When the 2020 NBA Finals tips off between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat on Wednesday, the series will feature two former University of Hawaii men’s basketball standouts on opposite benches.
Former UH guards Phil Handy and Anthony “AC” Carter are both assistant coaches in this year’s NBA Finals — Handy with the Lakers and Carter with the Heat. Both played for the ‘Bows in the 1990s but their college careers in Manoa did not overlap.
Alika Smith, a former Hawaii standout himself, is the only player who can say he played with both in college. Smith was a freshman when Handy was a senior. After Carter transferred to UH from Saddleback Community College, he formed a backcourt duo with Smith from 1996 to 1998 that is still considered one of the best 1-2 punches in ‘Bows basketball history.
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In Handy and Carter, Smith saw characteristics in both that he believed would make them successful coaches one day. Smith himself coached his alma mater, Kalaheo, to three HHSAA boys basketball titles in the 2010s before taking the girls head coaching job at Waiakea recently. All three were heavily influenced by former UH men’s coach Riley Wallace, according to Smith.
“I think it’s great. Couldn’t happen to two better guys. They played integral parts in my career there at UH,” Smith told KHON2 sports director Rob DeMello. “Coming in as a freshman, Phil really took me under his wing and showed me the way and then having a chance to play with AC, one of the lucky guys that I was, he made me into the player that I was so seeing their success, you know they’ve always had the smarts for the game so this doesn’t surprise me.
“Both their work ethics just playing the game of basketball was astronomical and I learned that from them being a small kid from Kailua playing with these guys, I was very, very fortunate and I think all of us can attest to Phil, AC and myself is we gotta give a lot of thanks to Riley Wallace and how he coached us and how he let us play but those two were, you can see it. AC had an IQ that was off the charts I thought. I always say I played with the best point guard in the nation in those two years. I was very, very fortunate and Phil was just one of those guys too that had work ethic. Everything he did was he said he was going to do something and he did it. I’m just proud of him.”
For Handy, Wednesday will mark his sixth straight finals appearance as a coach after winning rings with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors. For Carter, it will be his first-ever finals appearance as a player development coach for the first team he played for in his NBA. Although Smith will watch with pride in both of his former teammates, he believes the Lakers have the edge.
“I’m hoping for a good series. My prediction is probably the Lakers, just because they’re long, athletic, they’re seasoned and they have a championship pedigree,” he said. “But one thing going for the Heat is they got shooters. Shooters can nullify a lot of that stuff and them not having to travel to Staples Center is a huge advantage.”