How Grizzlies’ coach David Fizdale survived South Central
Fizdale talks about his youth and the call to service
New Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale nearly broke down in tears after hearing that five Dallas cops were murdered last week just days after police officers shot black men to death in Louisiana and Minnesota.
Fizdale was often a victim of police profiling and brutality while growing up in Los Angeles. Numerous friends and family members, including his grandfather, were victims of gun violence.
“I was welling up. Yeah, because it just brought back so many bad memories,” Fizdale said. “Even as a kid that scared me when I saw that. The thought of people shooting at policemen? You’re looting, you’re rioting, now we are going to be living in the middle of you guys and the police shooting back and forth? That scared the life out of me.
“So when that guy ambushed those cops. It broke my heart to see that. And it broke my heart because … I’m not going to sit here and judge a whole group of people over the acts of a handful of bad people. That’s what’s going on.”
The Grizzlies hired Fizdale, 42, as head coach on May 29. He spent the previous eight seasons as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat, including the last two as assistant head coach. Fizdale also spent four seasons as an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks (2004-08) and began his NBA coaching career as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors (2003-04). The former University of San Diego star guard was a 1996 all-West Coast Conference selection and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications.
Fizdale, who is biracial, says he wants to use his platform as a new NBA head coach to help change the lives of underprivileged young people of color and find ways to stop gun violence.
In an interview with The Undefeated, he talked about living in South Central Los Angeles, his past struggles and feelings now about the police, and how he dodged bullets, while some family and friends didn’t. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
When you heard the news of the African-American men killed by police recently in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, what came to mind?
Rodney King. Took me all the way back to the riots [in 1992]. Took me back all the way back to, ‘I can’t believe this is still happening.’ Another black male being just like, treated like spit. Not being valued, and not … No one taking the time to take a deep breath again. And, again it’s another black male. This really takes you back to what you go through as a kid. I just remember a few times in high school right before the riots, you get pulled over and …
When you were pulled over it was never routine for young black males. It was, ‘Put your hands out of the car! Open the door from the outside! Back up with your hands up! Go down on your knees! Lock your fingers! OK, face on the ground!” I knew the routine, as you can tell. That’s a routine that you would go through. If it was more than one black man in the car, you’re usually getting pulled over. We got pulled over, and it was almost too common.
I would say four times a week I got pulled over. I was like 15, 16 years old. I was going to high school. You know as a kid, only one guy had a car. So we pile in that thing four or five deep, you know. But that was like the trigger for, ‘Oh, we’re pulling that car over.’ It just got to a point where, it just didn’t feel like you can move around freely. And this was America, and we were good kids, we weren’t even bad kids, we were basketball players. Not that I didn’t have buddies that were gangbanging or family members that were gangbangers. But we were just basketball guys. All of us took great pride in being really good basketball players.
Was there one incident with the L.A. police that stood out the most?
One time we were going to a house party in high school and we got pulled over in my sister’s Datsun … They got rough with us and slammed us up against the car, squeezed our fingers behind our head like until you would want to cry, basically. And then they left us on our knees in the street with our hands over our head, for like 45 minutes. In the middle of a street, a residential street.
What was the reason?
At the end of it all, for nothing. But you know the whole time, we’re sitting there. They’re basically telling us, ‘We’re going to find a reason to take you to jail. We know ya’ll are up to something.’ And me and my buddies were just sitting there in the middle of the street. Anybody that played basketball or sports in high school, going through those growth spurts, your knees are killing you. And to sit in the street on your knees on the concrete for 45 minutes. I had on jeans, but just the weight of your body, with you sitting on your knees with your hands behind your head for that long is brutal. And if we would move anything, it was, ‘You better stop [expletive] squirming.’ It was threatening and it was scary. When you’re just a kid, you don’t know what’s going to happen. And Rodney King was right after that.
What do you remember about the Rodney King situation?
I just remember all of us watching the TV with our mouths open saying, ‘[The police] finally got caught.’ We were excited. Somebody finally caught them and videotaped them. And, when they voted that day not guilty, it was just a kick in the stomach because we thought it’s finally going to change. It’s going to go back to where everybody can coexist, and you’re not going to be looking over your shoulder, you’re not worried about police beating your butt, getting beat over the head with something.
You just thought it was going to change. You just figured when the videotape came out, this will create change. What it did, it was one bad thing turned into two, and two turned into the riots.
Where were you when the riots started?
I was playing in a spring league basketball game. Midway through the game [our coach] goes, ‘I want to make an announcement to everybody. The riots just started up on Florence.’ … So literally it was five minutes away. … [Coach] was like, ‘Get out of here! Get home, get into your house! We don’t know what’s going on. Just get home, get in your house. Stay in your house with your parents.’
