David Fizdale seeks a deeper purpose as he prepares to return to NBA coaching
After losing jobs in New York and Memphis, he’s got a new view on what’s important
After the game was taken away, he retreated into a shell of pity and shame.
Basketball had been David Fizdale’s entire identity since he got “Hoop Life” tatted on his left shoulder as a teen. Basketball had carried him to college from the bullet-riddled streets of South Central Los Angeles and given him relationships to fill the void of his missing father. It had sustained him through low-paid years at the bottom rung of the Miami Heat coaching ladder and made him a millionaire when he became head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. Then came Madison Square Garden, the mecca of basketball, where as head coach of the New York Knicks he joined two other Black men trying to revive the storied franchise. He had a roster full of puppies and journeymen, but so what? He could win with anybody. He was built for the game of basketball.
Until he went 4-18 to start the 2019-20 season and was fired. Then, for the first time in his life, he had to figure out the true identity of David Fizdale.
The NBA head-coaching carousel is in full swing right now, with Boston and Indiana about to hire new coaches and five more teams looking for new leaders as of Thursday. That means seven fired coaches are at home wondering what went wrong, what they could have done better, or perhaps why they took the fall for a dysfunctional organization or disgruntled star player. It’s easy to write off coaches’ misery while they collect the millions left on their contracts – Fizdale is still being paid on his four-year, $22 million deal with the Knicks. But in the weeks after his firing, enduring sleepless nights in his home north of Manhattan, New York, Fizdale realized the high price he had paid.
Who was he without basketball? How much did ego cause his downfall? Why didn’t helping Miami win two championships fill his cup? Had he ever truly enjoyed being a head coach? And if he ever got another chance at a top job, how would he navigate one of its fundamental conflicts – trying to treat his players like human beings, not just a means to achieve his own ends, while still winning enough games to remain employed?
“I really was at the lowest place I’ve ever been from a mental health standpoint,” Fizdale, 47, said last week. “I thought the lowest point was during the losses. But it was after, when you go through the whole part of, ‘What could I have done different? Did I even deserve this job?’ You think like you were an imposter. You felt like you got over on these people. You’re a fraud.”
Fizdale was sitting on the balcony of his oceanside condo 35 stories above Miami Beach, Florida, with stingrays and schools of fish swimming through the turquoise waters below. His wife and 6-month-old son rested inside. The close haircut he wore on the sideline had grown into a full pandemic Afro. Away from basketball for a year and a half, with a new perspective on his profession, he said he feels ready to return to the game, either as a lead assistant coach, or maybe as a candidate for one of those seven head-coaching vacancies.
“I think I’m at a place now that I see purpose in what I do. A deeper purpose,” Fizdale said.
But how can an NBA coach have a deeper purpose than winning, when if he doesn’t win, he can’t keep coaching?
When the Knicks hired Fizdale in 2018, the franchise did not yet fully understand that it was borderline radioactive. Reality had not set in that under owner James Dolan, who has made more disastrous decisions than playoff appearances since inheriting the team from his father, the Knicks brand was on a FUBU or Phat Farm trajectory – blazing hot in decades past, but ice-cold in the moment. (The Knicks finally made it back to the playoffs this season after an eight-year absence.)
Fizdale wasn’t fazed. Knicks management, led by president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry, told him they were committed to a “patient build.” Mills, Perry and Fizdale were the first trio of Black men to lead an NBA team. “I always thought, ‘Whoever you give me, I can win with them. I’ll figure it out,’ ” Fizdale said. “That’s how arrogant I was.”
And the allure of New York was strong, even for a Los Angeles native who played point guard at the University of San Diego. Maybe restoring hoop glory to the Garden would provide what he thought he would feel in Miami, when he was assistant head coach and the Heat won back-to-back titles. If he won in New York, he might feel something more than relief.
Kristaps Porzingis, a promising but injured Knicks All-Star, demanded a trade and was shipped to Dallas without playing a game for Fizdale. Dolan spun the move as clearing salary cap room for the 2019 free-agent bonanza. Fizdale’s Knicks finished 17-65 in 2018-19, the worst record in the league, which was excruciating for a coach raised in Pat Riley’s winning or misery culture. Dolan, meanwhile, saw a rosy future. “I can tell you from what we’ve heard, I think we’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents,” Dolan said.
Then the Knicks got the Heisman from every premier player. Not only did Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving sign with the Nets, they snatched DeAndre Jordan off the Knicks’ roster and ferried him across the East River to Brooklyn. The best player the Knicks could corral was power forward Julius Randle. Mills and Perry proceeded to sign free agents Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis Jr. and Marcus Morris – all power forwards. Everybody on the roster except Randle was on either a one-year contract or a rookie deal.
To many people around the league, it looked like New York gave up on another season. But with three years left on his contract, Fizdale dove in.
From the start, he struggled with who should play. The vets needed to earn new contracts, but the young guys needed to develop. The 3-point revolution was overtaking the league, but none of the point guards – Elfrid Payton, Dennis Smith Jr. or Frank Ntilikina – shot well from distance. The pieces didn’t fit.
