Kyrie Irving has become one of the most well-respected guards in the NBA. Everyone knows he’s box office, and, when given the opportunity, he’s one of the most clutch players in the league. However, during his early NBA years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Irving wasn’t very welcoming of every coach that came to Cleveland. In fact, this even led to him giving one coach a bad number so he could try to avoid him.
That was until Kobe Bryant got involved.
Kyrie Irving tried avoiding Phil Handy on the Cavs
The Cavs drafted Kyrie Irving with the first pick in the 2011 NBA draft, and he became a star in Cleveland. He won the 2011-12 NBA Rookie of the Year award and was an All-Star in just his second season.
However, the Cavs weren’t very good as a team. They went 21-45 and 24-58 in Irving’s first two seasons, which led to them parting ways with head coach Byron Scott. Irving then had his second coach in just three seasons when the Cavaliers hired Mike Brown, who was also their head coach when they went to the finals with LeBron James in 2007.
With Brown came Phil Handy, an assistant coach who has been on the Cavs, Los Angeles Lakers, and Toronto Raptors’ staffs. And Handy essentially said that Irving wasn’t too welcoming when he first got there.
“Ky was slippery, bruh; he was slippery,” Handy said on the June 17 episode of All The Smoke. “When I first got to Cleveland, man, Ky tried to hit me with the bad phone number and not answer the calls. He was slippery, and rightfully so. He didn’t know me. … I did one workout with Kyrie, and then he disappeared, gave me some number that he never checked.”
Irving’s agent did not respond to a request for comment prior to publishing in regards to Irving giving Handy a bad number.
Handy, who had a good relationship with Kobe Bryant, then decided to reach out to the Lakers legend.
“I knew he respected Kob, and Kob really liked his game, and so I just hit Kob one day,” Handy said. “I said, ‘Look, man, I need you to mentor this kid. Like, I really need you to go and, if you’re OK with it, give him some energy.’ He was like, ‘Bet; I got you. I like him.’”
Handy then said he flew to Miami to finally talk to Irving, and he told him to call Bryant.
“He did, and they went off to the races,” Handy said.
Kyrie built a strong bond with Kobe Bryant
Irving and Bryant ultimately formed a tight connection after that.
The point guard even discussed what the Lakers legend meant to him after Bryant’s 2020 death.
“I had that mentorship relationship with him, where I was able to ask him almost anything,” Irving said in 2020, per ESPN. “You know, no matter how nervous I was or how fearful I was, he was just easy to approach with those type of questions about what goes on in the day-in and day-out basis of chasing something that’s bigger than yourself and when you’re trying to leave a legacy or something of a mark on a game.”
According to Handy, Irving’s mindset shifted after he started working with Bryant.
“Kob really took him in, and Ky, man, just bought into the work,” Handy said. “That changed his whole approach to the game, and [helped him] just understand how to take care of his body. … But then challenging him to understand what the work means for your game. And once he saw that, it was over. He just took it to a whole other level.”
Another level, indeed.
Kyrie Irving has become one of the best players in the NBA
Working with Bryant eventually helped Irving become one of the best players in the NBA.
He went to three consecutive NBA finals with LeBron James and the Cavaliers from 2014-15 through 2016-17 and was a massive reason why they won the title in 2015-16. He ultimately hit the game-winning shot with less than one minute left in Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors that year, and had several big performances throughout that series.
Irving has earned seven All-Star selections in his career and has averaged over 20.0 points in all but two seasons. The 2020-21 campaign was also arguably Irving’s best, as he averaged 26.9 points for the Brooklyn Nets, a career-high in a season where he played in more than 20 games. He also recorded 6.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and shot a career-high 50.6% from the field.
Irving may have wanted nothing to do with Handy at first, but the coach’s connection to Bryant ultimately paid dividends for Irving and his career.
Irving is now an NBA superstar.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference