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Out of Bounds: Cavs' coach Phil Handy is guided by the game

Cavs asst. coach reveals why he was so emotional
Posted at 11:14 AM, Jul 11, 2016

Basketball fan or not, if you live in Cleveland you probably know who played on the 2015-2016 Cavs team. Their images are on billboards around the city. Their faces are handed out as  fatheads to people around the area but the coaching staff is often much less visible. 

It was not until the Cavs lost Game 2 of the NBA Finals that assistant coach Phil Handy made headlines. 

After the loss, the West Oakland native gave a speech to the team that helped motivate them to bounce back from a 2-0 deficit. 

“Play hard. play hard and compete,” He told them. “Leave everything on the floor and you give yourself a chance to win.”

It was not a cliche speech. He was frustrated. He was disappointed. He was emotional.

“Everything that I said came from my heart,” Handy explained. “It was really meant for our team.”

The heightened emotions made sense. After all, this was the NBA Finals. Handy was part of a team that had the chance to capture the most coveted trophy in basketball, and they were partially chasing that trophy just a few miles from where his own journey began. 

While he was near his beginnings in terms of proximity, he was a world away from where he started as far as his life’s reality. 

“The area that I lived in was predominantly a black and Mexican neighborhood and there was a lot of fighting between the two,” Handy recalled. “I’ve witnessed guys get ran over in the street, a hit and run. I’ve heard gunshots in the middle of the night. I’ve actually had our home broken into while me and my brother were inside the home and they knew we were in the home.”

Basketball was always Handy’s focus. It was always his dream but his family had other plans for his future. 

“My father, very old school. My mother, very old school.” Handy said. “So for me growing up and my brothers, sports was not a way of making a living. It was recreational. So the first obstacle I had was proving to my father that basketball was a positive vehicle for me to do things with my life. “

Handy went undrafted into the NBA after a collegiate career at Hawaii, where he received a scholarship. He had a short stint in the NBA but spent a majority of his career overseas. However, to his own surprise, when his playing days ended, he began to pursue what he know considers his true calling. 

He started training high school, college and professional basketball players. 

“The satisfaction out of helping young athletes, not only on the basketball court, but figure out their lives, helping them understand what it means to work hard on and off the court, that to me was the driving force.” he said 

During a basketball camp he developed a special relationship with a young boy named McKenzie Moore, who came from a broken home. 

“He walked into the gym and everybody in the gym thought he was my son,” he recalled. “I watched him play for two days and he reminded me of myself when I was his age. I mean it was unbelievable. I was actually really drawn to the kid. The relationship just took a natural course.”

“I just took him in.  My wife took him in. We took him into our home and really just tried to help him see that there was another side of life versus what he had been experiencing up to that point,” he added.

Handy’s ability to connect with athletes caught the attention of NBA coach Mike Brown, which led to jobs with the L.A. Lakers and then the Cavs. 

When the Cavs reached the Finals again this past season, Handy, like the rest of the team, wanted to win. It was an opportunity of a lifetime and he did not want to see it slip away.

“We weren’t playing as hard as we could. We weren’t competing as hard as we could.” he said. 

Handy yelled. He pushed. He lit a fire in his players that helped them recover from the deficit and win an NBA title.

“it was unbelievable being able to be a part of the Cavs organization and win the championship the way we did and then to win the championship in Oakland,” Handy said with a smile. 

Handy told me he  feels like he is living a dream.

See, regardless of whether or not Handy traveled near or far on his journey, he never knew exactly where he was headed. Rather, he just followed his heart, which happened to have been filled with an enormous amount of passion and love for the game of basketball.