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‘I want to make this count’: Lakers’ Phil Handy on Finals run and Kobe’s legacy

The assistant coach opens up ahead of his sixth straight Finals appearance

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – When Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy noticed LeBron James reflecting on his road to a 10th NBA Finals shortly after the Lakers advanced Saturday night, he began to think about his own journey.

“I was standing not too far from ’Bron when he was sitting on the floor,” Handy told The Undefeated on Sunday afternoon. “We had our journey, but I identified with what he was feeling. For me, personally, I was kind of numb on Saturday night thinking about the journey. That really hit me probably more than any other time up to this point. I have no words for it. I get chills. I get a little bit emotional.”

Handy, 49, began his NBA coaching career as a player development coach with the Lakers from 2011 to 2013, working with Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. The former University of Hawai’i star went on to become an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2013 to 2018, going to the Finals four years in a row and winning one title with James in 2016, and then with the Toronto Raptors when they won their lone NBA title last season. Handy rejoined the Lakers this season and is now set to coach in his sixth straight NBA Finals.

In the following Q&A, Handy reflects on returning to the Finals, Bryant’s legacy, the death of his older brother while in the NBA bubble, coaching James and more.

You said you were numb on Saturday night just thinking about the six straight Finals appearances. Can you explain?

I just pay homage to a lot of people that have coached in the NBA. There’s a lot of coaches that have coached for years and years, and they’re successful coaches. There are good coaches that have never made it to the Finals. And for me to be able to be on this route, I don’t have an answer to it sometimes.

I know I work hard. I think that it takes a lot. You obviously have to be involved with some good teams and good players. But sometimes it doesn’t make sense. … Junior college, my own basketball career and starting my business, doing the training for so many years. I could have never fathomed that my career would go this way. But you know, I try to live in the moment, too. … It’s not like I came into this with the mindset of I just want to be any coach. I’ve always wanted to be a successful coach.

How have the Lakers succeeded in the bubble to advance to the NBA Finals from a basketball standpoint and mental standpoint?

Well, one, Frank Vogel has done a helluva job leading the ship as a head coach, and given all of us as coaches the power and authority to coach. To have him put his imprint on this team has been huge. He’s a great communicator. I think he’s one of those guys, man, that really values the input of his players and coaches. He says it all the time that there’s no ego here. Whatever’s best for the team. That part right there is huge.

We have some talent. You got LeBron, you got AD [Anthony Davis]. … They’ve been phenomenal. Like the way they play together, the way they feed off of each other, and there’s no animosity. They’ve, in a short amount of time, figured out a way to be successful together and coexist, which is what you need, right? The two best players have to be able to coexist.

You look at the entirety of our team. You have two great players, and you have some really high-level role players, and you have leadership. … LeBron and [Rajon] Rondo’s leadership, man. … I think the message from LeBron has always been like, ‘Why are we here? We’re going to be here, let’s compete for it.’

I think I’ve always said coming into the bowl, not so much talent, but the team that has the strongest mental fortitude of understanding why you’re here and being able to block out not having fans, not having your family, not having your normal comfort zone, the teams that are able to do that will find themselves in the position to compete for a championship.

During the NBA Finals with the Lakers, there certainly will be reflection on Kobe. When you hear his name, what do you think about?

He helped me tremendously, like understanding what it takes to coach or have relationships with guys like [James]. … But for me, man, it’s just the legacy. I feel like he is with this team. I’ve never been into numbers. But how many times since his passing have you seen things during a game, a score 8-24? There’s been numerous. So last night, I guess they say the total score was 224 [2 for Gigi Bryant and 24 for Kobe] at the end of the game. That was the total of the score.

I feel like the whole city of LA is holding their breath a little bit with the hopes of the team being able to bring the trophy back. And I just think for me, man, just Kobe not being here has a powerful impact on me in terms of how hard I’m going to work. What I want to be able to try to do on a daily basis to bring some energy, do my job at a high level. And I think the team feels that, too.

Have you been able to mourn the way you need to mourn yet?

Probably not. I don’t think so. But not just me, the whole world. People are still in shock. We’re dealing with it. We continue every day, but I really think the whole world is still shocked that this man is not here, shocked that his daughter and all the others … just the whole tragedy. …

I was talking to Dwight last night. Me and Dwight were both here together with Kobe. … I said, ‘Man, how much of a difference is this for you personally from your first time being with the Lakers?’ For him, that’s really redemption, right?

Me personally, I haven’t been able to grieve the way you want to because it’s like you never stop playing. And it seems like when we had a break when COVID hit. So, that steers you in a whole another direction. It was just boom, boom, boom, boom, all these different things. And then we come back to play. So, it’s been one thing after another, man. And I think the best thing that we can do to carry on Kobe’s legacy is really put forth the effort to try to win the championship.

What is the best piece of advice Kobe ever gave you?

