From Kobe and Kyrie to LeBron and Kawhi, Nobody Knows NBA Superstars Like Phil Handy
LOS ANGELES -- It was another frustrating night in Oakland for the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and company had just lost Game 2 of the 2016 NBA Finals to the defending champion Golden State Warriors—led by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green—at Oracle Arena, 110-77, to go down 0-2 in the best-of-seven series. As peeved as Phil Handy, an assistant coach on Tyronn Lue’s staff, was about the final score, he was even more bothered by the Warriors’ trash talking—and how the Cavs had allowed it.
“The Warriors were clowning in front of our bench,” Phil recalls to CloseUp360 from inside the lobby of his apartment building in Bel Air. “They would hit threes, then turn around and dance. Draymond is barking at everybody on the bench, and we're just sitting there and taking it. I'm behind the bench yelling at Draymond and I'm cussing at Klay … as a coach!”
Phil adds, “I just had a lump in my throat. I was very irritated at the way we responded. For me, I'm old school, so if somebody [is] talking shit to me, I'm gonna talk back. I'm not just gonna let somebody get in my face and embarrass me.”
Phil carried that anger with him off the court and into the visitors’ locker room. He expressed his dismay to Tyronn, who granted him permission to address the team.
“We got into the locker room and I blacked out,” Phil says.
Once he came to, his body still shaking, Phil heard from the players, coaches and even Cavs owner Dan Gilbert about what he’d missed. One f-bomb after another, he’d delivered a heartfelt diatribe that lit a fire under the team.
Three days later, the Cavs crushed the Warriors in Cleveland, 120-90, to take Game 3. A week and a half after that, they fended off Golden State on the road in Game 7, 93-89, to climb all the way out of a 3-1 series hole and secure the first NBA championship in franchise history.
“A lot of people credit our comeback to that speech,” Phil says. “I think it helped. I think they woke up for sure.”
That wouldn’t be the first or the last time he found himself entangled in basketball history. Phil has worked closely with Kobe Bryant, built relationships with some of the biggest stars in the sport today and has coached in each of the last five Finals, including as an assistant coach with Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors during their run to this year’s title—the second time Phil helped a team earn its first championship.
But those past successes can’t keep Phil from thinking about the future. He’s back with both LeBron and the Los Angeles Lakers, on the bench for a squad that’s aiming to play in June.
“There’s no, ‘I want to get to the playoffs,’” says Phil, who first worked for the Lakers as a player development coach from 2011-13. “No, I want to get to a sixth straight Finals.”
While few have been fortunate enough to set such a bold goal, Phil’s 25-year career is littered with remarkable basketball stories from his time as a player and coach. More remarkable still: that both of his paths in the game nearly hit dead ends before he truly found his way.
Phil Handy won his first NBA championship as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers' coaching staff in 2016. (Anthony Perez)
Phil’s winding journey began in Oakland, where he grew up as the youngest of Earlean and C.L. Handy Sr.’s six sons. He found basketball after following his older brothers to the playground courts when he was just five years old.
“When you're the youngest sibling, you always want to do what your brothers do,” Phil says with a smile.
It wasn’t until he was 14 that Phil started to rise above his competitors. But as much as he loved the game, he struggled to find time to play due to his parents’ religious restrictions.
“A lot of people thought I was a Jehovah's Witness or Seventh-day Adventist,” he says. “But we were just part of a Christian church that, from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, I couldn't do any activities. No sports, no nothing, no school dances, nothing.”
That sanctioned time overlapped with the typical schedule for high school basketball games. As such, Phil never joined the team at James Logan High School in Union City, just south of Oakland. Despite those restrictions, he made basketball a priority—even if it meant breaking his family’s rules at times.
“My father had bought me a car, and I started sneaking out to go play on Fridays and Saturdays,” he says. “He didn't have any idea that I was playing.”
