MEMPHIS – As a boxing coach for the Memphis Police Department, Brian Hall considered himself in superb shape when he arrived at FedExForum for Friday’s training session with the Grizzlies’ coaching staff.
Two hours later, Hall clutched his basketball shorts and gasped for breath. He was among nearly 30 Police Athletic League coaches, mentors and volunteers Grizzlies’ coach David Fizdale and his assistants had pushed through a two-hour NBA-style practice session.
“I think this surprised a lot of us,” said Hall, 34. “We started off in a (work) uniform, and by the time we finished, we were in a T-shirt and shorts because we didn’t expect to sweat so much doing all those drills and everything. They just showed us that we have to be in shape to teach the kids how to be in shape.”
Based on Friday’s turnout, Fizdale’s efforts to launch a youth basketball partnership in Memphis’ economically challenged neighborhoods, with the MPD and Memphis Athletic Ministries is rounding into fantastic form as well. When Fizdale was hired by the Grizzlies last summer, one of his first community initiatives was to work with the Chief of Police, Michael Rallings, to establish a P.A.L. organization in Memphis to foster better relationships between minority communities and the police at a time when social unrest and police shootings dominated national news.
Building a broad, effective organization will take months of planning and Fizdale didn’t want to wait that long to get started. The compromise was to start right away with a basketball mentor program while simultaneously working on the bigger vision.. For Fizdale the Grizzlies’ Community Engagement team and local organizations, Friday’s coaching clinic served as a launch point for the season. The Memphis P.A.L. basketball program will start with two 8-week seasons that allow 100 boys ages 13 and 14 to represent teams from eight Memphis Athletic Ministries community centers across the city.
The league season opens Dec. 10, with police officers working as assistant coaches at each location alongside Grizzlies staff. That made Friday’s session with Fizdale and his top assistants a training camp of sorts for men and women from all ages and backgrounds who showed up on the same court where the Grizzlies’ coaches guide Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph on game nights.
“What we’re going to do with this league is bridge the gap between officers and young people in the community,” Fizdale said Friday. “Everyone has been talking about the violence that takes place, and we always point out the small few bad officers out there. But I wanted to shed light on all of the great officers who serve this community and who want to actually have influence on these young kids before it ever comes to (an adverse) situation. They want to get their hands on these kids in a positive way.”
First, police officers and community volunteers had to grasp the concepts of Grizzlies’ practice. Fizdale opened Friday’s function by detailing some of his past experiences with police while growing up in South-Central Los Angeles during the height of gang violence and anti-police riots in the 1980s and 90s. While admitting “some of my best friends were two-time felons, gang bangers or dead,” Fizdale also explained how D.A.P.S – Los Angeles-based community engagement program similar to P.A.L. – offered several kids in his neighborhood an alternative through sports, mentoring programs and field trips.
“It meant the world to me,” Fizdale told local officers of the program he encountered as a youth. “It gave me something else to look forward to. I made it out of that situation. This (program) means so much to mean because somewhere (in Memphis), there’s a kid out there like me.”
The Grizzlies already have several community members in place to facilitate the program and set the foundation for its success. Dennis McNeil, a lieutenant colonel with MPD who also works a team security detail for the Grizzlies, said reestablishing a P.A.L. program is beneficial to both youth and police.
“For us to have a coach in this organization to make this type of commitment is huge to the point where I don’t even think you can measure it,” McNeil said. “You’re opening the doors of communication between the community and the police outside the uniform in a relaxed environment. It’s about building relationships. Contrary to a lot of people’s belief, we do care about protecting our community. The fundamental part of our job is to give back, mold and build. And that’s what we’re here to do.”
After Fizdale gave a pre-workout chalk talk, he allowed each top assistant to run officers and volunteers through intense drills. Assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff pushed the group through defensive slide drills and both zone and man-to-man concepts used by the Grizzlies. Bickerstaff’s main emphasis was to establish trust and communication in adverse situations.
“In life, in relationships and on the court, you can’t do anything without communicating clearly with someone,” Bickerstaff said in the midst of a drill. “You have to trust that someone is there to help you.”
Assistant coach Keith Smart took over afterward and conducted shooting and passing drills. An Indiana University grad who made the game-winning shot in the 1987 national championship game to beat Syracuse, Smart relayed the story of how former coach Bobby Knight downplayed that heroic moment.
“Coach Knight used to always say that it wasn’t the shot that won the game, it was the pass,” Smart said. “That always confused me until I got older and understood what he meant. A teammate sacrificed a good shot to make a pass to me that allowed me to make a great shot. It’s the pass that set it all up.”
Grizzlies assistant and former NBA player Nick Van Exel conducted ball-handling drills and veteran assistant Bob Bender spoke about the importance of teamwork and being patient with the process. Helen Magee, 48, soaked up all the information as she sweated through the workout. A patrolman who will volunteer as a P.A.L. assistant coach at St. Andrew Church in south Memphis, Magee worked with a P.A.L basketball program in Memphis about 10 years ago before the program disbanded.
She’s wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to sweat through the details and help bring it back.
“What we learned more than anything is togetherness,” said Magee, who played basketball at the University of Southern Mississippi. “I know what this program means. We can teach them the right way to do things, whether it’s to play basketball or to show respect in anything you do. We’re learning from the best, and we’re looking forward to giving these kids in Memphis the best we’ve got, too.”