What does it mean to bring a respected coach yearning for the spotlight in David Fizdale to New York? Fizdale’s Odyssian journey to the Knicks took voyage with the blessing of former ‘Bockers head coach Pat Riley.
Like many residents of the greater metropolitan area, my sad, twisted, and often one-sided love affair with the New York Knicks began in the ’90s. I was 10 when I first started following them during what became their first run to the Finals in over two decades. Nothing like starting off on a high note.
I remember a lot about that team—the fact that they played hard for seemingly every minute of every game, got in guys’ shorts on defense, and generally left opponents thankful to be able to make it back to the locker room in one piece after the final buzzer sounded. The players made that happen, of course—a band of warriors who cared not for common decency. If you lay in their path to victory, they would push you out of the way if they didn’t simply step over the lifeless shell that remained of you.
All of it—every ounce they poured onto the court for 48 minutes—was a walking, breathing, sweating testament to their head coach.
Pat Riley was, quite simply, the f-ing man. There haven’t been many Knicks head coaches to get nostalgic about since he left. Sure, Jeff Van Gundy was a feisty overachiever, but his tenure was defined as much by a lack of proper respect as anything else. Larry Brown, Lenny Wilkens, and Mike D’Antoni all came with accolades…and left beleaguered. Riley, on the other hand, came with ample gravitas (four rings as head coach of the Lakers will do that) and walked out with even more.
Pat Riley was, unquestionably, the last head man the franchise has had who garnered universal respect around the league.
Well, possibly until now.
David Fizdale won’t remind anyone of Riles at first glance. He doesn’t have the slicked back hair (or much hair, for that matter). He rocks the specs; he talks not like a guy who just brokered a multi-million dollar deal over afternoon martinis at Delmonico’s but like a dude who pulls up alongside you and offers to fix that dent on the back of your trunk for a very reasonable price. If Memphis was “Grit ‘n’ Grind” before Fiz got there, they only got grittier upon his arrival.
Yet, as different as the two men seem, when it comes to coaching in the NBA, Fizdale may wind up having more Riley in him than any of us realize. Fans who only know him as the guy who lasted a little more than a season with the Grizzlies don’t know the half of it. True, he was only 50–51 in his time there—not exactly a record that instills confidence—but he of all people is smart enough to know that a sample size so small should never be used to define someone’s coaching prowess. Just look at the man who taught him so much of what he knows.
Almost exactly 10 years ago today, the same Pat Riley who nearly led the Knicks to the promised land stepped down as head coach of the Miami Heat after a putrid 15–67 season, despite having Shaq for half the year and an in-his-prime Dwyane Wade on the roster. Soon afterwards, Riley brought on a 33-year-old assistant who had worked his way up through the college ranks and then with bench jobs for the Warriors and Hawks. The man he hired was a teenager in South Central Los Angeles when Riley’s Lakers were running roughshod over the league, a kid who just hoped to make it through the days alive and not get caught up in the crossfire that literally broke out as he rode his bike down the block.
It wasn’t the first time Pat Riley had hired David Fizdale, of course. Riley gave Fizdale his first break in basketball when he recruited him to work in the Heat’s video room 11 years earlier. Fizdale became a self-proclaimed grunt, learning the ins and outs of the game from the ground up. It was the beginning of a journey that would culminate two decades later in his being hired as the head coach of both the most valuable and most derided organization in the NBA.
“I try to win every game,” Fizdale said when he appeared on the “Vertical Pod with Woj” late in 2016, his Grizzlies 18–9 at the time despite a rash of early season injuries. “Your approach and your mindset is always the same.” It was something David said he learned from Riley.
Many coaches who have come before him in New York have certainly stepped into the job with talk of winning, regaining respectability, and bringing the franchise back to a place it hasn’t been in seemingly forever. None of them have walked the walk that Fizdale has.
There is no telling for sure whether May 3, 2018, will mark the moment that things truly start to turn around for New York or not. A coach, after all, is just a coach. If Pat Riley can lose 67 games in a season, no one coaching next year’s depleted Knicks roster is guaranteed a blessed thing.