Be you. Straight up. You know how Kobe talked, man. He was always like, ‘Man, don’t be concerned what most folks think about you. If you grinding, and you working, be comfortable with who you are. And he was always about that. His advice to people was always like, ‘Man, stop caring about what people think about you. If your heart’s in the right place, and you have a purpose in what you’re doing, do it.’ That’s always stuck with me.

Assistant coach Phil Handy (left) and LeBron James (right) of the Los Angeles Lakers warm up before Game 1 against the Denver Nuggets during the Western Conference finals on Sept. 18 at AdventHealth Arena in Orlando, Florida.

Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

You appear to have the ability to honestly coach LeBron based on the spirited conversations you have occasionally on the sidelines. Can you talk about that?

I know you asked about ’Bron, but even guys like Rondo, man, they’re like basketball savants. They’re so smart, right? Their IQs are high. So, LeBron is one of those guys … I’ve always felt like the best players, they want to be coached. They want to be challenged, too. And I think it’s a two-way street, so our job is to coach. It’s not about necessarily being friends. It’s about coaching the game. Stick to the facts of what it is.

Your older brother, Kevin Handy, passed while you were in here in the bubble. What are you comfortable sharing about that?

Kevin was sick for a long time. He had multiple sclerosis. He was in the early stages of dementia. He had forms of leukemia. My brother had a lot of health issues for many years. He was in a wheelchair. And when COVID hit, he had a stroke. I’m not sure if it was COVID-related or not … but it was like one month after COVID hit and everything shut down. … And so, I couldn’t see him. My sister-in-law couldn’t see him. The kids couldn’t see him. And he was basically in the hospital by himself for like 3½, four months. And he did not recover from the stroke, and it was a hard thing, man, because before we came here, he was OK. I would call him every day, talk to him on a daily basis. Then we came here, and it’s like, maybe about two or three weeks after we got here, he just declined immediately.

I remember one day, my sister just called me and said, ‘You need to call your brother. He might not make it through the night.’ And that kind of messed me up, man. It was hard. And I called him, and I spoke to him, and my sister was like, ‘Well, he’s not talking to anybody.’ But when I called, he spoke, and that was really, really tough for me, man. But I think it’s kind of crazy, the energy I felt from my brother was like finishing what you’re doing. He was always one of my biggest fans, man, just in terms of my career, and so it was hard.

But I think when he passed, man, I think all of us were just one, we were happy he wasn’t in pain anymore. He wasn’t suffering anymore, and that really made me focus even more as to, ‘Why am I here?’ If I’m sacrificing my family, if I’m sacrificing having the opportunity to see my brother before he passes away, I want to make this count.

One thing we all agree upon when I get done here, I’m going to go right to Arizona. We’ll have a service for him, a memorial, and I’ll be able to spend some time with my family.

Do you have NBA head coach aspirations?

Not really. When I say not really, I’m not saying I don’t want to be a head coach. My aspirations daily are just to be the best coach I can be every day. That is my No. 1 priority. And when I wake up, whatever direction Frank Vogel gives me, I want to try to carry those out to the best of my ability. And so, in that, I feel like I’m learning, I’m growing. I’m becoming a better coach. And if the head-coaching opportunity presents itself, I’ll be ready, but it’s not something that I’m looking for.

What do you think about the state of Black NBA coaches right now?

I’ve always said this. How about hiring the guys that are the most qualified? Give the guys that are qualified … give them an opportunity. If you qualify for the job, I don’t care what your skin color is if you qualify, but don’t disqualify me because I’m an African American. Right?

If I’m qualified, give me the opportunity. That’s how I kind of look at that, and I think a lot of people try to make it the Black versus white thing in terms of coaches. Yeah, there’s not as many Black coaches given the opportunities. I just always try to go back to a basic point of: Am I qualified? That’s the question.

You have an app that teaches basketball drills, 94FEETOFGAME. How is it doing during the pandemic?

I think the app definitely helped during COVID. It helped a lot of coaches. It’s still continuing to help a lot of players when you don’t have access to the gym or your coaches or your trainers. That was one of the things that I really tried to do before we got back to playing, was be very active with the app, be very active with kids and just the basketball community in general on a global scale.

Obviously, we’re in the playoffs, so I haven’t put much attention to it, but when the season’s done, we’re really going to ramp up.

You’ve been a part of two NBA championship parades already. So, if the Lakers win, how do you celebrate a title in Los Angeles?

I don’t want to cause no problems, but LA ain’t having that. They having a parade, bro. They did all these marches and protests. These people are having a parade. I could not see any scenario where they would not have a parade in Los Angeles. So, I wouldn’t expect anything less. Like I said, ‘The people who have been protesting and been in the streets for all the social injustice stuff. They are going to celebrate this.’ That’s how I see it. I don’t see it going any other way.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.