He is a classic Connector, to use the phrase by Malcolm Gladwell, describing people that seem to know everyone, or at least people in vast and different groups, who have the knack of becoming friends with just about anyone. But David Fizdale finally got in front of the right people last month, when the Memphis Grizzlies hired the Miami Heat’s 41-year-old assistant for his first NBA head coaching job, giving him a four-year, $10 million contract.
Fizdale has been working toward this for the better part of two decades, from playing in high school in Los Angeles at Fremont, to playing college ball at the University of San Diego, spending his first year out of school as an intern for the Heat in the video department (1997-98), then coaching at San Diego and Fresno State before joining the NBA full-time as an assistant in Golden State under Eric Musselman in 2003-04.
Fizdale On Why He Chose Memphis
David Fizdale explains why he chose the Memphis Grizzlies for his first head coaching job.
He then went to Atlanta, spending four years on Mike Woodson’s staff (2004-08), before re-joining Miami in 2008 with coach Erik Spoelstra. He is renowned around the league for his ability to communicate with and challenge players from rookies to stars like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
In Memphis, Fizdale faces an uncertain roster, with point guard Mike Conley an unrestricted free agent, and the Grizzlies needing to decide if they can still play the Grit-N-Grind style that’s gotten them to the playoffs six straight seasons behind Marc Gasol, Tony Allen and Zach Randolph. While Fizdale may not be known around the country (this was, um, an unfortunate greeting for the new head man by the local paper), he has been an up and comer for the last few years. Now, he has a chance to finally connect his ideas and work ethic to a team from that most important seat on the bench.
Me: I did a story last week on what it’s like to interview for an NBA head coach job. What do you think you’re better at now when interviewing than when you did it the first time?
David Fizdale: I had never interviewed before. This time was really my first time.
Me: Is that right?
Grizzlies New Head Coach, David Fizdale
David Fizdale is introduced as the new head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies.
DF: This was really the first time I’d interviewed for anything. I’m talking about in my life. Every person I have met along the way, the craziest thing ever, I have basically already had the job. It was more of an introduction, let’s get comfortable. Even with Woody, I didn’t even know Woody. Chris Grant (then the assistant GM in Atlanta) introduced me to Woody. I flew out to Utah and met Woody. We sat down for five minutes. He said, ‘listen. Be loyal, work your butt off, and I’ll look out for you. You’ve got the job. Any questions?’ I said, uh, no. And Muss (Eric Musselman) was the same way. Spo got the head coaching job in Miami; that was done already. It wasn’t an interview. I just walked in and Spo said ‘okay, this is what I can give you, Fiz, and I really want you here.’ And it was over. All the other ones I had turned down. Portland I had turned down, and Philly fell through. This was the first time I walked into the office with the GM and all of the big people. Honestly, I didn’t know what to prepare for. I just wanted to be solid in what I knew and be able to connect what I knew with their organization. That’s what I tried to do more than anything else. I took the culture, the system, my personality, and I looked at their team and what they’re about to go through with free agency, and I attacked it from that standpoint. I only had 24 hours. They told me after we lost to Toronto, they were like, we want to bring you in right away. I basically pulled a college night, did an all-nighter with Spo and a couple of guys from the Heat, video guys, and Spo’s assistant. We went in and prepared like it was a playoff game. I just went in there and put my best foot forward, and it worked out. I guess I was speaking the language they wanted to hear.
Me: You and James Borrego were teammates at San Diego. Was it difficult to go up against him for the Grizzlies’ job?
I just got to the point … after about five years, I said I want to coach the best of the best. It finally hit me. I want to coach the best talent and see what could come of that, what that would feel like. And I was lucky. I landed in Miami with the best.
– Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale, on college vs. the NBA
DF: It was. But the first call I made after I got the job was to him. No matter what in my lifetime, I’m going to, in every way I can, I’m going to look out for him and his family, because that’s what they are to me. That part was hard for me because I kind of held back his dream a little bit. But that’s why I had to make sure, when I got off the plane and found out that it was done, he was my first phone call. I was like, ‘how can I help you with Houston?’ He’s like a little brother to me. I coached him in college. That was the part that was tough, because I know how much he wants to be a head coach. He has such a passion for it. The guy can coach. He proved when he took over (on an interim basis after the Magic fired Jacque Vaughn last season) in Orlando. But I went after it. I saw some stuff that I liked.
Me: What did you like?
DF: I liked the possibilities. For a guy in my position, young assistant, never coached before, most of the time it’s a total rebuild. You have to go through a really tough situation. It’s some ifs there, I know, but the high ends of the ifs are awesome — if we can get Mike, if Marc Gasol comes back healthy. And if I can put Tony (Allen) and Zach (Randolph) in a position to just be themselves. All of those guys have the talent to score, to make plays for each other, to draw double teams. I’m like, if I’ve got that, and these guys are seasoned, they’ve been to six straight playoffs, if we can get some pieces around them, this is a team I don’t necessarily have to start from scratch with. That was appealing to me. I knew people that knew (assistant general manager) Ed Stefanski from the 76ers, and I obviously knew (GM) Chris Wallace from the Heat. Chris Wallace hired Spo as his video guy in Miami. It’s very rare that, coming from the Heat, I was going to go somewhere where we actually had a connection with the front office.
