David Fizdale made two promises on May 29, 2016, the day it was announced he would be the next head coach of the Grizzlies, a culmination of a lifelong dream for the then 42-year-old.
First, Fizdale promised Grizzlies owner Robert Pera that the team would continue the “Grit and Grind” tradition that Memphis had become known for.
Second, he promised himself that, when necessary, he would be outspoken for causes of injustice.
“I knew as an assistant coach it wasn’t my place to overstep the head coach,” Fizdale said. “I always wanted to make sure I respected my role. But as a head coach in this league at this time, I have a different responsibility, and I take it seriously.”
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Fizdale came into the league in 2003 after spending five seasons in the college ranks as an assistant. Before that, he was in the Heat video department in 1997, where he met Erik Spoelstra.
“Fiz is a special guy,” Spoelstra, now in his 10th season as Heat head coach, said. “He came up the old school way. Learned from some greats and made progress everywhere he’s been.”
Fizdale won three rings as an assistant in Miami. From his first season on the Heat sidelines in 2008-09, Miami won more playoff games (70) and playoff series (15) than any team in the NBA and compiled the league’s second-best regular season (.623) and fourth-best postseason (.619) winning percentages.
“He knows how to work with players and make them better,” former Heat and current Cavs guard Dwayne Wade said. “That’s why Memphis will always be in the mix as long as he’s there.”
Fizdale has kept the first promise so far. In the loaded Western Conference last season, the Grizzlies managed to earn a playoff spot by grabbing the No. 7 seed. This season, they’re off to an even better start, standing at 5-3, good for fifth in the West. The team is using ball movement and pace led by point guard Mike Conley. Players like Chandler Parsons, Mario Chalmers and Ivan Rabb are also contributing.
On offense, the Grizzlies are following the league trend and going with more pace and space. They’re never going to be the Warriors or Rockets — the Grizzlies are 26th in the league in pace, per NBA.com — but they’ve seen a jump from last season in their total number of possessions. They’re shooting more 3-pointers (29.8 3-point attempts per game this season vs. 26.5 last season). Memphis is only hitting from deep at a 33 percent clip, but the extra space leads to passing and driving lanes (45.4 drives per game this season vs. 22.4 last season).
The Grizzlies still play an aggressive style of defense that keeps teams from reaching the rim. Memphis has the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (98.2), only trailing the Celtics, Thunder and Jazz in defensive rating.
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When it comes to the second promise, Fizdale is just as aggressive as the Grizzlies’ “Grindhouse” defense.
“Living in the city of Memphis, a city that played a huge role in the movement, it’s my obligation to speak out when things aren’t right,” Fizdale said. “It’s my duty to use this platform to speak out. But it isn’t just about me. I want my players and not just the black players speaking up about what’s going on.”
Fizdale didn’t stop there.
“You have the president tweeting all this crazy stuff every day,” Fizdale said. “Then you have the vice president spending taxpayer dollars to protest against the anthem protests. That was nothing but a distraction. They haven’t said one word about police brutality or the issues we’re talking about. Because they’re trying to distract you. They’re trying to distract with staged protests.
“We as citizens are trying to clean water to Flint. We are trying to help out our brothers in sisters in Puerto Rico who are still struggling. We are trying to fix this education system. So while they’re doing that, I’ll be here rallying the ones who want to make this world better.”
His callouts aren’t just for social justice. Fizdale is still very focused on his first promise, evident after Wednesday’s loss to the Magic.
Chalmers missed an easy layup on a breakaway because he was trying to draw a foul. Fizdale got into a confrontation with his point guard on the sidelines, and he didn’t shy away from addressing it publicly.
“Well, Mario made a ridiculous play. I don’t really need to go too deep into that,” Fizdale said on Fox Sports South. “He heard it from me, and he understands that. In the heat of the moment, he couldn’t own it. And that’s exactly what I meant. Twenty-five thousand people were in here and saw that was the most ridiculous play of the whole game, but because his brain was gone, he couldn’t own that it was a bonehead play.”
“In the heat of the moment he couldn’t own it.”
Coach Fizz on Mario Chalmers and the teams communication problems in the 4th. #GrindCity pic.twitter.com/Xw00O2lSiN
— FOX Sports Grizzlies (@GrizzliesOnFSSE) November 2, 2017
Chalmers took to Twitter after the game to agree with Fizdale and apologize, saying “I promise I won’t let y’all down again” (probably a wise move). Fizdale wasn’t going to back down, and he wasn’t going to bite his tongue.
That is what he promised when he started in Memphis, and so far, he’s living up to his words.