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Memphis Grizzlies' success fueled by coaching brotherhood
Close relationship between David Fizdale and J.B. Bickerstaff built on respect and good-natured ribbing
Jon Krawczynski | The Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS — Mike Conley and Marc Gasol have spent the last nine years in Memphis, their bond as strong as that of any NBA teammates. It is the foundation of the Grizzlies’ identity.
It’s a friendship built on trust, respect and a whole lot of ribbing. They go at each other daily, but even Conley knows they have nothing on two coaches who arrived in Memphis last summer.
David Fizdale and J.B. Bickerstaff have known each other for two decades and are working on the same NBA staff for the first time. They operate with a razor-tongued familiarity that has disarmed a veteran team initially wary of the new faces.
“They’re worse than me and Marc,” Conley said. “Me and Marc will keep it cool, but they will go after it a little bit.”
The two outgoing, charismatic friends have helped keep the Grizzlies in the thick of a top-heavy Western Conference. At 33-23, Memphis is just one victory behind fourth-seeded Utah despite injuries to Allen, Conley and Chandler Parsons.
“I look at him as another head coach on this staff,” Fizdale said of Bickerstaff in an interview with The Associated Press. “He has a voice on this staff. He speaks up in practice more than any other assistant. I give him full range to have input with these guys. I just see it as a lot of times, in a lot of ways, he’s my co-head coach. I don’t see him as my assistant.
And just as he senses the praise is getting a little thick, he slips a jab.
“Sometimes I put him in his place, though,” he said. “Let him know.”
The two met through Bickerstaff’s father – longtime NBA coach Bernie Bickerstaff. Fizdale played in college at San Diego, where the elder Bickerstaff was an alum.
“His dad was always giving me a hard time for not hanging out with his son,” Fizdale cracked.
Fiz and J.B. were players together at a camp in Las Vegas run by Tim Grgurich before it became the essential training ground for NBA talent it is today. They eventually started coaching together at the camp and always seemed to gravitate to the same basket with their players to run drills.
“It was an immediate brotherhood,” the 42-year-old Fizdale said. “Once we started hanging out, we realized we were pretty much the same human being and just became brothers from there.”
As they climbed the coaching ladder they made a pact: The first one to become a head coach would bring the other one with him.
Bickerstaff, 37, won the race, but not the way either had planned. He took over the dysfunctional Houston Rockets on an interim basis last year when Kevin McHale was fired during the season. While Fizdale could not join Bickerstaff with the Rockets, he would pepper his friend with text messages and calls while watching the games from afar.
“You don’t want to always have to be chasing somebody down. In those times, it helps to have somebody coming to you,” Bickerstaff said. “One of the best parts of our relationship is the respect. It’s never critical. It’s never about me. It’s, `What you did was dumb. This is why. You’ll get better from it.’
“You know what? It was dumb. Thank you. I’ll get better from it. That’s the way we see it.”
As Erik Spoelstra’s right-hand man on the star-studded Miami Heat teams that went to four straight NBA Finals and won two championships, Fizdale passed on several opportunities to be a head coach. He said seeing his friend finally get a chance only emboldened his pursuit of the right job.
“I was so proud of how he handled that whole situation,” Fizdale said. “And it just lit a fire under me to say, `This is our time to start taking a shot at being head coaches and going after leading our own teams.”‘
When Dave Joerger and the Grizzlies abruptly split in May, Fizdale was brought in to take over a team led by a tight-knit core – Conley, Gasol, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. In some ways it was a daunting proposition, and Fizdale understood what he needed.
“When I knew I had any kind of chance at getting this job, we were already talking,” Fizdale said. “He knew the deal that I was coming after him hard. There’s no way I could do this job without him on my staff.”
Bickerstaff was fresh off the exhilaration of running the show for the first time in his career, and the sting of it not working out in what was a toxic environment. When his longtime friend finally landed the job he’d been waiting for, it was exactly what Bickerstaff needed as well.
“This job was a breath of fresh air for me working with the staff that we work with, working with the guys that we have here,” Bickerstaff said. “This has surpassed my expectations by far. And I had high expectations for it because my relationship with Fiz and (assistant Keith) Smart.”
The Grizzlies are 2-1 this season against the mighty Golden State Warriors, the lone loss coming Friday night. The grit and grind is still there, with the team fourth in the league defensive efficiency. The new coaching staff is adapting to the personnel.
“It’s not always an easy process when you bring in a whole new crew of guys because you trusted the last people so much that it’s hard to build the same rapport again,” Conley said. “But when you have a coach who comes from such a great background and a great culture, as well as J.B., who has so much experience, it’s an unbelievable experience to have those guys come in and lead the way, and show us a new way of doing things.”
AP freelancer Clay Bailey in Memphis, Tennessee, contributed to this report.