Fizdale On Grizzlies Veterans
David Fizdale explains that he’s looking forward to working with the Grizzlies’ veterans.
Me: You’ve been an assistant for teams that were at interesting patches. You were in Atlanta under Mike Woodson when the Hawks were just starting to develop a young core that made the playoffs for the first time in a long time, and they’ve continued to be a playoff team ever since. What did you pick up from Woody during those years?
DF: With Woody, it was establishing a culture with a bunch of young guys, with no one else there who had helped him establish culture, nobody there who had started building a foundation. He really started from scratch. I not only learned about establishing a culture with him, but I learned a lot about myself going through tough years as an assistant, and really, it’s hard. Like Philly. That’s not easy for coaches to go through that type of situation. Because coaches want to coach to win and compete to win and have a chance to make the playoffs.
I commend Brett Brown and Lloyd (Pierce) and those guys. ‘Cause I’ve been in that situation. That’s not an easy situation. Brett’s already been to the pinnacle of this thing, making Finals. That stuff is hard. I learned about myself, and how important this business is to me, and being a good coach. I dove into the craft part of it and I tried to make the players as good as I could. I tried to learn my craft, and study Woody. I mean, Woody, Larry Drew, Herb Brown, Bob Bender, those guys had been places and done things.
It was like Pat [Riley] went through every aspect of the organization with a fine tooth comb and said, ‘is it about winning or not winning?’ I just focused on what mattered to him, and the little things mattered to him. I just soaked that up. And I was like, this is great. This is what I’ve been looking for.
– Grizzlies coach David Fizdale
Woody, I can’t explain how good he was to me. He hired me, and when he felt it was time, he moved me to the front of the bench. For him to do that, for a guy that he didn’t know when he first hired him, that meant a lot to me. That’s not easy, man. You usually go with guys that you know, because I’m going through the process of hiring. You try to go with guys that you know, guys that you trust, guys that have your back … I couldn’t trade that in. When he was going through that whole process, in an amazing way, he just found a way to move to the next day and treat people back to square one like nothing happened.
He and Josh Smith used to go at it. But somehow he would always find a way to get back to Ground Zero with Josh, and just give Josh a fresh start every day. He really could just push reset and say ‘okay, Josh, let’s go. New day. I wanted to kill you yesterday, but today I’m going to coach you.’ You learn from that when you’re a young coach … to be around Larry Drew, a veteran assistant. LD is one of those cool and collected guys, but he worked like a guy that didn’t play in the NBA. I love when ex-players are just grinders, like Juwan (Howard) and Chris Quinn. They do the film, they do all the film work like a video guy. I love those guys. That’s how Drew was.
Herb Brown is like a basketball icon. What’s the saying — he’s forgotten more than I’ll ever know. That’s how Herb was. He was like an angel on my shoulder when I was coming through there. Young fella, come here; young fella, come here. ‘When you have your own team;’ that’s what he always told me … I’m glad I went through that, because it made me respect success a lot more and respect what somebody has to go through to get to the top.
Me: Then you went to Miami, just around the time the SuperFriends came together. That was an unending challenge to the Heat’s coaching staff, starting with Erik Spoelstra. What lessons did you learn those first couple of seasons, in a place that had already won championships and where the expectations were always high?
DF: That was a reward. We fought our way to the playoffs that year [in 2008 with the Hawks], and finally got to play Boston and made the eighth seed and pushed Boston and went to seven games. I had actually been offered. Cleveland tried to bring me in. The Hawks turned them down. Mike Brown wanted to hire me to work with LeBron in player development … when I went to Miami, I had already had a little taste with Miami with the year in the video room as an intern.
I had an idea of what I was getting into. It wasn’t like I was flying blind. I knew what the expectations were. Everything was championship or bust. I had suffered so much, and I finally got a taste of the playoffs. When I got to Miami and got a taste of it, I mean, Spo was my best friend. There was so much extra why. There was so much more incentive on why to work harder, why to study more, why to develop. Everything was in place. I just decided to dive in and learn from these folks. It was so seamless, it was like I had been there all those years. I just hit the ground running. Ron Rothstein, Bob McAdoo, Keith Askins, those dudes just let me into the family with no bumps. It was very seamless. I loved the accountability.
After going through what I had went through, just the whole idea of organizational accountability to winning a title, that felt good to me. We’re all going to wear the same colors every day. Coaches, we’re not going to be wearing random shirts. That’s something that I’m going to be taking to Memphis. We’re not going to wear a random uniform. We’re going to be connected through what we wear. Just everything, every detail. It was like Pat [Riley] went through every aspect of the organization with a fine tooth comb and said, ‘is it about winning or not winning?’ I just focused on what mattered to him, and the little things mattered to him. I just soaked that up. And I was like, this is great. This is what I’ve been looking for. Especially the fact that Spo was like, look, coach. Go to work. I’ll guide you through it, but I’m not holding you back. You can coach on the floor. As soon as I walked in there, I was stopping practice. Here I am, a newcomer in Miami. And he handed Dwyane Wade to me and said ‘teach him how to post up.’ I mean, how nice is that? You’re just going to hand me a guy who I know I can teach to post up, and now people are going to say ‘that guy taught him how to post up?’ Come on, man. I think my mom could have taught D-Wade to post up, with that body. But it was handed to me.
