David Fizdale gets his second shot in the NBA’s brightest coaching spotlight
Can he and the African-American brain trust bring another title to New York?
NBA postseason ratings are once again robust.
Philadelphia fans are hopeful. Boston’s are ecstatic. The Houston faithful are cautiously optimistic, and Golden State fans remain in championship mode. Still, NBA basketball is better when the New York Knicks are playing in mid-May.
That has not happened in several seasons. But the fortunes of a franchise that hasn’t had a title in 45 years may be changing. On Tuesday, the Knicks introduced David Fizdale as the Knicks’ 29th head coach.
Fizdale, fired as the Memphis Grizzlies’ head coach during the regular season, did not promise a title, but he promised a fresh approach and a process that might eventually lead to a title.
Philadelphia preached Trust the Process. The Knicks are asking for patience.
“These guys have a pointed vision that connected to me,” Fizdale said, referring to Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry. “The biggest challenge is the expectations, from the fan base, from the media. You know that coming into this. That’s what I like.”
He added, “Who wouldn’t want to be part of getting a team back to that? You’ve either got to go after that or you’re afraid. And I’ve never been afraid.”
This is not your normal NBA fan base. Knicks fans have become comfortable with losing. The loser’s lament has become the fan base’s rallying cry. Lampooning the owner, killing the coach, cursing the team’s fate, pining for yesteryear and a team of players now either dead or well into their 70s.
For cynical Knicks watchers, the hope and optimism are standard fare soon to be replaced by despair and futility.
Fizdale was fired after a public dispute with Marc Gasol. Grizzlies ownership took Gasol’s side and dismissed Fizdale, who also had attempted to move Memphis into the 21st century with a more wide-open offense.
For those of us who watch the Knicks, the question for Fizdale is why he chose this star-crossed franchise. The owner makes money hand over fist while losing, “stumbling and bumbling,” as Knicks great Walt Frazier would say.
What’s the attraction?
“The history of the Knicks,” Fizdale said. “I don’t take that lightly. I will roll up my sleeves and work tirelessly to build this culture, to rebuild this culture, to give these guys a fantastic opportunity to build basketball success, and eventually maybe we all will hold that trophy together.”
Aside from the Knicks, Fizdale was also courted by the Phoenix Suns. That makes Fizdale a rarity in pro sports: a fired African-American head coach who is quickly snapped up after being offered his choice of jobs. This is unusual, even in the NBA, which is perceived as a so-called “black league” because of the high number of black players.
“It doesn’t always work that way after getting fired that you have that kind of interest,” Fizdale said.
Fizdale said he chose the Knicks in part because of the franchise’s hierarchy.
Nodding at Mills on his left and Perry to his right, Fizdale said they were critical factors in his decision to choose the Knicks over the Suns.
“The interview process with these guys just kept sticking to me,” he said. “I just felt a real connection to them.”
As rare as Fizdale’s quick second chance might be, the Knicks’ black executive brain trust is equally rare.
Say what you will about Knicks owner James Dolan, but he has not shied away from giving African-Americans the keys to his basketball kingdom. Eleven years ago, three African-Americans — Mills, Isiah Thomas and Anucha Browne Sanders — occupied Madison Square Garden’s executive suite. That arrangement ended in disaster. Browne Sanders was fired, then sued Thomas and the Garden for sexual harassment.
Today, Fizdale works with a leadership team in which Mills, the executive president of the Knicks; Perry, the Knicks’ general manager; and Craig Robinson, the vice president of player development and G League operations, are African-American. The subject wasn’t raised Tuesday, but they all know everyone is watching.
Mills pointed out Tuesday that not everyone is equipped to play or coach in New York. Mills and Perry spoke with Fizdale about the Knicks’ roster and the type of player who can flourish in New York’s highly charged environment.
“There’s a whole lot of guys who want to live in New York, but there are not a lot of guys that are built to play in New York,” Mills said. “That’s part of our job, to distinguish between those two things and find the guys who have the fortitude and the makeup to survive in this place.”
Tuesday marked the 48th anniversary of the Knicks winning their first NBA championship in 1970. The Knicks, led by Frazier’s 36 points and 19 assists, defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 113-99 to take the first title in the franchise’s 24-year history. Forty-eight years later, the media is asking another coach why he believes he will be the one to take them to the next title.
“I was built by two tough women over there,” he said, referring to his mother and his wife. “I feel like my experience, my personality, their vision, the way that these guys have already laid down some bricks of the culture and the future going forward.”
All this optimism on a sunny day in Manhattan was music, familiar music, to Knicks’ fans ears.
And this time, the time might be right. Yes, two divisional rivals, Philadelphia and Boston, are still playing. The Celtics and 76ers are young and on the rise. On the other hand, Washington is dysfunctional while Toronto has been psychologically dismembered by Cleveland’s LeBron James.
But James, despite the fountain of youth he apparently has tapped, is nonetheless a season older.
“With this city behind us, that connection and that collaboration,” Fizdale said, “I really feel that this job was for me.”
As always, time will tell.