’d been in that situation. I’ve always tried to be honest and up-front with players about what the business is and how they need to prepare themselves every day.”
The 46-year-old Handy said it’s important for players, even some of the best in the world such as James, Irving and Bryant, to not become satisfied
“No matter what happens, they need to continue to work on their craft and be professional,” he said. “You want to get the guys to a point where they never relax.
“Because the business of basketball, like any other part of the entertainment business, is very unforgiving. Things can happen at the drop of a hat.”
If they do, however, it takes a special someone to snap them out of it.
Case in point, the 2016 NBA Finals, when the Cavaliers looked overmatched in Games 1 and 2 against the Warriors at Oracle Arena.
An emotion, almost-in-tears Handy had seen enough and after Game 2, received permission from Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue to address the players.
“We looked like a deer in headlights,” Handy told Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated. “I was like, ‘Man, T-Lue, I’m not trying to step on your toes, but I got something to say, man.’ I didn’t go at nobody, directly. I was talking to all of them.
“We’re at the NBA Finals. They were acting like we were weak. I just told all of them that ‘this was some [expletive].’ That, the Warriors are ‘just out there punking y’all and ya’ll ain’t doing [expletive] … They’re getting in your faces, clowning in front of our bench and doing whatever they want to do. And ya’ll aren’t responding.’ ”
Handy told the Cleveland players he took the way they were playing and the Warriors’ behavior personally and that once the team returned home to Cleveland, they had “better be ready to play, because that was some [expletive].”
In Game 3 at Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavaliers stormed out of the gates to take a 9-0 lead and proceeded to wallop the Warriors, 120-90, to snap a seven-game losing streak to Golden State and cut the deficit in the series 2-1.
Cleveland made history by becoming the first and still only team in NBA history to rally from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals to win a championship, taking out the 73-win Warriors by beating them in Games 6 and 7 in Oracle.
“The speech he gave after Game 2 really hit home for all of us,” Irving told Spears. “It was a man-to-man speech that needed to be said, that we all understood in order to, kind of, will ourselves to understand that we still have a chance in this series.
“Golden State took care of home court. But that speech really hit home for all of us.”
“He’s an Oakland boy, and we went out to Oakland and got our ass whipped twice,” Cavs forward Richard Jefferson told Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com. “He was pissed off. He has to show up there every day. It means a lot to him, it means a lot to us, and for us to go out there and play the way we did was embarrassing. Look, we personally feel that no team should handle us the way they did the last two games, and it was disrespectful.”
“What he said was right on and the guys accepted that,” Lue said.