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Knicks Insider: Fizdale and The Wizard of Westwood

UCLA coach John Wooden is flanked by Sidney

UCLA coach John Wooden is flanked by Sidney Wicks, right, and Lew Alcindor, draped with the net, after UCLA beat Purdue, 92-72, to win the NCAA basketball title for the third consecutive year, in Louisville, Ky., on March 24, 1969.  Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS


For most of the Knicks players, practicing at UCLA held no special allure other than presenting them a leafy green campus to stroll through in the middle of winter. The days of the school’s basketball program being a powerhouse predates the birth of most of them.

But for Knicks coach David Fizdale, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and went to high school 20 miles from the UCLA campus, there still is something magical about the place.

While the Bruins just fired coach Steve Alford with struggles far less daunting than what Fizdale is enduring, it is the history and legendary coach John Wooden that holds the allure.

“I met John Wooden,” Fizdale said of The Wizard of Westwood. “I was lucky enough my college coach, Brad Holland, was his last recruit to UCLA. I was lucky enough to spend some time with Coach Wooden. I still have his autographed book and one of his cards of his pyramid [of success] and the whole pyramid in my office. I cherish those . . . Obviously, this is a big part of influence on my life and my basketball world.

“I just find it phenomenal, the thought that went into building it. You have to go through some stuff to be able to figure out that that was what’s necessary. I think all coaches take a look at that pyramid to learn from it. It’s all of it, it’s a very holistic approach to basketball.”

Fizdale does live the lessons of praise and attentiveness, which certainly aid him as he endures a nightmarish first season in New York while slogging through a rebuilding season. 

He noted that while he grew up revering Wooden, he never had the opportunity to play at UCLA even though he played nearby.

“Oh, man, I would have had to walk on,” he said. “No, I wanted to play. So I went to [the University of San Diego]. But I got to play against them [at Pauley Pavilion] my freshman year. They beat us. But I got a few minutes. I think I dropped a couple of buckets in there.”

Team building

Watching the 76ers endure the bumps of working Jimmy Butler into the mix — with reports surfacing that Butler was disrespectful in a video session this past week and Joel Embiid voicing his displeasure with a changing role — serves as a reminder that the best-laid plans of rebuilds are easier on paper.

Coach Brett Brown had to "Trust The Process" while losing for years and waiting for talent like this. Now he is tasked with making the pieces fit together.

"What's most — by a mile — lately on my mind is the growth of a team, and the cohesion and the ability to share in somebody else's success," Brown told reporters. "The ability to communicate candidly, to coexist. That's all I care about.

"We're coming together. We have a new opportunity. You don't just click your heels and throw Jimmy Butler in and everybody's going to be playing the same way and style. It [doesn't] work like that. So my job is to grow a team. Ben and Jo, Jo and Jimmy, go anywhere you want. Those [guys] are huge. Playing together is what's always, by a long shot, on my mind."

The issues make the success of LeBron James’ Heat teams with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the Warriors squads with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green all the more impressive.

It also makes you wonder how long that will last for the Warriors. it’s easy to dismiss the blown lead in the overtime loss to the Rockets on Thursday as simply James Harden being James Harden, and the Warriors' defense on the winning three-pointer by Harden with one second left in overtime was as good it could be. So maybe it was simply a night when Harden was going to make shots — he hit 10 threes — and it won’t mean anything.

But it also was the Warriors' sixth home loss and third straight, which is very different from what they’ve done in their recent run of success. The question might not be whether the Warriors are done; it might be this: If they are fading, is there a team good enough to beat them in the postseason?

Friends like these

The Knicks have tried to prod Frank Ntilikina to be more aggressive, and for a moment this past week, they saw a hint of what that would look like. Ntilikina drove to the rim in Utah, and with friend and fellow Frenchman Rudy Gobert bearing down on him, he dunked it with authority before the Jazz shot-blocker could get to him.

“I saw him. It was pretty funny because I ate at his house the day before,” Ntilikina said. “So he says, ‘I feed you and that’s how you treat me?’ That was funny. It was a good play, [but] at the end, we didn’t win. We learned from it and came back stronger the next game. We didn’t win, but we go back and try to get a win.’’

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