Plus Fizdale genuinely loved his guys, even more so after tragedy struck in the form of three players experiencing family deaths early in the season. He felt like an uncle or even a father figure sometimes. He organized off-court bonding activities and enjoyed hearing what new rap songs the kids played in the locker room. Fizdale felt the weight of every substitution and playcall. That’s the burden of every coach, of course, but in his first season in New York, Fizdale could sacrifice winning for star free agents at the end of the rainbow. Now the rainbow had disappeared, and the pot of gold had turned into boos filling the Garden.
“I loved them, and probably a big part of me wanted them to love me back,” Fizdale said. “I had a very hard time disconnecting from the human being in them. And so I found myself in a conundrum. It was eating me alive every day.”
Then the “patient rebuild” flipped into something else.
With boos cascading down on Dolan in his courtside seat, the Knicks absorbed a 21-point home loss to the LeBron James-less Cleveland Cavaliers, dropping Fizdale’s record to 2-8. Afterward, the media was waiting for Fizdale to arrive at his news conference, but Mills and Perry showed up first. “The team is not performing to the level that we anticipated or we expected to perform at,” Mills said. Not because of the roster, but due to a lack of a “consistent level of effort and execution.”
Just like that, Fizdale was a dead man coaching.
When the end came a month later, most people around the league thought Fizdale got a raw deal. All his coaching friends called him to bash the Knicks, but Fizdale didn’t want to hear it. He sat in the dark, replaying every game in his head like a movie, questioning every decision.
“I probably was too nice to those guys,” he says now of that Knicks team. “I was too wrapped up in what would happen to them if they didn’t play. It was basically the opposite of what I did wrong in Memphis.”
Fizdale arrived in Memphis in 2016 with two Miami titles under his belt as Erik Spoelstra’s top assistant, the endorsement of Heat president Riley, and a reputation for developing great relationships with players while refusing to coddle them. With real talent in Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, Fizdale thought he could compete for a championship.
Black coaches often get jobs that are reclamation projects, lost causes or interim positions. They also are disproportionately saddled with the label “player’s coach,” as if they can relate but not strategize. Almost three-quarters of NBA players are Black, but at the end of this regular season only seven of 30 coaches were Black. There also is a widespread belief that Black coaches get fewer second or third chances than their white counterparts. They never get a chance to be Brad Stevens, who was removed this month as head coach of the underachieving Boston Celtics – then promoted to general manager.
“There are plenty of bad jobs out there that Black guys get to take a crack at,” said Craig Robinson, head of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, who ran the Knicks’ G League and player development when Fizdale was in New York. “But the really good situations, it remains to be seen if Black coaches will get a fair share of those opportunities.”
Memphis was a really good situation. “When he first got here, he was superambitious, super locked into the goal of winning a championship. There was no other goal in place,” said Conley, the point guard on that Grizzlies team.
Fizdale put his stamp on the city and the league in his first season, securing a seventh playoff seed with a 43-39 record. He supported local activists seeking to remove Confederate statues from the city where Martin Luther King Jr. was slain, routinely ending basketball news conferences by saying, “Take ’em down” – an unpopular stance with many fans in Tennessee.
“When you look at the civil rights movement, and a lot of it was here in Memphis, you look at the sacrifices people made. I think Dave looked at it from the perspective of, ‘I have to sacrifice something,’ ” said former NBA player and Memphis native Elliot Perry, who is now a minority owner of the Grizzlies.
In the first round of the playoffs, down 0-2 to the San Antonio Spurs and seeking an edge, Fizdale delivered a classic postgame rant about the referees that included not one but two viral phrases: “They’re not going to rook us” and, “Take that for data!” Memphis lost in six games, but with his distinctive black glasses and Los Angeles accent, Fizdale was now a name-brand coach.
Randolph and Allen, the aging heart and soul of the team, were let go in the offseason. That removed a buffer between Fizdale and Gasol, the max-salary center from Spain who had never liked Fizdale’s demanding style. The Grizzlies began the 2017-18 campaign 5-1, but Conley got injured, Gasol struggled and the team started losing. Fizdale’s relationship with Gasol turned toxic.
“I tried to coach Marc Gasol like I coached kids from the ‘hood, but I hadn’t gained enough trust from him,” Fizdale said in our interview. “I coached him how my high school coach would have coached me, where I tried to tear his ego down to the barest bones in front of the group. I got caught up in my own ego and my emotions, because I was so frustrated with the losing.”
The bottom fell out in a home loss to Brooklyn, when Fizdale kept the franchise player on the bench the whole fourth quarter. With eight straight losses, a 7-12 record and Gasol expressing his dissatisfaction to the media, Fizdale was fired. But the reaction around the league was sympathetic. James tweeted that Fizdale was the “fall guy,” and Fizdale would soon be offered several other top jobs before choosing the Knicks.
