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VOL. 132 | NO. 90 | Friday, May 5, 2017

His Team: After One Season, David Fizdale Leaves Fingerprints on Grizzlies

By Don Wade

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The pain of losing his first NBA playoff series as a rookie head coach was still fresh, still raw. The night before, David Fizdale watched as his Grizzlies fell to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 in the first round.

Grizzlies coach David Fizdale learned the ups and downs as a head coach in his first season. But throughout, he pushed the Grizzlies to embrace a "championship culture." 

(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

The season was over. By the next afternoon he was meeting with local media and being asked to dissect a series and a season. But before all that, Fizdale was starting to work on the future, on the next season

“I woke up this morning with incredible energy,” he said.

And so he came to the office early. He started making summer plans for player development, and a list of coaches he wanted to go personally visit. Continuing education and all that.

“Feed my brain and ideas and creativity,” he said. “Try to come back a better coach and a better leader.”

In year one, Fizdale earned high marks for leading from Day One. He began by letting Marc Gasol and Mike Conley know he expected, required, and desperately needed more from his two best players. He never let up and they had the best offensive seasons of their careers.

Gasol was an All-Star and had Conley not gotten hurt, he probably would have been.

“Coach Fizz has motivated me,” said Vince Carter, 40, and a future Hall-of-Famer. “You want to play for a guy like that. He’s put all of us in positions to succeed. Guys had career years. Everybody from Tony (Allen) to Marc to James (Ennis).”

Fizdale arrived from his long-time assistant coaching position in Miami with a vow: All players can develop and improve, not just the young guys. Gasol shot and made 3-pointers like never before and Conley became a true scoring point guard, averaging a team-best 20.5 points per game.

The coach also went to Zach Randolph before the year started and told him he wanted him to play off the bench and become the league’s top sixth man. The big man bought into that and Fizdale wisely has lobbied for Randolph as NBA Sixth Man of the Year ever since.

When he believed his team was getting cheated on calls in the playoff series, he went vocal after Game 2 in San Antonio. He said his players deserved better, said of officials, “They’re not going to rook us!” and ended his postgame presser with a thump of a table and “Take that for data!”

The NBA hit him with a $30,000 fine. His players, and the city, loved that he had stood up for his team.

He couldn’t control everything, however, and it was pretty obvious that playing a gimpy Chandler Parsons was forced on Fizdale from above. But on balance, he was his own man and he was refreshingly honest in an age of vapid coachspeak.

“I just believe in keeping it real,” he said. “I don’t think you need to dance around stuff. I don’t think you need to hurt people’s feelings or insult them or anything like that, but the truth is the truth. And whether that truth is against me or I screwed up or one of my players is screwing up.

“It doesn’t make me right all the time either,” he continued. “I’m not saying that every time I say something it makes it right. But at least you know where I’m coming from, what I think is true at least.”

From the outset he pushed a “championship culture.” Detractors might roll their eyes at that – but Fizdale made clear the goals will be high.

“We’re deep into it,” he said of the culture he’s trying to cultivate. This was perhaps most true for Conley, who found a whole new level to his game.

“What Fizz was expecting from me, he made it known to the team, `I need Mike to be this guy,”’ Conley said. “It was uncomfortable at first, but I think that’s what he wanted – to be pushed out of a comfort zone and find who you really are. That really helped me.”

Fizdale is demanding when looking in the mirror, too. Pressed to give himself a grade for the season, he said, “I’m tough on myself. I probably give myself a `C’ on that one.”

Which isn’t to suggest it was a season of struggle or misery.

“I enjoyed it,” he said. “I like camaraderie and competition and that’s why I do it. People always say do the job you would do if you didn’t get paid. And I’m doing it. I love being in the seat. I love leading. I love being the guy that all the chips fall on when things go bad because that builds character, builds who you are.

“My mom says it all the time, the sun is gonna come up tomorrow whether it goes good or bad. But what you learn from it is the best thing. And there are a lot of things I can learn from this year.”

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