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VOL. 131 | NO. 111 | Friday, June 3, 2016
Don Wade

Don Wade

Fizdale May be Right Mentor at Right Time for Grizzlies

By Don Wade

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The press conference in the interview room at FedExForum for new Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale had just ended. Seated in the front row were his wife, his mother and his son.

I walked over to 23-year-old Kyle Jackson and introduced myself. And in the ensuing 1 minute and 32 seconds I had up against the shot clock before the Grizzlies’ public relations staff whisked the family members away, I asked a few questions.

What was growing up with your father like?

“He is my best friend,” the son said. “But at the same time, he’s really hard on me all the time. He held me to the highest standard, but I didn’t mind too much. It made me a better person.”

Can you give me an example?

“I do music now. He pushed me to do it. Every day, I’m making beats or whatever and he tells me, ‘Still not enough, still gotta keep going, you gotta master your craft.’ He gets on my case every single day.”

Seems like there’s a theme here; so, is he encouraging with the way he does that?

“He makes me feel like I matter, know what I mean?”

There it is, the money line. He made him feel like he mattered.

Fizdale, a longtime assistant coach under Erik Spoelstra with the Miami Heat, and on board for the NBA title runs with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, arrives in Memphis with the reputation as a so-called player whisperer.

Both superstars and role players have praised his ability as a communicator. But when the man’s son tells you he pushes him in his music the same way that he pushes players, it feels like in every setting Fizdale has the ability to strike the right note.

First impressions can be wrong, we all know that. But my first impression of the Grizzlies’ rookie head coach is that he will, at minimum, be strong where predecessors Dave Joerger and Lionel Hollins were sometimes weak.

We can talk all we want about offensive style and the ability to draw up plays during a timeout, but if the NBA head coach cannot motivate his players and ride through the tough times to a return to better times, none of that matters.

Fizdale says he has talked to almost every player on the roster – including free agent Mike Conley – and that he will be flying around to meet every guy on his home turf.

“All those conversations were just great. It’s new, and c’mon, it’s always exciting in the beginning,” Fizdale said of his initial chats with players. “They’re not gonna like me at some point; I’m ready for that, I get it. Because I’m gonna have to be that guy.”

He also seems to be realize he is that guy coming into an existing culture with a lot of traction. Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen became the Core Four years ago. Grit ‘n’ Grind predates David Fizdale and he had no part in the six straight playoff runs here.

So, the 41-year-old first-time head coach needs to know his place. At least at the outset. And especially if the Grizzlies look a lot the same come opening night.

“It’s going to be a collaboration, especially with the four guys, our legacy guys, our backbone guys,” he said. “They have to be the frontrunners in this deal.”

Chalk all that up to happy press conference talk if you want. There’s certainly an element of that in there. But when Fizdale says he rejects the idea that older players can’t improve, he actually does it in a way that makes you think he believes it.

And when you listen to his son, you get the idea that Fizdale can squeeze just a little bit more out of the old dogs that Grizzlies fans so love, and that he’s the right guy at the right time.

What did the son say again?

Oh, yes, that he was hard on him, that he held him to the highest standard, and that he made him better.

Sounds rather like a leader, doesn’t it?

Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.

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