After the Golden State Warriors demolished LeBron James and Co. in Game 2 of the 2016 NBA Finals, spirits were at an all-time low, both back in Cleveland and in the Cavaliers locker room. Even with their Big 3 finally intact and healthy, the Cavs looked outgunned and overmatched on their way to a 2-0 series deficit. The team’s body language was horrid, with finger pointing and shoulder shrugging after missed defensive assignments, and a total lack of identity on offense. If this wasn’t rock bottom for a Cavs team that finally felt ready to bring a championship to Cleveland, then it was close.
Assistant coach Phil Handy is one of the most visible guys on the Cavaliers staff in putting work in with the players before a game. He can most often be found engaging in a friendly game of one-on-one with Kyrie Irving, something that has become embedded in Irving’s pregame riutal, because it allows the Cavs point guard to fine tune his handles before getting into game action.
Handy, who is from the Bay Area, played college basketball at Hawaii before heading overseas to play pro hoops for eight years. After retiring in 2003, and with love of the sport still burning inside him, he decided to try his hand at training some of the best local prep kids in the area—among them Jeremy Lin and Jabari Brown. After Handy had established a reputation for training athletes at St. Mary’s College, former Cavs head coach Mike Brown hired him as a player development coach when he was hired by the Los Angeles Lakers. He then followed Brown when Brown returned as the Cavs coach in 2013, and he’s been in Cleveland ever since.
According to Chris Haynes of cleveland.com, Handy usually stays quiet, and he’s never been one to stand up and give speeches. But with the Cavs down in the dumps and the NBA Finals slipping out of their grasp, he decided to give a stirring speech before the Cavs packed up and flew back to Cleveland. From Haynes’s piece:
Assistant coach Phil Handy, who happens to be a native of Oakland, erupted with a profanity-laced tirade, questioning their toughness and the lack of fight they displayed on such a grand stage. The players were shocked. Handy is relatively quiet. In Handy’s outburst that lasted a few minutes, his overall message was clear and to the point: You guys were punked and you did absolutely nothing about it.
Haynes reported that the speech was well received, and its effects reverberated through the Cavs’ stepped-up effort and aggressiveness in blowing out the Warriors by 30 points on their home court in Game 3. The momentum of the series swung like a pendulum, and the Cavs looked like a new team, no longer the meek and overwhelmed outfit we saw in the first two games. Handy’s words are at least partially responsible for that.
“He’s an Oakland boy, and we went out to Oakland and got our ass whipped twice,” Cavs forward Richard Jefferson said. “He was pissed off. He has to show up there every day. It means a lot to him, it means a lot to us, and for us to go out there and play the way we did was embarrassing. Look, we personally feel that no team should handle us the way they did the last two games, and it was disrespectful.”
It’s only one game, and the Cavs need to come out with a similar effort on Friday night to tie the series at two games apiece. But for the moment, Handy’s rousing speech waked up his team in a major, major way.