Meet the Cleveland Cavaliers coach who masterminded their three consecutive finals

Phil Handy was speaking at the Beyond the Contracts skills development camp.

The devils, Phil Handy proclaims, are in the details. “And you need to be OK in coming out of your comfort zone,” he adds.

A philosophy of diligence that has served the Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach well throughout a journey that has spirited him through stops in Manchester and LA and places in between, to explore the boundaries of basketball and then push them back, bit by bit.

And, as one of the NBA’s player development sages, has seen him charged with elevating greatness a further notch, previously with Kobe Bryant among others at the Lakers and now with an A-List Cavs crew led by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

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They were all stratospheric when Handy entered their orbit. His role? To demand an extra level above.

“When I first got to Cleveland, Kyrie was still young – he was 21,” he recounts. “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.”

If the All Star guard was initially a diamond in the rough, then James was a veritable polished jewel, All-NBA, All-World, all-round genius when he found his way back to northeast Ohio three summers ago.

The kind of talent that makes a coaching staff look magnificent – and a workout regime that includes spin classes, step climbers and pilates, often waking at 5am to tone himself to the max before his duties as uberstar-cum-mogul commence.

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How easy life becomes, Handy affirms, when the leader of the pack establishes a tone with his own work ethic.

“The guy is a consummate professional. He takes care of his body on and off the court. 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.

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“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. It’s a combination of the both of us communicating – and the rest of the coaching staff.”

It takes a level of mutual trust – but also empathy. A partnership, in truth. Respect most of all.

A tandem that helped carry Cleveland to a NBA Championship in June 2016 before another trip to the Finals last month, this time – as in 2015 – ending in defeat.

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A world away from Handy’s own playing days when he had to strive to get even a little notice, coming out of high school in Oakland without an initial NCAA Division 1 offer but grinding enough that he eventually landed a scholarship to Hawaii and then did enough to earn cups of tea in the NBA in Portland and Golden State before taking his skills as a shooting guard on an eight-year global odyssey.

Coaching wasn’t in the plan. But knowing the effort required to squeeze every gramme out of natural-born gifts stood him in good stead in spells bending the ears of prospects in schools and colleges before making the leap to the pros when Brown hired him to put the Lakers to the test

“I think I have a reputation as a worker so guys understand the work I’m going to put in,” he declares. “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.

“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.

“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.”

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Let their would-be successors take note. Back in the UK last week for a skills camp that attracted British players and coaches, it was something of a trip down memory lane.

Almost 20 years past, in fact, to his solitary season in the British Basketball League when he was part of a transcendent Manchester Giants team that began the new millennium by reaching every major final and lifting the BBL Championship under the coaching of now-Toronto assistant Nick Nurse and with a MVP assist from Tony Dorsey.

Owned by Indiana-based Cook group, dominance was expected. Their 74-65 defeat of Birmingham Bullets at Wembley Arena repaid on a heavy investment

Little did they know, Handy recalls, that the playoff final was to be the end of an era.

“We were in the team dinner and our spirits were so high. The owners had come in and said ‘for you guys’ efforts, we’re going to give you additional bonuses on top of what is in your contracts.’

“We were all feeling good. Everyone was happy.

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“And right after that sentence, they dropped the bomb that they were selling the team. I was like ‘Man, you tell us you’re handing a bonus and then selling up?’ They took us up and took us right back down.”

It was as brutal as it was painful. Giants were briefly maintained on life support but soon crashed into oblivion.

Handy, like his running mates, scattered. It was a lesson he retained, that basketball – as with life – carries few certainties.

“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.

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“And no matter what happens, they need to continue to work on their craft and be professional. 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.”

Phil Handy was speaking at the Beyond the Contracts skills development camp.

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