And, sure enough, we got on the 110 Freeway heading towards King Boulevard and you just saw L.A. just burning down. You could just see fires starting all over L.A. And, anybody that rolled down the 110 Freeway, you know you’re sitting above L.A. So, you can see forever, and literally I saw, I lost count, bro. There were so many fires starting up, right in front of my eyes, as we were driving. … I just remember getting home, my mom hugged me, she said, ‘L.A. is about to go crazy.’ She went through the Watts riots. My mom had saw this whole episode happen before.
What was the next day like?
The next day I said, ‘Ma, I want to go outside. I want to go see what’s going on.’ And she was like. “Just promise to me that you will stay on the outside of it. You’re old enough now that you need to witness this. This is your generation that’s affected by it. You’re the guys that’s actually been going through this with the police. Go out there. Don’t be stupid.’
So my best friend come picks me up, and it was like – it was in the morning – so it was like Armageddon. You know where you just see a place that was there, that’s just simmering, that just burned to the ground. It used to be like, the chicken spot, the cleaners. All of the stuff that you knew that’s landmarks of your childhood, is just gone, or burning. And the streets were empty.
You saw a lot of looting when you drove around. Why didn’t you take anything?
Who said I didn’t? I’m just not going to snitch on myself. (Laughs.) I was still a kid in the neighborhood, too. I wasn’t no angel. I’m not going to act like I was just some perfect kid. But I’m just not going to tell on myself. What I did wasn’t crazy or chaotic. I’ll just say that.
I went to a truce picnic with one of my cousins who was a Blood and two of my best friends, who were Crips. I’m at a picnic where these guys would never be hanging out. All young black men from different gangs who usually would be shooting at each other, were eating, drinking …
This was after the riots. They came together and made a truce. I just remember the scariest thing. And this is why I say it’s bringing me back to what’s happening right now. There were fliers out, and I don’t know who put the fliers out on the street. But there were literally fliers made that said open season on cops. And it shook me. Someone has that much anger in them, and feel like they’ve been oppressed so long that they would put out fliers that said open season on cops.
How do you feel about the police?
Majority of cops are good people. They are here to serve us. They are here for our community. So, the thought of that [flier] sends chills through your body when you got these good people that are being shot at or killed, over all of this craziness.
How do you do you think the black community and the police are being judged now?
The whole black community right now is being judged over what happens with violence in the neighborhoods. So everybody is violent, everybody’s got a gun, everybody sells crack. Well, that’s the same thing that’s happens to the police. Because you’re grouped as this. The only way you break through that, is you got to get these groups of people together, minorities and police officers. And, make a way to create empathy.
As soon as we can get to that, it will simmer some of this stuff down. The way we pull people over needs to change. Because you’ll be thinking from a different perspective. If you think with empathy, man, this person may actually think I may hurt them when I pull them over.
Despite the problems you had as a teenager, you have fond memories of the L.A. police as a child.
The police were more community service officers. They were great to us. They gave us baseball cards, packs of gum, talked to us about staying away from drugs and things like that. Like, we knew the officers in our neighborhood. We knew them by name …
[Officer Chuck White] would take all of the kids in the neighborhood on the police bus on field trips. I remember going to water parks, Magic Mountain, Disneyland. This was 30, 40 kids on this bus, the whole neighborhood, everybody from every street.
Museums, exhibits, all paid for by the police. We would bring some money for lunch or something like that. That’s all our parents had to give us. Our parents would walk to the bus stop where he picked us up. It was total trust.
When did it change?
Crack hit and there was a huge shift in the way we were approached by the police. We were automatically assumed to be criminals, violent, up to something, and you know with that mentality came some physical abuse. You were just treated poorly, and there wasn’t as much a community service officer anymore, as much as it was overseers, and law enforcement. That’s a big difference when you look at the people that’s protecting you as someone that’s around you enforcing things on you. As opposed to serving you. And you could feel it. It was definite tension between the community and the officers. And then you know, once some violent things happened in the community I was in, my mom finally just said it’s time for us to get out of here.
I had to be 10 or 11. I was out playing late, past the street lights. You know everybody’s parents say, ‘Have your butt in the house before the street lights come on.’ So, soon as I come in the house, my family is just going off on me, because they had been looking for me, wondering where the heck I was. So my mom was totally pissed, and all of a sudden – I’ll never forget it, man – it was like a war went off outside. Just gunfire everywhere. … And as I’m getting yelled at, it hit me that, I just left my friends. So I storm out of the house. My brother ran behind me. Well, I get to the scene, and my two buddies is lying dead in the street, or dying in the street. One of them was shot like nine times. The other one was shot like 17 times.
What was your closest call?
