David Fizdale: from Maher to Memphis
If you are reading this article on campus, or in a room filled with other University of San Diego students, take a look around. If these people you’re surrounded by are your friends, try to imagine one of them in a high profile, public job. Think of all the things you’ve witnessed your friends do over the course of your college careers. Surely, you’ve seen them do some stupid things or act in that way that only college students can really get away with. Now, try to imagine if one of those collegiate confidants ended up becoming an NBA head coach.
This has become the case for several graduates of USD. In May of this year, the Memphis Grizzlies hired David Fizdale, a former point guard and later an assistant coach for the Toreros. Over 20 years removed from his own days as a hedonistic college student, the 42-year-old Fizdale reminisced on his experience as a college freshman in 1992.
“I lived in Maher as a freshman,” Fizdale said. “If you’re looking up at the building, I was on the second tier, me and all my basketball buddies were right there. We used to stand out there all the time and whistle at girls.”
While not a lot may have changed about USD from the 1990s to now in terms of freshman year habits, the basketball program has accumulated much more notoriety since Fizdale was wearing Torero blue. Stan Washington of the 1974 Washington Bullets remains the only player to ever log minutes in an NBA game after suiting up for the Toreros. However, the school has sent several graduates to the league as coaches in recent years.
Bernie Bickerstaff started the long line of alumni to leave their mark on the NBA when he was named head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics in 1985. Since then, fellow members of what Fizdale has called the USD mafia have received head coaching jobs as well. Eric Musselman, a member of the 1986-87 Torero squad that advanced to the NCAA Tournament, was an NBA head coach for both the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings. Mike Brown played for San Diego from 1990-92 before landing head coaching gigs with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers. James Borrego, a former player and assistant coach at USD, was the interim head coach for 30 games with the Orlando Magic in 2015. Fizdale is the latest name to be added to that growing list.
While his focus is undoubtedly on coaching his team in Memphis, Fizdale has made it clear that he understands the implications that these hirings can have for the Torero basketball program.
“I do think that having guys like us who came out of there will be a good selling point in recruiting pitches and going to get better players,” Fizdale said. “Us being back in the program and giving our input on what we’ve learned along the way, from the standpoint of player development, offensive and defensive systems, motivational tactics, things like that, can all contribute to success there.”
Not only has Fizdale made and maintained his tight relationship with the USD mafia, which includes current Torero head coach Lamont Smith, he also has lifelong friends in NBA superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Fizdale was a Miami Heat assistant coach for eight seasons prior to being hired by Memphis.
“[James and Wade] were the biggest advocates for me getting a head coach job,” Fizdale said. “We stay in touch. They know I’m here. I know they’re there. We’re talking about brotherhood. We’re talking about guys that I’ve bled with, I’ve sweat with, I’ve cried with.”
When reflecting back on his time spent in Linda Vista, the hyper-positive Fizdale mentioned the energy of the school multiple times.
“The atmosphere was always energetic,” Fizdale said. “Obviously the city of San Diego itself is a beautiful, wonderful place to live and go to school. When you walk up on that campus, and you feel the vibe and the energy, it’s really a good platform for you to learn and grow as a young man. The overall environment of the campus and the professors and the student body was just fantastic. I wouldn’t trade my experience there for anything in the world.”
Like any other person who has ever studied under the shadow of the Immaculata, he also has a handful of favorite restaurants around the city.
“Now my favorite restaurant is Dirty Birds, a chicken wing spot that is owned by an alum,” Fizdale said. “Obviously Santana’s [too]. Nico’s and Santana’s were the spot when we were coming through there for any kind of California burrito or surf and turf or anything like that. You can see San Diego is still close to my heart.”
The Los Angeles resident’s coaching odyssey has taken him away from his home state for quite some time. After starting his coaching odyssey with stints at USD, Fresno State University, and the Golden State Warriors, his last three jobs have all been east of the Mississippi River. 2004 through 2008 were spent with the Atlanta Hawks before being hired away by the Heat. Even as he gears up for a new life and a new job in Tennessee, Fizdale has never lost his affinity for the city of San Diego.
“My wife and I, we got married three years ago at the Hotel del [Coronado],” Fizdale said. “That’s still my getaway when I need to disappear in the summers and just kind of go hide out. San Diego is my home away from home, I would say. I’m a Torero through and through.”
The Grizzlies opened training camp on Sept. 27 in Memphis. They will be gunning for a seventh straight playoff spot, although Fizdale is quick to point out that simply reaching playoffs is not the extent of his team’s goals.
“I’m not even thinking about the playoffs,” Fizdale said. “We can win the title. I don’t even believe in shooting low. I’d rather aim high and fail trying to do something great than hang low and accomplish that. So we’re going after a championship.”
When speaking about training camp, Fizdale shared that newly acquired forward Chandler Parsons is taking the necessary steps to get healthy for the regular season. Parsons tore his meniscus last season while playing for the Dallas Mavericks. The Grizzlies roster is also intriguing because of its age range. 39-year-old Vince Carter is the old head of the group, while the recently drafted rookies Deyonta Davis and Wade Baldwin are all of 19 and 20, respectively.
“A guy like Vince Carter is a great servant to younger players that come into this league,” Fizdale said. “A lot of these guys grew up admiring Vince. So what I ask of Vince and my older guys is to be servants to these young guys. Show them the way; show them how to be professional. Show them that the team is bigger than anything. The bottom line is we all do have a common goal and that’s to hold the trophy.”
If in fact the Grizzlies are able to win the championship this year, the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy will make its first trip to Memphis. Given Fizdale’s palpable admiration for the city of San Diego and his beloved alma mater, there’s a chance the trophy could make a pit stop in his old dorm room in Maher Hall.
Written by Matthew Roberson, Sports Editor