Phil played anywhere he could find runs, whether at Mosswood Park in Oakland, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, at church events or occasional AAU tournaments. Then, during the summer before his junior year, Phil went through a six-inch growth spurt.
“That was when my basketball trajectory took off,” he says. “I didn't even know I grew. I got back to school and everyone was, like, ‘Damn! What happened?’”
From that point, Phil’s athletic ability caught up with his height. Towards the end of his high school years, he sought out tougher competition beyond the blacktop. He began playing in open runs at junior colleges in the area, as well as at UC Berkeley and Stanford, alongside East Bay phenoms like Jason Kidd and Gary Payton. There, Phil attracted attention from scouts at local colleges, even though he had never played a single semester of high school basketball.
“It got to a point where college coaches started calling my house,” Phil says. “My dad was, like, 'Why are you guys calling for my son?’ So at that point, we had to let the cat out of the bag.”
With a mentality Phil describes as “old school,” his father struggled to see how basketball could provide his son not only a free college education, but also a career. In time, C.L. overcame his anger and accepted his son’s passion for basketball, though it was something he couldn’t fully comprehend.
“Once [my dad] had the chance to really understand the magnitude of it, he became probably my biggest fan,” Phil says.
Phil spent his first two years of college close to home, playing at Ohlone College and Skyline College. He played well enough at those schools to garner interest from colleges all over the country, and transferred to the University of Hawaii for his junior year. In 1994, he helped lead the Rainbow Warriors to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 22 years.
But after one year in paradise, Phil found himself hungry for another step up. The following year, he left Hawaii to pursue a career in the NBA, only to find the league in the middle of a lockout. Though his name had been included in countless mock draft boards, Phil would never see an NBA draft due to the lockout.
“There were no opportunities for me to even try to work out for NBA teams,” he says. “I really didn't know anything about pro basketball. I didn't know what steps to take.”
With the help of his trainer, Glen Graham, Phil managed to land an NBA agent. Waiting for the lockout to end tested Phil’s patience, but he spent that time improving his game with Glen. Back home in the Bay Area, he worked out with Glen’s other clients, along with NBA veterans like Gary Payton, Chris Mullin, Keith Jennings, Joe Smith and Brian Shaw. Through hours of practice—along with the guidance and mentorship of Glen and the established pros—Phil earned an invite from the Warriors to their mini-camp after the lockout ended in 1995.
“Played my ass off and I was one of the two guys that they invited to veterans’ camp,” Phil says.
After years of idolizing the Warriors, he found himself playing with his heroes, including Chris, Tim Hardaway and Latrell Sprewell.
“All guys I grew up watching, players that I love watching, and here I am practicing with them every day,” Phil says. “I ended up making the team and that was unbelievable.”
Suiting up for his hometown team, Phil had realized his childhood dream, though it wouldn’t last long. The Warriors released him halfway through the 1995-96 season.
Phil spent the next few years playing in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), while working to keep his NBA aspirations alive. Between his turn as a CBA All-Rookie First Team selection for the Omaha Racers in 1996 and subsequent stints with the Grand Rapids Mackers and La Crosse Bobcats, he spent a partial season with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1996-97 after making the team out of summer league. Then, he played for the Seattle SuperSonics’ summer league team in 1997. That was his last stint with an NBA team as a player.
“I felt like the NBA was something that I experienced,” he says. “I made it. I knew what it was about and I didn't want to be a guy that just went from one team to another. I just wanted to play.”
Phil had brief stints as a player in the NBA with the Warriors, Trail Blazers and SuperSonics. (Anthony Perez)
A year after his summer in Seattle, Phil had five European teams offering him jobs to play overseas. Despite not knowing anything about the leagues across the Atlantic, he decided to take a chance, leaving America behind in 1998.
“Once I saw the contracts and the money that they were offering me, I said, ‘Okay, I think it's time for me to go,’” he remembers. “At that point, I left and never came back.”