I can’t even tell you how many times it was [a] close call … We were shooting marbles [one day] in between our buildings, like little kids do. I was probably about 12. And, these dudes were coming through there shooting at the gangbangers in the front of the building. They’re coming through the back of the building and we’re in between. And so I literally grabbed one of my little buddies, picked him up by the waist and his bike! I got the superstrength. And just took off running and bullets.
You could hear bullets hitting stuff. And, I literally just slid under a car, threw him under a car and we just hid back behind this car until it all slowed down.
I’ve seen people shot. I’ve seen people killed. You know, a kid died right in front of our building and we cleaned up his brain matter. I mean, think about that. The sad part is that, this stuff is still going on in so many places. So, I’ve been through it. And I get it.
You know, police, they’re scared for their life sometimes, dealing with some of the stuff in these tough neighborhoods. And gangbangers are scared of police because police are so controlling and tough on them. And normal black people are just scared because they are perceived as dangerous.
Where did your mother take the family?
I ended up going to Fremont [High School], because she always wanted to keep me near the men in the family. So, I ended up going to Fremont because my second cousin [Sam Sullivan], he was the coach. He told me. He said, ‘Two things. You’re going to be a great student, and you not coming over here to die. It’s rough over here. So I’m telling you right now. You’re not coming over here to die … Not on my watch.’ And he just took care of me.
Where was your father?
My dad was a white man. And he wasn’t there to raise me. But at the same time I connected with that side of my family. My grandparents were a big part of my life. My white grandparents. They never left out of my life. So I learned both sides of the tracks. I got to see, I got to walk out of the neighborhood sometimes, and stay with my grandparents in a nicer neighborhood in Century City. They lived in the same building as Dr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy, no lie. So when I would go visit, I would try to see him every time. I saw him in the elevator one time, and I thought I lost my mind.
But here I am in Century City, you know 15 minutes away people are getting shot. And I’m getting to see the world from a white perspective. So when I’m saying I can empathize with everything, I can. I’ve seen it all, from both sides of the tracks. You know, it’s ironic when you think about a dad leaving his kid, the first stereotype you think about is a black man leaving his kid behind.
My father was white and he struggled with alcoholism. And he faded out of my life at a very young age. That’s why my grandfather [on my mom’s side] became who he was to me. That’s why my high school coach became what he was to me. They had to step in and fill that void. Or who knows where I would have ended up? …
I had great black men step in and fill that void for me. Along the way I just got really lucky, I dodged a lot of bullets, literally … I dodged a lot of bullets. I lost a lot of friends during that time, to death or prison. Obviously I lost family members over it. Here I am now at a place where I can make some kind of impact.
Tell me about your grandfather, Robert Hamilton, who was the main father figure in your life.
My grandfather was like that guy in the neighborhood. He was the guy that got guys to come to church. He was the guy that got guys to not spread graffiti on the walls … He was a deacon at the local church. He would do anything for the kids in the neighborhood. There was a whole family of gangbangers that lived on our corner, on 56th and Hoover. When I tell you these guys were some of the worst, roughest guys you ever met. That you would never want to run into at any time of the day. They’d be sitting at our dinner table eating Thanksgiving dinner with us. They knew me by name. If they saw me going somewhere, ‘Hey, you, don’t go down that street. Go this way. Get over here. Does your grandfather know you going over there?’
He’s the reason I ever wanted to pick up a basketball. He built a hoop in the backyard just for me. This guy was everything. He taught me how to grow tomatoes, and vegetables. That’s why I garden now. My wife loves it, because I’ll just be out in the yard doing my thing. She’s like, ‘Your grandfather really did a job on you, huh?’ And, I’m like, ‘Yes. Nothing is better than a man that can grow his own food.’
How was your grandfather murdered?
I was a sophomore at [the University of] San Diego. My grandfather went to the bank to get money out for Christmas gifts. He always did the same thing before Thanksgiving. Good ol’ deacon. Got his money out. Drives to the house, on 56th and Hoover. Parks his car, starts to walk up the pathway into his house that he bought with his hard-earned money as a garbage man. Forty years or 30 years as a sanitation worker. Neighborhood guy. Everybody in the neighborhood knows him. He does everything for everybody in the neighborhood.
Three kids follow him up to the front of the house, rob him at gunpoint. My little cousins were inside. My uncle was inside. When he refused to let them in the house, one of the kids shot him three times. My grandfather chases him after being shot. Takes a brick, busts out the back window of their car as they are speeding off. He drops on the ground, and he survives from that point to maybe mid- to late February.
What happened to your grandfather’s murderer?
Ultimately when they found the guy that did the shooting, I probably could have had something done to him. Because they knew where he was long before the police ever knew. He was in hiding. But these guys found him before the police. I had so much anger and hurt. It was difficult.
But you didn’t do anything.
