In his first head-coaching opportunity, David Fizdale burned out quickly. He lasted just over a season in Memphis as he pushed too hard at a veteran team. Relationships soured and it cost him his job just 19 games into a second season.
But as he completed his first season in his second chance, overseeing the Knicks’ hard-to-watch 17-65 season, there was no danger of repeating those errors. There were few veterans and a season bathed in promises of player development and better days. After high intensity in Memphis, Fizdale managed few wins but did attain a calm, Zen-like demeanor that would have thrilled Phil Jackson.
“I would say the challenge for me this year was always getting myself back revved up to stand in front of them and lead them,” Fizdale said after one final lopsided loss Wednesday night. “It’s a very taxing position, knowing that you’ve got to carry that weight. But it was great for me. Great learning experience.
“The team I had in Memphis were veterans. I went to the exact opposite. So for me, it was really a great experience of learning what guys can pick up fast, how they can learn it, what they don’t pick up. Some of the stuff I thought was great and cute. Some of it didn’t work. It’s good for me to go back to the lab and reevaluate some things and come back next year better.”
Fizdale was relentlessly optimistic throughout the season, refusing to get dragged down or to drag his young team down with the procession of one-sided losses and the constant plummet to the worst record in the NBA.
At times, he seemed to simply deny the obvious. But in the end, he acknowledged the reality and the exhaustion of maintaining that smile through a season that could sour anyone — and threaten a coach’s tenure.
“I would say probably the biggest thing is I can’t be so hard on myself,” he said. “I’m kind of like the young players. I really take it hard. You know you’re going into battle maybe not with all the guns that the teams you’re playing against have, but you’re still so competitive that you know, you think what if I ran this or I could have done this. I really take it home with me . . .
“Going home and beating myself down and having to re-energize myself to jump back in front of the group and get them good, I couldn’t have bad days. I had to really learn how to self-evaluate without it being an absolute beatdown session on myself.”
His résumé may tell you that he can coach a winning team, but his in-game skill set is a mystery in New York. His goals of establishing a defensive style were lost among a rotating cast of characters who struggled to fit together. The offensive system veered from the plans of a fast-paced attack.
What there was little doubt about was his skill as a salesman, enthusiastically promoting the culture of the Knicks as something other than what you saw on the court. It is that skill that will come to the fore now in the summer. The Knicks are facing a massive rebuild, letting most of the roster loose with expiring contracts and intent on chasing stars in free agency.
Fizdale said he will be a part of that recruiting, which certainly will test his sales skills. It’s not just telling a player such as Kevin Durant that he can make a legacy in New York — and that it won’t end up the way it did for Carmelo Anthony — but that it’s worth leaving $60 million on the table to do it.
“It’s the Knicks,” Fizdale said. “Same way they got me. It’s the Knicks, man. I really feel like around the league and I really listen to people when they talk about us, I think people are really excited about the way we’re going about building this and the type of people we’re going to have in our building and the way that we work from a day-to-day basis. I think we’re sitting in a very opportunistic place.”