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David Fizdale: ‘With time, people will see that it is a different New York Knicks’

New coach talks about righting the ship, Kristaps Porzingis and LeBron James leaving the East

LAS VEGAS — David Fizdale stood proudly outside the marquee at Madison Square Garden as photographers snapped pictures after his introductory news conference as the new head coach of the New York Knicks in May. One of the photographers, perhaps a long-suffering Knicks fan, yelled out some words to welcome Fizdale to New York.

“The first day I did a press conference, we go outside to take a picture in front of the marquee and one of the photographers says to me: ‘Good luck, coach, you’re gonna need it.’ Just right out the gate, and I’m like, ‘Oh, thanks, man. I appreciate it.’ Welcome to New York. It was cool though,” Fizdale said. “Just excitement and honor. I’m kind of a basketball romantic, and from the standpoint of that it’s the Knicks. They trust me to try to right the ship. It means a lot to me.”

Fizdale landed his first head coaching job with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2016 after winning two NBA titles with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat. Fizdale coached Memphis to a first-round playoff berth against the San Antonio Spurs during his first season. The Los Angeles native, however, was fired 19 games into the 2017-18 season after feuding with center Marc Gasol. Fizdale worked as an NBA analyst for ESPN last season before getting the Knicks job.

“Right now they’re liking me, so it’s cool,” Fizdale said. “They’re giving me love. The people are great; they’re passionate about the game. They love their team. They want to see the Knicks get back to being a relevant player in this whole thing. Surprisingly so far, because I don’t have any wins or losses, they’re treating me very well.

Fizdale spoke to The Undefeated about All-Star Kristaps Porzingis, LeBron James switching conferences and more.

What’s the key thing to righting the ship here?

Staying with the process of it. Not getting overzealous and trying to hit a home run or do something that deep down inside we probably know is not a home run. And just being patient with our development, the way we build our culture from the ground up. Doing it the right way, not skipping any steps, treating each other well inside the walls of the organization with what the Knicks stand for. Feeling proud about the name ‘Knicks’ and really trying hard to hammer that down.

With time, people will see that it is a different New York Knicks. The recruitment will take off. We will get the right type of free agents in to go along with these talented kids.

You turned down an opportunity to be the head coach of the Phoenix Suns in hopes of landing the Knicks job. Why?

Because I wasn’t just trying to get a job. I wasn’t hoping just to land back on it, I wanted to land back in a place where I felt like I could really do what I could do. After looking at everything and evaluating everything and after spending time with [Knicks general manager] Scott [Perry], [Knicks president] Steve [Mills], looking at the fact that they’ve got KP [Kristaps Porzingis] there. And it’s the Knicks. It’s just a hard thing to turn down.

You plan to visit injured Knicks All-Star forward Kristaps Porzingis in Latvia soon. Have you talked to him or had regular communication?

Yeah, we talked. We WhatsApp all the time and check in on each other. And my wife and I are flying out in two weeks to go spend a week with him and his family.

What have you garnered from your WhatsApp conversations?

Excitement. He likes exactly what I’m talking about from the standpoint of style of play. The fact that I won’t lock him into any position, that I’ll always try to put him in a position of success, that I’m going to challenge him to be an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. I think he really likes the idea of the way I operate, how I’m going to hold guys accountable to a strict level. He likes the sound of that.

So our conversations have been great. Every time we do something team-buildingwise, I always make sure that I hit him up and send him a picture, a film or whatever it is. He can’t get here for that, but I want him to still feel [he’s a part of it]. It’s been a good building process.

Any timetable on his possible return from ACL knee surgery?

We don’t know. We don’t know. Hopefully soon.

How do you look back at your time with Memphis? Also, what made you publicly talk about your regret with your relationship with Marc Gasol during your Knicks introductory press conference?

Well, I just always felt like that’s my responsibility as the coach to create buy-in, to get through to my players, to create the right environment for them and win games. That’s the other part of my job. And if you look back on that stuff, if you’re real with yourself, if you’re going to tell yourself the truth, you’re always going to see your failing stuff. I want to be better. I want to be a better coach. I want to be better for these guys. I don’t want to duplicate my mistakes.

I’m man enough to own up to my mistakes when I’m in a situation and I screw it up. At the same time, that’s life. Nobody said that it’s gonna be handed to you, that there was gonna be a perfect world. You’re gonna get punched. And luckily, I had a good mama like I had that raised me to not flinch in adversity.

What’s the greatest thing you learned from that?

Patience. You know, don’t come in so guns blazing. Really try to just evaluate things first. Really get a feel for how everything operates from top to bottom. Get to know the people that you’re working with. Take the time to really foster those relationships and make people feel valued. I think in time you end up growing a real organic culture out of that.

Have you talked to any former Knicks players or former coaches who have been on this path before and can give you an idea of what is to come? The history, the pageantry, the tough, the good, the bad? It’s a unique job.

I’ve been lucky enough that three of my mentors have been a coach here: Larry Brown, Mike Woodson and Pat Riley. Obviously, we live in a little bit of a different world now from the standpoint of social media. The whole level goes up when you’re dealing with the press. But I’ve received some great advice from those guys, and the most important thing that they all told me is I got to be myself, be genuine and stick to my principles and what I stand for.

What are your thoughts on LeBron James leaving the Eastern Conference to join the Los Angeles Lakers?

I’m glad he is out of the East. I’m happy for him. Whatever decisions he makes, as long as he and [his wife] Savannah and the family are happy, he deserves everything. But obviously, I’m very grateful for what he’s done for me and the impact that he’s made on my life, so I’m happy for him. He’s with my childhood team. He’s out of the East. This is a win for me.

What do you think about your two rookies, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson?

I really like them. They work really hard, they don’t mess around, they come to work like grown-ups. They’re competitive. You can see they like being with the Knicks and scrapping. Obviously, I keep raving about their length and athleticism. I love that. That is my kind of guys. They’re just good kids. They’re just good-hearted, nice kids that just want to be good basketball players. So I really like them a lot.

What about the point guard battle you’ve got going on between Emmanuel Mudiay, Frank Ntilikina, Ron Baker and Trey Burke?

I love it. Fight it out. I’m going to just roll the ball out and let them beat each other up. Whoever takes the starting spot takes it, and then I still see another [option] where all of those guys are playing because I like the speed and the ability to make plays and have multiple guys that can do that. That’s a luxury for me to have that battle.

Can you be socially conscious in New York? Are you comfortable saying things in that market? You spoke out on the Confederate statues in Memphis and a couple ended up being moved. Are you proud of that?

Absolutely. When I look back at my life, when my days are numbered, that will be a thing that I look on fondly along with the people I was lucky enough to do it with.

What have you gotten to do in New York so far that was pretty cool, and what do you still want to do?

It doesn’t get better than throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium at Yankees-Red Sox. Are you kidding me, man? That’s as good as it gets right there. I’m sitting here talking to [Aaron] Judge, Giancarlo [Stanton], and these dudes could play for me. That’s some big dudes. But that was like, ‘Wow, I’m really doing this right now.’ That brought it all into perspective. This is really happening right now.

So that was probably the coolest thing that I’ve done so far. I just want to go eat at every different restaurant. That’s what I want to do. I just want to go restaurant hopping in New York because it’s unbelievable how many great restaurants there are.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.