Me: How does an assistant on a team like that, where the head coach’s voice has to carry and resonate if the Alpha Males on the roster will listen to him at all, develop his own voice?
DF: My agenda stayed about winning. I just kept an agenda of how do we win a title? How do I help Spo? That’s all I cared about. I always said ‘if we win, we all will profit.’ So forget about the profit part of it; let’s just win and the rest will take care of itself. I just focused on that part of it all the time. I dug in a trench with Spo. You’re talking about the biggest egos. If they think they’re right, they’ll dig in. And if Spo is right, I needed to be that extra weight to pull the scale. And, look, if he wasn’t right, I didn’t just jump in with him. But at the same time, I didn’t bail on him and sell him out to the guys. Spo and I had one of them relationships where we could be honest. And we were brutally honest with each other. That’s what made it great.
Fizdale On Grizzlies Offense
David Fizdale speaks to the media about what he wants out of the Grizzlies’ offense.
There were times during The Finals where we were like hating each other. But we knew we were pushing each other to the answer. It didn’t matter that we were tearing each other’s faces off; at the end of the day, we were going to have the answer and we were going to win. When LeBron and them came, we knew we were going to meet resistance. That was just what it was going to be. You’re trying to get all of these egos to share, just put everything aside for winning. And that wasn’t going to be easy, especially the first year. You saw how we started; we were 9-8. And everybody was making comments about Spo’s job, and Pat was going to take over. In our organization, we don’t panic.
That was the beauty about the Heat; Riley didn’t panic. You see sometimes these teams panic and fire a guy because they’re feeling pressure. Pat said ‘I’m not coaching this team. Spo is fine. I watch him work every day. They’re busting their humps; the habits are going to get there. And they’re going to take off.’ And as soon as he said that, we won 21 of 22. That was the one thing that was really awesome about being a part of that culture; no, we’ve got each other’s backs. We’re going to dig in and we’re going to figure it out. We’re not going to turn on each other; we’re going to support each other. We’re going to lift each other up. And that was what was so awesome about it. It really was an organizational approach to winning a title.
And it didn’t matter if we had LeBron or not. That was the best part about it. And so I hope the folks in Memphis hear me when I’m saying: I deeply believe we’re going after a title. That’s the bottom line. I’m not signing up for anything less. That’s in my DNA. These guys, they’d be ashamed of me if I went into a season preparing to be anything but a champion. I’ve got a legacy to hold up. I’m part of a tree now. That’s real to me. It’s meaningful. That means a lot to me, that people say I’m part of Pat Riley’s tree, and I’m part of Erik Spoelstra’s tree.
Me: Memphis has not traditionally been a destination for free agents. I read where you didn’t really like recruiting when you were an assistant in college. How do you reconcile those two issues now that you’re one of the key faces of the Grizz franchise?
DF: Ask Mike Conley if he’s being recruited. I didn’t say I wasn’t good at it. There’s a difference.
Fizdale On Mike Conley
David Fizdale talks about the importance of Mike Conley to the team.
DF: The hard part that I didn’t like about recruiting in college was, there was so many regulations. So many rules. It was so many layers to it in the recruiting that I just got fed up with it. I was like, here I am kissing some 17-year-old’s butt, he’s my fourth option, but I have to keep him on the line because I’m at some small mid-major, or a mid-major. I’m just waiting to see who takes my other guys. I just got to the point … after about five years, I said I want to coach the best of the best. It finally hit me. I want to coach the best talent and see what could come of that, what that would feel like. And I was lucky. I landed in Miami with the best. I don’t know how that worked out, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do, and it worked out.
Me: So, how was it to try and defend Steve Nash in college?
DF: A nightmare. You kidding me? Even in college, he was a pain in the butt. He was so fundamental. He was always on balance. He could shoot the hell out of the ball. He could pass the hell out of the ball. It was a few plays where he made me look silly. I won a few of those plays, but he made me look silly a few times. The thing I always respected about Steve was his humility. Even in college, after the game, he was like, ‘man, I don’t know how I got that off on you.’ He was just always so humble about whatever he did, and he always credited other people. And he was no different in the MVP years. He was just so damn humble. You’ve got to respect somebody like that. When we see each other, it’s like we’re back in college again. Two young guys, we came up through this game from different paths, but just a high level of respect for each other.
Me: But you did lead the conference in assists that year.
DF: I think that should be noted, that with the MVP, one of the greatest passers ever, in our senior year together, he was a gunslinger and I was dropping dimes. I want that noted out there when he gets a hold of that.