Written for nbl.com.au by Liam Santamaria
When Game 1 of the NBA Finals tips off later today there will only be a few Toronto Raptors with previous experience under the bright lights of the championship series.
Their main man, Kawhi Leonard, was the 2014 Finals MVP while reserves Danny Green and Serge Ibaka have both also been there before.
But there’s one Raptor who has made appearing in the NBA Finals an annual occurrence over recent times.
That man is Phil Handy, the former NBL import and current Toronto assistant coach who is making an incredible fifth straight trip to the Finals.
Handy moved to Toronto last off-season after spending the previous five years with Cleveland, a stint that saw him play a role in four consecutive Eastern Conference titles including the memorable Cavaliers Championship run in 2016.
Now, having moved north to Canada, Handy has made it to yet another championship series.
Five straight Conference titles. Five straight Finals – all of them against Golden State.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling of making it to five straight Finals,” Handy told NBL Media during a phone interview yesterday.
“That’s not something that happens to a lot of coaches and players. So I’m just trying to take it in with a lot of humility. I’m very blessed and humbled to be in this position and I’m just taking full advantage of it.”
Handy played in the NBL with the Melbourne Tigers in 2000-01 before spending the 2001-02 season with the West Sydney Razorbacks.
His pro career also saw him play in Israel, France, Germany, Italy and England where, interestingly, Handy first developed a working relationship with Raptors head coach Nick Nurse as a member of the BBL’s Manchester Giants.
After eventually hanging up his sneakers in 2003, Handy started working in player development. And with a clientele of elite college, European and NBA players – guys like Shawn Marion and Penny Hardaway initially and later Blake Griffin – his reputation as a skills trainer soared.
In 2011, Handy was hired as a development coach by the Los Angeles Lakers – a job that would see him work out one of the all-time greats in Kobe Bryant.
From LA, Handy moved on to Cleveland – where he worked closely with superstars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving – and now to Toronto where he’s played a key role in helping the Raptors make their first trip to the NBA Finals.
“I can’t say that I had a vision of this,” Handy said when asked about his coaching journey.
“I knew when I retired and got into the training business that I wanted to be successful at it. I wanted to be recognised as one of the best trainers in the industry and that was long before I became a coach in the NBA.
“I always just felt like I wanted to work hard at it and have an impact with the game of basketball on and off the court. From there it’s just kind of taken on a life form of its own.”
Known for his competitive fire and high-energy workouts, Handy is full of praise for the Toronto players whom he says have been “phenomenal” to work with this season.
Emerging talent like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell have all elevated their play over the course of the year while the team’s stars have led the squad superbly.
Unsurprisingly, Handy is particularly bullish with his praise for one Fun Guy in particular.
“Kawhi is just a top-rate professional,” Handy explains.
“He’s very, very, very driven in terms of learning the game and continuing to get better. He wants to be successful.
“He’s right up there with Kobe, LeBron, KD – all the top players in the league – just in terms of how he approaches his work every day, how he approaches things with his team and games, he’s at the top. He’s one of the top guys definitely.”
I must give a lot of Credit to Coach Phil Handy who worked with Bron and Kyrie for the past 4 years in Cleveland and now the head development Coach for Toronto this year! Kawhi and Siakam are both playing the best basketball of their Careers!!! ?
— Kendrick Perkins (@KendrickPerkins) May 26, 2019
Of course, if the Raptors are to emerge victorious from this series and claim the franchise’s first ever championship, they will need to beat the odds against a Warriors team that have won three of the last four NBA titles.
It’s a task that has Handy and the Raptors supremely focused and currently operating in something of an NBA Finals bubble.
Which is why, when I spoke to him over the phone on Thursday morning (Australian time), Handy had not yet heard about five-star prospect RJ Hampton’s much-publicised decision to join the New Zealand Breakers next season.
When he heard the news, Handy let out an audible gasp.
“Wow!” he said.
“That’s a great league so that’s going to be a great learning curve for him to prepare him for whatever’s next.
“The NBL is going to be a great experience for him because it’s a very competitive league. To me, it’s better than playing in the NCAA as far as the talent is concerned.”
This is not the first time Handy has big-upped the NBL. In fact, he considers himself something of an ambassador for the league in the States; joining guys like Bogut, Denver’s Torrey Craig and Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown in spreading the NBL message.
“Australia is like a second-home to me. I’ve always been very fond of that league and I’ve made some life-long friends down there,” Handy said.
“I’m always speaking highly of the league and the competition there and just what goes on in the NBL because I do think it’s a very strong league that doesn’t get enough credit.”
Handy’s ongoing ties to Australia have strengthened even further over the past 12 months with his involvement in the Melbourne United Basketball Academy. It’s a relationship he seems to value highly and there are plans for him to return to Melbourne soon to continue that work.
In the meantime, there’s yet another NBA championship to be contested. And while Handy may be very familiar with the NBA Finals scene, he’s nonetheless eager to get things underway.
“This one actually feels a little different,” he said.
“I mean, it’s a new team and a new organisation. It’s my first year here so I’m beyond excited to help create some history here in Toronto.
“Just being a part of this wild ride with this team, I’m extremely excited.”