Phil spent the next seven years playing in France, Italy, Spain, Israel, Germany, England and Australia, where he would ultimately retire. Through his travels, he relished every culture he encountered. With a new world of basketball at his feet, he aimed to play in a different country every year.
“It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me culturally,” he says. “Experiencing different things in different cultures really just broadened my perspective on life and people. It made me much more of a well-rounded person.”
Along the way, Phil enjoyed some success on the court. During the 1999-2000 season, he won his first and only championship as a player in the British Basketball League with the Manchester Giants. The team’s coach? A plucky basketball lifer from Iowa named Nick Nurse.
“At the time, we were the best team in English history,” Phil says. “We went 45-7 and won every championship in that league.”
Phil got his first taste of coaching during the final leg of his playing career. Amid his one year with the Melbourne Tigers and two years with the West Sydney Razorbacks in Australia’s National Basketball League, he started training and teaching fundamentals to a local kid who happened to be a big fan of Phil’s and the Razorbacks after the kid’s father had reached out.
“I thoroughly enjoyed watching this kid get better by doing some of the drills that I was doing in my own workouts,” Phil says. “It just had a lot of carryover.”
But rather than ride that side hustle into the next phase of his career, Phil returned to the Bay Area in 2004 to spend a year away from basketball. Though he’d planned to return to Melbourne to play—and the Tigers would’ve happily welcomed him back—he knew it was time to retire.
“After that year off, I didn’t want to play anymore,” he says. “My love for the game hadn't stopped, but I didn't want to watch what I eat, I didn't want to work out. Just mentally, I wasn't in that place to compete, and do it day in and day out.”
Back home in Stockton, California, Phil embarked on a new career—one that didn’t involve basketball in any way. His only goal was to not work for anyone but himself.
He found that opportunity in a real estate business he started around lease-to-own properties with some friends. But after just one year, he missed his first love.
“I realized that [real estate] was not what I want to do,” he says. “It was fun, it was very successful, but it wasn't my passion. Even though I was really good at it, I wanted to get back into basketball.”
Phil decided to become a full-time trainer. After remembering the great times he had as a young player working with Glen in the Bay, Phil knew training was what he wanted to pursue.
“But I also had a few bad coaches growing up that I felt like they always took my confidence, or tried to. I wanted to be the opposite,” Phil says. “I wanted to help high school kids and instill confidence in them, and really just help athletes be confident all the time. That was really the driving force as to why I wanted to start the training.”
Sitting on the living room floor of his newly finished house with his wife, Christina, they spent four hours contemplating a name for his new training business. Finally, she came up with “94 Feet of Game.”
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without her help in the beginning," he says.
As for his business model, Christina inspired Phil by referencing the movie Hitch, starring Will Smith. Without any marketing, promotion or even a website, 94 Feet of Game began to grow by word of mouth and exclusivity.
“My very first client was a kid named Mike Turner. I'm getting chills telling this story,” he says. “I charged him $25. I was living in Stockton. If you know the Bay Area, [my client] lived in Marin County.
“It cost more money to put gas in my car than it did to go train this kid.”
But Mike helped to spread the word about 94 Feet of Game across Marin County’s basketball community. Six months later, Phil was training 120 kids in his program. After seeing how well Mike was developing with Phil, Rick Winter, Mike’s high school basketball coach at Marin Catholic High School, became a huge advocate of Phil’s. He not only referred kids to Phil, but also offered him space at the school’s gym to work them out whenever he needed.
“It just blew up. [Rick] blessed me so much,” Phil says. “Before I knew it, the whole community of Marin wanted me to train their kids.”
Phil found a passion for skills training while coaching kids in Marin, California. (Charles Park)
Then came a call from Tony Delk, Phil’s longtime friend and an NBA veteran who was then with the Phoenix Suns.
“He wanted me to come to Phoenix to train,” Phil says. “I was, like, ‘Man, I'm retired.’ He was, like, ‘No, I want you to come train me.’”
Phil spent a week in Phoenix with Tony, putting him through drills and focusing on footwork. Immediately, Tony noticed something different about Phil’s training style.
