Video: Way Back When - LeBron JamesHighlights of the current Cavaliers star as a high schooler at St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron, Ohio).
Phil Handy had just finished a successful eight-year professional basketball career overseas in 2003. He still loved the game, the pace, and the action. And he was an impeccable teacher.
So he entered the training game.
A Bay Area native, he began one-on-one basketball sessions with all of the top area prep players: Leon Powe,
, Jabari Brown
and Jabari Bird
to name a few. It's just what he wanted and hoped for.
"Life was good and the business mushroomed," he said. "It took on a life of its own."
It mushroomed all the way to Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, two of the game's all-time greatest. At 44, Handy is now a Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach and director of player development. This after a two-year stint with the Lakers.
He's currently somewhere near cloud nine preparing for Thursday's NBA finals opener at Oracle Arena, just a few minutes from where he was raised and 30 minutes from his summer home in Walnut Creek.
He'll be coaching against the team he rooted for as a youth, but not the TMC version of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin he adored. They'll just be wearing the same colored jerseys.
"This is just an unreal feeling to be in this position," he said by phone last week. "It hasn't sunk in. My phone hasn't stopped ringing. I'm essentially coming home to be part of the NBA finals. I can't really imagine a greater feeling of joy than this." Late Bloomer
The glee stems from his unusual and quick rise to the game's pinnacle. He compared it to his late-blooming career as a player, starting as a long and lean prep at James Logan (Union City, Calif.)
. He watched with envy older guys like Gary Payton, Brian Shaw and Greg Foster dominate the Bay Area.
He got no Division I offers, so he played junior college ball before landing at Hawaii, where he helped the Rainbows to a couple of WAC titles, primarily as a defensive stopper.
He had a couple short stints with the Warriors and Trailblazers before heading overseas to the United Kingdom, Australia and Israel as a 6-foot-5, 190-pound combo guard.
"I was OK as a player," he said. "I was a late bloomer physically and I became better as a pro. It was a steady climb. Sort of like my coaching."
He never envisioned himself as a coach, but mobile training wasn't easy work. Lots of travel. He and his wife Christina (now of 17 years) lived in Stockton at the time and he recalled weekends trips from Sacramento to Marin and San Jose. Talk about your triangle offense. Or was that the Bermuda Triangle?
"I'll say this, I worked hard and I was dedicated," he said. "And it wasn't about the money, but the craft."
He ran in AAU circles and put on showcases like the Sacramento vs. The Bay event that drew plenty of notice. By 2008 elite players came to him. He helped send 33 players to Division I programs and he trained 20 NBA players.
He never spent a dollar on advertising.
"It was all word of mouth," he said proudly.
None of it surprised Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland, Calif.)
coach Lou Richie, who also trained prep players during the same time.
"Phil is very intelligent, a student of the game," Richie said. "He pays attention to detail. He is passionate and definitely has paid his dues. He's always been a hard worker." Big Break
Handy's big break occurred while helping train St. Mary's College athletes. He became close with Gaels' coach Randy Bennett, who was good friends with Mike Brown.
When Brown landed the Lakers job, Bennett pushed Handy to apply for work. Based largely on Bennett's recommendation, Brown hired Handy as a player development coach.
And so it all began.
"My training business was doing really well, but being a part of the Lakers … working side-by-side with Mike and Kobe. I couldn't pass it up," he said.
Working with Bryant, however, took time and trust.
"He had to see me work every day. He had to watch and see what my knowledge of the game was, where I was coming from, what I was trying to do. Kobe is very meticulous about how he does things."
When Brown was fired, new coach Mike D'Antoni kept Handy aboard. And when Brown resurfaced in Cleveland and offered Handy the player development and assistant title for the Cavaliers, D'Antoni gave him a glowing recommendation.
"He's really good at developing players, a good workout guy with a great work ethic,'' D'Antoni told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "He'll do a super job for Mike, for sure.''Bad Taste
By all accounts Handy did a super job, but once again Brown was fired after the 2013-14 season, leaving Handy in an odd position.
"It was déjà vu and left a bad taste about the business. Mike had been such a good mentor to me and really taught me to be a true professional."
Brown encouraged Handy to stay, noting Cleveland's bastion of young talent, including
, who needed a mentor himself. And there was also talk that LeBron might be coming back home.
Handy wasn't going anywhere.
"It's been nothing but a blessing," Handy said.
Working with James has been similar to his work with Bryant.
"Like Kobe, LeBron is just so smart about how he approaches the game," Handy said. "They are just at such a high level. I think LeBron knew of my reputation. He worked closely with Kyrie so I think that helped open doors of trust and helped with our relationship. It's a good and strong relationship, and still growing."
The team's resolve continues to grow as well. The Cavs looked discombobulated at midseason and have overcome a season-ending injury to Kevin Love to reach the finals. None of it has been easy. Just like Handy's path.
"It's a very resilient group," Handy said. We have a lot of veteran guys and an incredible leader who is one of, if not the best player in the league and who involves his teammates which instills confidences in everyone. … Everyone has done an unbelievable job of carrying the torch at some point."
Which is what Handy is doing for Bay Area players and coaches, Richie said.
"It is incredible for Phil, his family and our community to have him back in the bay and playing for a ring," he said. "We can't lose either way."