What this does mark, however, is a change from the standard way of doing business at a place where organizational accountability is as foreign a concept as appearances in the postseason.
Listen to any podcast or read any article featuring a current or former beat writer for the team and you’ll hear it, references to the oft-mocked, always analyzed “Knicks culture.” No one has ever written the definitive piece on what exactly makes the culture so bad, or where precisely the dysfunction lies, but more than anything, it can be boiled down to one word: loyalty.
Loyalty is why James Dolan, by all accounts, has kept so many of the same people in positions of power over a decade and a half that has featured as much losing as it has embarrassing back pages. It is why Steve Mills, who early last July agreed to $80 million worth of contracts with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Ron Baker, found himself a promotion one week later. Loyalty is the reason that, leading up to yesterday, the smart money said that the Knicks next head coach would be Mills’ classmate from his Princeton days, the accomplished yet controversial David Blatt.
If Blatt had been the guy, regardless of the decision-making process that went into the hire, the thinking would have been that the longstanding organizational ethos had not changed a bit—that Perry, for all his talk of change, was merely an extension of the strings Dolan has been pulling on Mills for years.
Blatt isn’t the guy. Skeptics of a real culture change lost a little more ammunition with this move. David Fizdale has no connection to the team or those running it and isn’t a recognizable name to the casual fan. He’s just a guy who’s worked his ass off to get to where he is and has been dying for a second chance.
It’s one that he never should have needed in the first place.
When the Grizzles fired Fizdale a little more than five months ago, the sentiment around the league was a nearly universal “They did what?”
It didn’t make any sense at the time, and makes even less now. Memphis was 7–12 when Fiz was let go, with wins over Golden State, New Orleans, Portland and Houston twice. They still had the 12th-best defense in the league, not to mention the 20th-best offense despite a limited Chandler Parsons and an injury to Mike Conley—two players who accounted for nearly half the salary cap. They lost 48 games the rest of the way, more than any other team over that span, and sported the second-worst offense and defense for the rest of the season.
The reason for the firing, of course, was because the organization chose the side of star big man Marc Gasol over their coach. It has since come out that the two never really got along, and Gasol’s fourth-quarter benching in what would wind up being Fizdale’s last game was the final straw (you can’t exactly fire a player).
Knicks fans may wonder what this says about Fizdale’s ability to relate to players, but as David Aldridge reported shortly after the firing, the rest of the roster fumed when their head man was let go. Unsurprisingly, he also reported that Gasol—who is notoriously ornery—had a close relationship with the owner who pulled the plug.
On the court, Fizdale’s Grizzlies were a far cry from the archaic squads that proceeded him. They still prided themselves on defense (seventh overall in 2016–17 after falling to 19th the year prior) and drawing out games to their advantage (third-to-last in pace), but they passed it with a purpose (12th in assist percentage, up from 20th) and became a threat from long range (12th in threes attempted and fifth in accuracy, up from 25th and 29th in 2015–16, respectively).
More than anything though, he instantly got buy in from the locker room. Zach Randolph, as much an organizational fixture as anyone, agreed to move to the bench before Fizdale had coached his first game with the team. As Randolph—who had resisted a move to the bench a year earlier—said at the time, Fiz looked him in the eye, told him what was up, and he had to respect it. The Knicks haven’t had someone with that level of rapport with his players in over a decade.
In the end, this hire will only work if Scott Perry and Steve Mills can give their new man more players who can succeed in the modern game. A few are already on the roster, including a certain Latvian with whom Fizdale will reportedly fly to meet in person very soon.
In the meantime, there will be a press conference, and Knicks fans, like we’ve done many times before, will drink the Kool-Aid that comes with any new hire. Just remember that this time, for the first time in a long time, the Knicks didn’t do the thing that everyone expected. They zigged when everyone expected them to zag. They got the guy who talks old school but is as new school as they come.
Maybe, just maybe, history isn’t going to repeat itself.
Take that for data.