“The number one thing was detail,” Tony says. “Phil put a first- to fourth-quarter game plan together and then he had an overtime plan to go with it. It was always a progression. It wasn’t a team workout; it was something that he thought about. He knew my strengths and weaknesses. When I stepped on the court, I knew he had a plan.”
At the time, when most trainers and coaches practiced and promoted repetition, Phil tailored his training to each particular player after studying his game.
“It wasn’t the routine that I’d seen so many coaches doing the same with players where it became redundant,” Tony recalls. “Phil challenged me.”
“Yo, man, you got something here,” Tony told Phil. “You ought to really think about making this a serious business.”
The following week, Phil returned to Phoenix to work out Tony along with Penny Hardaway, Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Eddie House, who were all on the Suns at the time. Phil earned rave reviews for his training and started to fly weekly from Stockton to Phoenix from Sunday to Thursday. The rest of the week, he maintained his high school clientele back in Stockton.
After a summer spent commuting between California and Arizona, and with 30 NBA clients on his roster, Phil decided to pursue training in the NBA full time.
“I got more satisfaction out of that than I did playing,” he says. “I wanted to be recognized as one of the best basketball trainers in the world.”
From there, Phil created a training program for 94 Feet of Game. He focused on teaching players how to play on balance and practice good footwork no matter where they were on the court.
Then came another call from an old friend. This time, it was Randy Bennett, the head basketball coach at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. He suggested that Phil meet Mike Brown, whom Randy knew from his time at the University of San Diego as an assistant coach. After seeing Phil in action, Randy insisted that he pursue any opportunities he could in the NBA.
“Randy believed in my work,” Phil says. “He’d say, 'Man, you need to go and do something else.' He was always that way. If you were a guy that worked hard and he believed in you, he was always trying to push you.
“That's how [Atlanta Hawks head coach] Lloyd Pierce got into NBA coaching, too, through Randy Bennett helping him meet Mike Brown.”
But it wasn’t until 2011 when Mike reached out to Phil with an opportunity.
In the midst of that year’s NBA lockout, Phil got a call late one night from Mike, who was the head coach of the Lakers at the time. Mike, who had succeeded Phil Jackson as head coach in the spring, wanted him to put together a development program by the morning. That night, Phil worked on an outline that detailed how he would work out each individual player on the Lakers, tailored to his skill set and style.
“I had the plan to him the next day,” Phil says. “And then a month went by. No call, no response on e-mail, no text, no call back. So at this point, I'm, like, ‘They got me reeled in.’”
On December 8, 2011, the day the lockout ended, Mike called Phil again.
“Phil, I need you to be in LA tomorrow,” Mike told him. “I’m good with you because Randy vouches for you. Don’t fuck me.”
“I didn’t know Phil, but I trusted Randy,” Mike, who’s now an associate head coach for the Warriors, tells CloseUp360. “Randy’s only called me on two people, and that’s Phil and Lloyd.”
Phil got his start in the NBA with the Lakers in 2011. (Anthony Perez)
With no formal NBA coaching experience, Phil signed a three-year contract with the Lakers as a player development coach. Mike had full confidence in Phil to manage 15 players on a daily basis. For Phil, it was an “eye-opening educational experience,” he says, learning the structure of a team, NBA terminology, and the Xs and Os of basketball.
More than anything, Phil looked forward to working with Kobe.
“I felt like I worked with some really high-profile guys, but nobody of Kobe's magnitude,” Phil says. “This would be the ultimate test for me.”
On the first day of training camp in mid-December, Phil worked with a few players on the court before practice began. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Kobe enter the gym and pull up a chair. Kobe observed from the sidelines for no more than five minutes before disappearing into the weight room.
“He did that for about a week,” Phil remembers. “Didn't speak, didn't say nothing, just kind of watched. And then I got a phone call maybe a couple of weeks later.”
