NEW YORK – The more Knicks management asked about David Fizdale, the more they heard how much players respect him.
It can’t hurt that one of them is LeBron James.
And while Knicks fans can dream of Fizdale’s relationship with James giving them a shot when the superstar enters free agency as expected, a team building from the bottom can’t focus on one player – even the best one in the game.
New York needed a coach that can bring out the best in everyone on the roster, and that’s what the Knicks believe they have in Fizdale.
The Knicks agreed to a deal with the former Memphis Grizzlies coach last week and introduced him Tuesday at a news conference at Madison Square Garden.
“I think the big thing that we found – and that’s obviously terrific that some of the game’s greats recognized David for who he is as a man and as a coach – but the players that are not that, just the guys 1 through 15, the reviews coming back on him were all very consistently similar,” general manager Scott Perry said.
“That he invested in us, that he’s going to develop you, he’s going to challenge you, he’s going to hold you accountable. And so I think that’s the important thing, that David has shown the ability to relate to a number of players across the board, not just the star players.”
Still, Fizdale’s relationship with James gives New Yorkers a slither of hope.
Though that hope is based more in fantasy than reality.
While James could become a free agent this summer, the Knicks would be unlikely to afford him and even less likely to impress him, given the long climb they face to contention. They have missed the playoffs five straight seasons and will be without All-Star Kristaps Porzingis when the Fizdale era begins as he recovers from a torn left knee ligament.
Fizdale said he is only focused for now on who will be playing for him.
“I can’t really speak on free agency,” Fizdale said. “I just know that if we build this thing right together with the guys we have here, who I’m focused on here, people will want to come.”
Fizdale wanted to come, despite how quickly coaches get eaten up in New York.
Perry and team president Steve Mills interviewed 10 other candidates during their search, and also spoke with players and executives from around the league to gain information about the men they were considering as the replacement for Jeff Hornacek.
One of them was Pat Riley, Fizdale’s boss in Miami when the Heat won two NBA titles while he was an assistant to Erik Spoelstra. Riley had kept in contact with Fizdale after he was fired early last season in Memphis after clashing with star center Marc Gasol.
“No one was more happy when he got the news … to see one of his guys be here, coming back and doing this and taking this challenge,” Fizdale said. “I’m sure right now he’s pretty proud.”
Even the failure with Gasol after the Grizzlies had gone to the playoffs in Fizdale’s first season impressed the Knicks during their discussions. Fizdale didn’t hide from his share of the responsibility, acknowledging that maybe he pushed too hard on a team whose window to contend for a title he believed was shrinking.
“When someone owns an issue like that, we all hit adversity, but it’s how you deal with it and how you learn from it,” Mills said, “and that’s one of the things that really impressed us about David.”
Fizdale had spent eight seasons before going to Memphis in Miami, where the Heat reached four straight NBA Finals. Fizdale said his relationship with their stars developed by spending time with them, talking honestly about important things like family matters, and of course by winning championships.
The last one will be difficult in New York.
He is the 11th Knicks coach since Jeff Van Gundy resigned in the 2001-02 season. Fizdale said he couldn’t pass up the chance to coach at Madison Square Garden, even though he was a candidate for jobs where there is more stability.
“The risk/reward thing was, I just said to hell with it,” Fizdale said. “It’s the Knicks, what are we talking about here?”
Mills said management will help Fizdale navigate the turbulence, joking that he’s seen not only brush fires but forest fires around the organization. Fizdale isn’t concerned, either by that or the expectations that still surround a team because of the success it had long ago.
“I think you’ve either got to go after it or you’re afraid, and I’ve never been afraid,” Fizdale said.
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