It took a lot. Because I had guys. It wasn’t just for me. These guys were willing to do it because of what my grandfather had done for them. So, they were hurting just like I was. They were crying just like I was. I couldn’t put them at risk. I went through the whole process of it. ‘If this happens, what’s going to happen after? Who’s going to jail? Am I going to jail?’ I went through that whole process, because that’s how hurt I was, how angry I was.
Finally, my best friend Todd Whitehead said to me, ‘Dave, this isn’t you. This isn’t something your grandfather would want you to do.’ He just put his arm around me. This is a guy who cared so much about me and my grandfather. He said, ‘Let the police handle it.’
You have a 23-year-old son. Are you scared for him right now?
I’m always scared for him. My son [Kyle Jackson] grew up in a rough area, where his mom is located in California. And he went through some similar things that a lot of these guys go through. He and his friends had problems with guys from around the corner, and it was guys shooting at each other and guys getting shot. His best friend got shot a few weeks ago. But, I got him out of there as soon as I possibly could, and he moved to Miami with me a few years ago. He’s been doing great ever since.
He starts school in the fall for music engineering, production, and things like that. And he’s doing fantastic. He’s a waiter, grinding it out. Never asks me for money. Totally earning his own way. He’s just a good kid. But you know, again, you put good kids in tough circumstances, who knows what could happen.
Memphis, Tennessee, your new home, has a big murder problem.
Now that I’m in the position that I’m in, I’m very concerned about our young black men in Memphis. Not only them killing each other, but them having to deal with anything with the police. And again, I’m not saying all police. I just went to an officer’s funeral in Memphis when I first got the job. Wonderful people. I met so many officers at this funeral. I’m talking about wonderful people, in a very tough situation in the middle of Memphis right now.
Memphis is breaking the record for the murder rate. So again, I empathize with them. But my biggest concern is how do I help these young black men in the neighborhood stop killing each other first. Stop creating an environment of terror for the good people that are in their neighborhood because those poor people have to live in it. It ain’t like they have a lot of options to move around. When you’re living check to check, or below, it’s not like you got places to move that’s going to be better than that.
Is this a responsibility that comes with being an NBA head coach?
I’ve been planning for this moment my whole life. I didn’t know when I was going to be a head coach. (Laughs.) But, I was determined to be a head coach. And, I always said when I became a head coach, my passion is going to be – outside of basketball – it’s going to be, how do I help young African-American males, young minority males. Because I got some awesome Latino brothers out there that’s going through the same struggles. Some awesome Asian brothers that’s going through the same struggles.
And so I always said, when I got the platform, I was getting involved.
And that’s my passion. How do I help these guys stay in school, stop killing each other, get a job. You guys that’s coming out of prison, how do I get them back into a situation where they have a chance? The craziest part about it to me is, why wouldn’t you want to rehabilitate these guys knowing that they’re coming out of prison?
New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony recently called on his fellow pro athletes to get personally involved. What role do athletes have in addressing gun violence and the problems between police and the African-American community?
I thought what Carmelo Anthony did was just amazing. I was so proud at what he put out challenging the young athletes and the young African-American athletes to stand up. Like the generations before, represent the people that you came from. The people that helped you get to where you are, stand up for them. And, help change law and legislation, and stop just saying let’s march. Because that’s not changing nothing.
You got to put pressure on the lawmakers. We got to put pressure on the system of hiring, and vetting police officers. You got to change the whole perception of what police officers are there for. They are to enforce the law. They are [also] community service officers. They are there to serve the community. They are there to make sure that nothing bad happens. But not to create bad things. Not to assume bad in people.
I think we got to figure out how to push our representation, to start making the laws that’s going to save everybody.
That also goes to gun control. What kind of gun was this man shooting these police officers down in the street with? What kind of gun was that man killing all those people in Orlando with? I don’t understand how the NRA [National Rifle Association] can hold our lives hostage like this.
I’m not saying get rid of every gun. But can we get rid of the guns that’s only for mass killing? Can we just stop that? Can we stop allowing people that are on a watch list or that have mental health issues, can we stop allowing them to just walk in the gun store and buy a gun? Is that too much to ask from the NRA? To give up that? But again, until the people stand up, really stand up on the lawmakers, it’s not going to change. It starts there and then it will work its way down.
After the interview, two of Fizdale’s former Heat players, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, along with Chris Paul and Anthony, spoke out about racial injustice at the start of The ESPYS earlier this week. Fizdale shared his reaction to their appearance:
I will follow those four incredible men. But more importantly than me standing with them, how many American athletes will answer the call? We face an American problem. Guns, stereotypes and economics continue to kill us and divides us no matter [the] race, gender or sexual orientation. With that said, I felt deep pride with my guys stepping up. I’m in.