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Working out with Kobe and Gianna

Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy shares his memories of the Bryants

Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy was still so overcome with emotion the day after Kobe Bryant’s passing that he pulled over on the side of the freeway to collect himself.

Handy was a friend and former co-worker of Bryant’s. He also tutored his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and 14-year-old Alyssa Altobelli, who were among the nine people who perished after a horrific helicopter crash Jan. 26 in Calabasas, California.

“The crazy part about it was two weeks ago I was in the gym with Kobe, Gigi and Alyssa,” an emotional Handy told The Undefeated in a phone interview Tuesday. “We had a very current relationship. We were active. We were working on some stuff on the side. I don’t know, man. That part is hard because I feel like my relationship with him was really starting to blossom and go into different areas.”

Phil Handy has worked with Kobe Bryant and Kawhi Leonard during his coaching career.

Phil Handy

Handy, who is in his second stint with the Lakers after beginning his NBA career there as a player development coach under head coach Mike Brown in 2011, said he would not be where he is today without being pushed by Bryant. The former Hawaii shooting guard formed a relationship with Bryant because of their shared work ethic. He went on to join the coaching staffs of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, where he won championships in 2016 and 2019.

Handy shares his memories of Bryant and Gianna.

When I first got the job with the Lakers, Mike Brown said, ‘Your responsibility is to learn how to build a relationship with Kobe and make sure the guys are working on their game.’ I had no prior relationship with Kobe.

The first day of practice when the lockout ended in 2011, I’m there early to work guys out, and Kobe would come out of the locker room, pull up a chair and watch me. He would watch for five minutes and then go back into the weight room. No dialogue. No nothing. He did this for three days straight to see what I was doing, to see if I knew what I was doing.

One day, Brown told me to ref a scrimmage. Boy, was Kobe hard on me. He thought he got fouled on every play. I wouldn’t call fouls. I would say, ‘Keep playing.’ His team was losing and I didn’t think he was getting fouled.

After one of the plays, that man just threw the ball at me. And I was standing there like, ‘Yo, this man just threw the ball at me.’ I picked the ball up and threw it back at him. I did the whole Oakland thing. I am from Oakland and where I come from we don’t do that. I tried to puff my chest out.

Brown was like, ‘Yo, Phil, chill.’ I was hot. I was like, ‘This man threw the basketball at me.’ And then on top of that I was like, ‘Now this man don’t like me.’ But after practice this man came over, patted me on my a– and said, ‘Way to stand up for yourself,’ and kept on moving. I was like, ‘You can’t be testing people like that.’

But ‘B-Shaw’ [former Lakers guard Brian Shaw] told me after I got the job that Kobe was going to test me. If you let him treat you any kind of way, he is going to treat you that way. Whatever he does, if he comes up with some side stuff, stand up to him.’ And when Kobe threw the ball at me that was all I thought about. And sure enough, he was testing me to see if I stood up for myself.

I still hadn’t had a chance to work out with him at that time, but Kobe finally called me one day after practice and said, ‘Meet me at the gym at 5:45.’ Mind you this is 2 o’clock in the afternoon. So, I said, ‘Let’s go.’ So I got to the gym at 5:30 in the evening and waited until 6 o’clock, 6:30, 6:45 and said, ‘Man, this dude didn’t show up.’ I finally get up and go home.

The next day I finally get to practice at 7:30, 8 a.m. This dude comes out of the locker room, ‘Like, yo, what is your problem? You ain’t going to show up for work?’ I was like, ‘I was here. I came last night.’ He was like, ‘Man, I meant 5:45 this morning.’ I looked at that dude like, ‘Oh, s—.’ He said, ‘Be here tomorrow at 5:45.’ And that was how our relationship began.

When I finally got the chance to start working with him, he told me he wanted to get better with his ball-handling and he was always trying to sharpen up his footwork. He gave me a directive and I executed on it.

We had a great relationship because he respected my work ethic. If you had no way to help him compete for championships, he had no use for you.

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“BEAN” your knowledge will never be forgotten! Last summer @kobebryant entrusted me with putting together the 1st Annual Mamba Invitational at the @mambasportsacademy … Here was a legend who was all about details and he left it to me to put this event together with @michelleobeso and many others behind the scenes. This was by far the greatest event I have been a part of in my life. 2 days of pure basketball knowledge on the court in the weight and in the classroom. 20 of our best young players from the @nba were invited to this event. Some who got invited couldn’t attend due to other events and schedule. The ones who were there were truly blessed to get inside his mind and get close to him for 2 days. Beyond any honor I can think of was for him to trust me with executing this event from start to finish. Look at the faces of everyone in that room and how we paid attention to every word. All of us must carry the #mambamentality torch. I will definitely do my part and honor a good friend and legend for the rest of my days on this earth through my work daily. It’s time to start cherishing everything he left us! #kobebryant

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Last year was the first invitation-only camp with NBA players at the Mamba Sports Academy. It was crazy because he trusted me to put the whole event together from top to bottom. I asked him, ‘Kobe, is there certain guys you want there?’ And he said, ‘I only want the guys there that want to be there for the right reason.’ Dudes that want to learn. Dudes that want to work. Dudes that love the game. That was it. Do they have the right mindset for the game, do they respect their craft, are they serious about getting better, and do they want to work?

Kobe was one of those dudes that if you didn’t want to work hard, he had nothing in common with you. Zero. If you weren’t a guy that wasn’t serious about getting better, working hard and hooping, he wasn’t really messing with you.