“Meet me at the gym at 5:00 a.m.,” Kobe told Phil.
“And that's where our relationship started,” Phil says now.
Over time, Phil earned Kobe’s respect—and, in some cases, his knowledge of the game. For the first time, Phil had the opportunity to work with a superstar player like Kobe. From then on, his perspective on coaching was forever changed.
“As a coach, we teach players. But as coaches, we also learn from players,” Phil says, “and I learned a ton from Kobe.”
Just when he thought he was detail-oriented enough in his work, Phil learned a new level of meticulousness by working one-on-one with Kobe. The five-time NBA champion showed Phil how he would master one thing before moving on to another.
“I really got to see how his mind worked, and I learned how to work with players at that level and help maximize what they're trying to do,” Phil says. “[Kobe] really taught me to understand as a coach that you have to learn how to collaborate with the players.”
During their time together with the Lakers, Mike noticed how well Phil connected with players, including Kobe, and was impressed by his thoroughness. Phil made a point of providing Mike with updates on each individual player’s development during key times throughout the season.
“The most important thing was his connection with the guys, from the best player on the team to the 15th guy on the roster,” Mike says. “I think it comes down to his demeanor, personality and quiet confidence—even his ability to go out there and do it himself because he keeps himself in good shape.”
In 2013, Phil got another fortuitous call. It was Mike again. Less than six months after the Lakers fired Mike as their head coach, the Cavs re-hired him. And he, in turn, was looking to re-hire Phil.
“When I got the job in Cleveland, I thought Phil had caught on really quick for being new to NBA coaching.” Mike says. “Phil was one of my first calls when I got to Cleveland.”
“Look,” Mike told him, “the work that you do is important and this is a young team. And I'm bringing you here to mentor Kyrie Irving.”
Phil took the job as Mike’s assistant, but the connection with Kyrie took time to build. Initially, his calls and texts to Kyrie went unanswered.
Phil wasn’t having it. In the summer of 2013, he told Mike he needed to connect with Kyrie in person. With Mike’s support, Phil booked a trip to Miami to confront Kyrie one-on-one. Once Phil informed Kyrie that he would be coming, the two made plans to have a conversation over dinner at Kyrie’s home in Miami.
“I went over to his house and we sat on the balcony for like two hours, and we had a man-and-man talk,” Phil says.
After working with a player like Kobe, Phil came to Kyrie wanting nothing more than to help. Following that meeting in Miami, the two became “like family,” Phil says.
A year later, LeBron left the Miami Heat to return to Cleveland.
This is unbelievable, Phil thought to himself. Come on, man. You can’t write this!
Since he had no prior connection to the Akron native, Phil turned to what he knew best: getting in work on the court. Once he started to interact with LeBron in practice—and show the four-time NBA MVP his “no-nonsense” approach—their partnership flourished.
“It was just another opportunity to build a relationship with another high-caliber player, and help him improve his game and help him to add different things to his game,” Phil says.
In 2018, Phil knew his time with Cleveland had run its course. LeBron had left for LA, Kyrie had been traded to Boston the prior summer and the Cavs were hurtling towards a rebuild.
Phil, meanwhile, had no set plans for the future.
“I'm waking up and I'm smiling, and just really trying to enjoy the journey,” he says. “I'm just, like, 'Alright, what's next?’”
In May 2018, the Raptors fired their head coach at the time, Dwane Casey. When Phil heard that Nick Nurse, his old friend and former coach in Manchester, was being considered for a promotion from an assistant role to the top job, he got excited. He texted Nick to tell him he’d be praying for him and that he hoped he’d get the job.
“He texted me back about an hour later and said, ‘Your prayers have been answered,’” Phil says.
A month later, Nick invited Phil to Toronto for a casual interview over breakfast. Shortly thereafter, the Raptors offered him an assistant coaching position.
A few weeks later—on July 18, 2018—Toronto acquired Kawhi and Danny Green from the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick. Once again, Phil found himself in prime position to not only reach the Finals, but also win a ring.
