From the outside, it certainly didn’t look very good.
David Fizdale, known as a players’ coach and a rising star, was fired by the Grizzlies less than two years into his first head-coaching job after feuding with All-Star Marc Gasol. It didn’t matter that Gasol, then a 32-year-old star on the decline, is one of the hardest types of players to coach. It was Fizdale’s job to learn how to motivate an aging player with a max contract, and he failed.
Yet Fizdale was able to parlay this failure, his lowest professional moment, into a big win and land one of the most coveted jobs in sports. On Tuesday, at his introductory news conference at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks coach explained what he thought had gone wrong between him and Gasol and how he believes it will help him grow as a coach and a person.
“I really take ownership of that. We didn’t necessarily click on things,” he said of Gasol. “That’s my responsibility as a coach to get players to buy in, collaborate, come together. For whatever reason, we bumped heads. But I took that to heart. My wife can tell you better than anyone.”
Fizdale, 43, may still be considered a young coach, but he has learned a very middle-aged lesson. So much in basketball, and in life, is about how you pick up the pieces, about learning from mistakes. When he was fired last November, Fizdale launched that process by reaching out to many people for advice.
“I’ve been meeting with some super leaders from all industries and all walks of life and getting their feedback on how to manage and deal with different situations and really try to dive into being better and growing from the situation,” Fizdale said. “I’m really tough on myself. I self-reflect, which is not always easy, to look at the mirror and say you were part of the problem. I hopefully can improve on it and apply it to this situation.”
What happened in Memphis was a big part of what Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry discussed with Fizdale while interviewing him. Both said they were impressed with his accountability.
“We all hit adversity,” Mills said. “It’s how you learn from it, how you deal with it.”
You have to admire a guy who figures out how to turn an ugly firing into a selling point. There were certainly signs Tuesday that Fizdale, despite his problems with Gasol, is a savvy people person who knows how to motivate. After thanking Knicks players Kyle O’Quinn, Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke and Lance Thomas for attending, Fizdale paused, looked at Mudiay and said: “Mudiay, we’re going to get to work here. We’re going to get you right.”
There was something oh-so-Pat-Riley in that moment, in the way Fizdale both called Mudiay out for not being what he should be but also dangled a carrot in front of him as motivation. There was also something very Riley-esque in his effusive praise of Kristaps Porzingis, whom he might not even get a chance to coach for a full season as he recovers from knee surgery.
“The best way to describe him is he’s the future of the NBA,” Fizdale said. “Look around who’s playing right now. They’ve all got guys super long, super athletic, super skilled, super tough-minded. He fits all of the qualities of a megastar and a guy who can really propel a franchise forward to high places.”
Fizdale, who came up in Riley’s Heat organization and was an assistant on two of its championship teams, seems to understand that you don’t treat players equally. Riley and Jeff Van Gundy, the only coaches in the past 45 years to get the Knicks to an NBA Finals, were masters at knowing whom to stroke and whom to stoke.
Both took time to figure out how to motivate certain players, then got them to accept certain roles and do what is best for the team. It’s how Van Gundy was able to get John Starks to accept being a sixth man after Don Nelson couldn’t. It’s why Riley and Van Gundy constantly publicly praised Charles Oakley, who wasn’t always happy about getting second billing to Patrick Ewing.
You can bet when Fizdale flies to Europe to see Porzingis — a trip so close on the horizon that he joked there was a plane waiting for him to finish the news conference — that he is going to say all the right things. It doesn’t matter that it hasn’t been determined whether he is a durable enough superstar to build a team around. Fizdale is not going to butt heads with the best player on the team.
Not this time.