The first day Kobe took the guys into a classroom and did a chalkboard talk. He went over X’s and O’s, how to read defenses, how to manipulate offenses, how to beat double-teams. It was just a vibrant conversation where guys extracted what they wanted to learn about him. He was showing guys how he watched film and broke down defenses. It was amazing.

Kobe working on his ball-handling skills with Handy.

Phil Handy

I got a lot of favorite memories. Not all good. But what sums up Kobe about his craft was one day he was shooting free throws and when he was working he was intense and locked in. He was about finishing his work and he was locked in. He was shooting his free throws and one of the coaches came down and began cracking jokes with someone. And [Bryant] tore his head off. ‘Don’t you see me working? Don’t come in here cracking no jokes. Do I come to your office cracking jokes when you’re working watching film? Get the f— off the court.’

I’m sitting there like, ‘Sheesh.’ He was serious about his work, man. That is one of many stories. I don’t know if it was a favorite memory, but it always stuck in my head. He don’t play when it comes to his work.

The way he trained? A lot of people didn’t get a chance to see him work behind closed doors. But there was a method to it. He was a maniac. A perfectionist. He tried to perfect as many aspects of the game that he could.

When I got the job in Cleveland, I called Kobe and said right away, ‘I’m going to need your help with Kyrie [Irving]. I know he looks up to you. I want to know if you all right really playing a role in mentoring this dude?’ He said, ‘Absolutely. I love that kid’s game.’ They knew each other at that time, but not very well. I fostered the relationship and said, ‘Look, Ky, I want you to reach out to Kobe. Develop this relationship.’

If you look at my Instagram, there is a video of me and Kyrie getting in the Mamba chopper. We took a trip to Orange County when we came to L.A. and had dinner with Kobe. We had dinner with him for two hours and talked mindset in 2015. When the Cavaliers took a trip to L.A., I set up the dinner with him. And when we were heading back, he said to take the chopper back to the LAX private terminal. I have a video of me and Kyrie walking and getting on the chopper.

Kobe Bryant (left) of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kyrie Irving (right) of the Cleveland Cavaliers share a laugh during their game at the Staples Center Jan. 13, 2013, in Los Angeles.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Kyrie and Kobe built a relationship once I got to Cleveland. We were on FaceTime with him in the locker room after we won the NBA Finals in 2016. He was at home on his couch cracking up while we were popping bottles.

Kawhi [Leonard] was also a fan of Kobe’s. When we won last year, we FaceTimed him and Kawhi just kept joking with him, ‘I’m better than you.’

The two times I won I FaceTimed him and he picked up both times. He would be laughing and saying, ‘Yeah, I see you.’

I remember the first time Kobe called me and asked me to work Gigi out this past summer before I took the job with the Lakers. I took a month off after winning a championship with Toronto. I wasn’t doing nothing basketballwise. He texted me and asked me, ‘Are you free? Where you at? I want you to work Gigi and a couple of her teammates out.’ That was the first time I got back in the gym. He told me, ‘Don’t be easy on them. Treat them like you treated us. They’re hoopers. They’re for real about it. When you come in here, they need all the handle drills, they need everything.’

I just remember working those girls out and they were locked in serious, primed and ready. They had his mentality. He sat and watched the workout and said, ‘That’s exactly what they needed. Anytime you got time to work these girls out, come. … I need you to help out because all those girls kept switching [defensively]. We’re getting stuck. Can you give them some drills to beat it?’

I tried to go when I could. I went a handful of times depending on our schedule. He was serious about it with those girls.

Gigi was reminiscent of her father. She was shooting fadeaways, turnarounds, she was nice. She was a hooper for real. It wasn’t like he was forcing her. She had a love for the game, you can tell.

I don’t know Vanessa that well. I can only imagine the pain she is dealing with. All of us are hurting … but that is her husband. That is her daughter. They have kids. I just been praying for her and the rest of the family. I can’t imagine what she is feeling.

I was in the gym and I worked with a couple of our guys Monday night. I feel like that is my sanctuary. Always has been. Tuesday we had a great workout. The energy was good. I think it was what they needed, too. It was good just to be back around the team and the coaching staff. Everybody just connected and got a sweat in. It was a good day.

Friday’s game is going to be a celebration of Kobe. Celebrating his life, that is where everyone is right now. As you grieve, you try to celebrate the essence of Kobe.

I wouldn’t be coaching in the NBA if it wasn’t for him. When I got the opportunity to take my first NBA job as an assistant coach with the Lakers, yeah, it was a great opportunity to work in the NBA. But my motivation was that I wanted the opportunity to work with Kobe. From a trainer’s standpoint coming from the private sector, that was the pinnacle for me. An opportunity to create a relationship with Kobe? I’m there.

He taught me a lot. As much as Kobe taught players about the game, he taught me a lot. He taught me how to appreciate the game.

My last text with Kobe was Jan. 19. We were working on an app. It was in the beginning stages. We were talking about starting his own Mamba Mentality app. I have the whole layout for it. I was just giving him information and updating him on the whole app world and how powerful his app could be using his mind. He was really interested in being able to tap into that world.

It’s been ups and downs throughout the day. Different waves of emotion. But for the most part, I feel like I have a renewed sense of purpose of what I want to do on top of the things I am already doing.

I just want to be a part of continuing his legacy. There are going to be a lot of people that will do that inside the game and outside the game. It’s not just a basketball thing. I’m just going to do what I feel what Kobe would want us to do. Wake up and work hard every day in whatever you are doing, and just really try to be great at what you’re doing, and perfect your craft. That was what he was all about.