The day of his first preseason game with the Knicks, a text message pinged on Fizdale’s phone. It was from Gasol. He apologized for how things ended in Memphis and said he understood why Fizdale pushed him so hard. “Those guys are lucky to have you,” Gasol wrote.
“What [Memphis] taught me is I can still coach guys hard, but I have to know the level I can go to,” Fizdale said in our interview. “I have to coach them with the idea that it’s bigger than basketball.”
Not long ago, at the highest levels of the game, nothing was considered bigger than basketball.
The greatest ever, Michael Jordan, barely acknowledged life outside the game. Jordan’s blueprint was followed by his heir, Kobe Bryant. Riley’s maniacal focus won him nine rings. But when the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 set the Black Lives Matter movement in motion, and James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Heat posted a photo in support of the slain teenager, a new understanding took root.
Fizdale came of age as a coach during this shift in consciousness. But it didn’t really become personal until the game was taken from him in New York and he was forced to consider: “Am I the person who was the hottest coach on the market, and then couldn’t win a game? I was a champion a couple years ago, but now I’m terrible? Who am I in all of this?”
A few months later, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Bryant and his daughter Gianna died. Ahmaud Arbery was killed, Breonna Taylor was gunned down, then a cop murdered George Floyd. As millions protested in the streets, Fizdale’s wife, Natasha, started feeling unwell. They had been planning to begin fertility treatments, but to their surprise, during Fizdale’s lowest months, she got pregnant.
As this current season ramped up, several coaches asked Fizdale to be their top assistant. But the pandemic was raging and his wife was carrying their son. Fizdale told her he was going to sit out the season.
When Maximilian Sol Fizdale was born on Dec. 2, 2020, everything clicked into place. Fizdale has an adult son from a previous relationship, but he wasn’t able to spend time with him as a youngster. Maximilian was joy beyond winning, success that didn’t come at the expense of the losing team. This was a person who had no idea he was a basketball coach. Without even thinking about it, Fizdale stopped drinking his beloved red wines – he wanted to be as present as possible for every moment. He hasn’t taken a sip of alcohol since Maxi’s first day on earth. Not long ago, Fizdale coached as a means to an end. The end was victory, recognition, money and all the other validations of the NBA coaching fraternity. He coached for James or Wade to point to him during the game after scoring on a move he taught them. He coached to go toe-to-toe with Gregg Popovich in the playoffs or save the Knicks from purgatory.
But when you love your son no matter what, not as a means to an end, then maybe you can coach for the simple fulfillment of helping young men realize their dreams. And when you are stripped of your lifelong identity, when the game that has given you everything is taken away, you can understand that coaching players through their failures, as they lose playing time or points or contracts, is a necessary part of their journey.
“I want to come back to the game with my mind totally on service,” Fizdale said. “Service without means to an end. I’ve never coached that way before.”
That sounds wonderful, in theory. Like something you’d hear in college. In the NBA, coaching without winning means a quick end. Fizdale recognizes the conflict. He isn’t quite sure how he’ll manage it. But too much has happened to him, and to the world at large. A page has turned. “Anybody in the NBA who says that players aren’t their means to an end are lying, and you can put that in that article,” he said. “We fool ourselves into thinking that we’re doing it for this guy, we really care about this guy, it’s all about the team and the culture. But if we’re really, deeply honest with ourselves, most of us have coached this game, GM’d this game, president-ed this game, played this game with a means to an end floating in the background.
“Now that I’m aware of it, I’m going back knowing that I can recognize it when I’m doing it, and I can stop it. It ain’t about me no more. I’m coaching to help this kid get better, and I don’t care if I get credit or not. It’s about my time with this kid and providing the space he needs to improve as a man, and as a player. And that’s it.”
Conley thinks it can work. Even at the ultimate level of basketball, with so much money, fame and power at stake, he believes coaches can have a higher purpose than winning.
“I think you can do both: You can grow kids into men while teaching them to be good husbands and brothers and sons,” Conley said. “I think that’s the most important thing you can get out of good coaching – are you a better person when that coach leaves or you depart to a new team? What Coach Fizdale is trying to accomplish is tangible.” As tangible as the softness of a baby’s skin. Fizdale is happy now, with the ocean breeze blowing through his balcony and Maxi about to wake up from a nap. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been happy coaching before,” he said. “I really haven’t, because I didn’t understand. I was always chasing this image that everybody else told us we had to be. I was always chasing to be Pop, or Pat. Could I catch them in wins? Could I be a Hall of Famer? I was always chasing this invisible GOAT. But I think people abuse the word ‘competitor.’ You can still be a monster competitor without your life hinging on it.”
Basketball likes to measure success in terms of wins, rings, points and dollars. If we learned anything from 2020, it should be that the beauty of basketball comes from what it reveals, not what it provides.
“I’m just going to keep leaning into the idea of being a human first and being a coach second,” Fizdale said, “and see where that takes me. That’s where I think I’ll find winning.”