“It was another golden year that you just can’t script,” Phil says. “It doesn't happen [often] and I don't take any of it for granted. I try to enjoy the moments.”
Another year yielded another summer of change for the NBA, Phil included.
This past July, Kawhi left Toronto to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency. Faced with an uncertain future, the Raptors granted permission to other NBA teams to engage with Phil.
Kyrie wanted his former coach to join him and Kevin Durant with the Brooklyn Nets. And LeBron hinted at an opportunity in LA, with Anthony Davis coming over from the New Orleans Pelicans.
Phil found some clarity the day after the NBA Las Vegas Summer League ended, in the form of a phone call from Frank Vogel, the Lakers’ newly-hired head coach.
“Can you fly here tomorrow morning?” Frank asked.
The next day, Phil was on an 8 a.m. flight from Vegas to LA to meet with the Lakers. After a quick interview, he was back on a plane home where, upon landing, he turned on his phone.
“It rang immediately,” he says. “My agent called me and said the Lakers had made an offer.”
The Lakers wanted to give Phil a seat on the front of the bench as an assistant coach. But before he accepted the Lakers position, he got another call—this time from Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, who made him an offer.
Though Phil found the opportunity to work with Doc and reunite with Kawhi difficult to resist, he ultimately opted to return to the Lakers. Either way, he has only one thing on his mind this season: winning.
“I've gotten hooked on that,” he says. “That feeling is just one that you want to continue to experience.”
These days, Phil spends his time overseeing player development as the third assistant on the Lakers’ coaching staff. But when it comes to specific roles that each coach plays, Phil is happy to say that Frank has given him and all other coaches plenty of latitude.
“Frank is really good with allowing all of us to coach,” Phil says. “Jason Kidd uses this term ‘stress free’ with the players, and that’s what it feels like. I feel like that’s how our coaching staff is, too. Everybody’s on the same page.”
Outside of the Lakers, Phil continues to strive to make a positive impact on the game of basketball. After traveling to Australia and China this past summer to share his expertise with top young talent, he now looks forward to expanding his reach with the recent launch of his app—called, of course, 94 Feet of Game.
The app features a library of Phil’s basketball drills, including shooting, static ball-handling, finishing, footwork, breakdown handles, running the pick-and-roll, post moves and more. Users can watch short clips of him breaking down each drill on the court with kids, European pros and NBA veterans like Steve Nash and Harrison Barnes. That range of demonstrators drives home Phil’s point with the app: that it’s for everyone, not just NBA players.
“I just want to be a global ambassador for basketball and be a positive impact,” Phil says. “That’s why I go to Australia, China, trying to go to the Philippines. So the app is part of that. The app has been life long.”
Subscribers have full access to all content, including new drill videos as they’re added to the library. Moreover, the app includes tips, “Phil’s Daily Message” and a drill of the day.
“I try to be so broad in who I attract. It’s not just for NBA athletes,” he says. “It’s really just a culmination of years and years of drills that I’ve come up with.”
As for the inspiration behind the 94 Feet of Game app, it all comes back to his desire to give back to the sport that’s given him so much.
“I wanted to really impact the game and how people trained from a detailed training aspect,” he says. “I wanted to come up with a system and a program that changed the way people trained. I just want to have a positive impact on the game. That was the main thing.”
In the past year, Phil has turned his work with some of the best players in NBA history into his own personal mantra: “Be Your Own GOAT.” With Deuce Brand creating his line of t-shirts and bracelets, he wears the four words proudly to encourage everyone—including those locked into the NBA’s never-ending “GOAT” debate—to be their own “greatest of all time.”
“There's always just a misconception that you have to be a LeBron or a Kobe, or you have to be a Drake or somebody of the highest magnitude in a certain industry to be a GOAT,” Phil says. “There are certain heights that every one of us can reach every day in terms of just being great.
“So, why not? Why not try to be our your own GOAT?”