MEMPHIS, Tenn. — No hard feelings linger between David Fizdale and center Marc Gasol, as the New York Knicks coach returned to FedEx Forum almost exactly a year after the Memphis Grizzlies fired him in large part due to friction with the franchise center.
Gasol and Fizdale made their peace during a phone conversation over the summer, putting to rest the differences that led Memphis management to fire Fizdale after a Nov. 26, 2017, loss to the Brooklyn Nets in which Gasol was benched the entire fourth quarter.
“It was a fantastic conversation,” Fizdale said before his Knicks beat the Grizzlies 103-98 on Sunday. “It was two men that evolved. That’s pretty cool to see a moment in your life, individually as a man, where your life changed and you got better because of it, somebody made you better. I credit him for that. He made me a better coach. He made me a better person. I was lucky to be his coach.”
Gasol credits Fizdale, a first-time head coach in Memphis who had a 50-51 record with the Grizzlies, for improving his game by pushing him to expand his range to 3-point territory. Gasol had his best statistical season under Fizdale, averaging career highs in points (19.5 per game) and assists (4.6) in 2016-17, the coach’s only full campaign in Memphis.
But Gasol and Fizdale clashed behind closed doors, and while Gasol never asked for Fizdale to be fired, their strained relationship was a primary factor in Memphis management’s decision. A year later, however, both men say they learned from the experience.
“We’re both appreciative, and we both understand that it wasn’t perfect,” Gasol told ESPN. “We both would have handled it differently, not last year but the year before when everything happened. We won’t let that happen again. It’s simple: You live, you learn, and you move on. We made peace with each other, and that’s it.”
Added Fizdale: “I think it’s pretty cool in a time that we all live in, and people are so mad at each other, here we are two guys that have squashed it and are cool.”
Gasol, who endured misery last season on a 22-win team as Memphis’ seven-year playoff streak ended, is playing at an All-Star level again for the Grizzlies. He’s averaging 17.6 points and a career-high 9.8 rebounds while anchoring one of the league’s best defenses for a Memphis team that has surprised many with a 12-7 start that puts it near the top of the Western Conference standings.
Fizdale, who took the Knicks job understanding that it would be a rebuilding project, is happy that the Grizzlies are enjoying success. He’s especially pleased for his close friend and former assistant J.B. Bickerstaff, who got his first full-time head-coaching job after replacing Fizdale on an interim basis last season.
“This team is playing under J.B.’s identity now,” Fizdale said of the Grizzlies. “This is not what we were doing before. This is him, and they’re doing great under him. He deserves a lot of credit for what he’s doing with this group.”
Fizdale acknowledged that everything was backward when he arrived at FedEx Forum for Sunday’s game.
“It was weird,” he said. “I pulled in, and I’m like ‘OK, I’m not parking in my spot.’ Then he added that Bickerstaff was ‘in my damn spot.'”
New York’s third straight win led to a celebration, with Fizdale’s team dousing him with water — and ice — as he entered the locker room after the game.
“You’re getting me emotional because I can’t put it into words,” he said.
Fizdale might have downplayed any real emotions about his return, but his squad was aware of the game’s importance. In fact, a poor-shooting first half left the Knicks trailing 52-43 at the break and led to a word of advice from Fizdale.
“Coming into halftime, Fizz knew that we had that type of mindset coming into the game,” Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “He told us at halftime just to calm down and don’t make it about him. That’s what we were playing for. We were playing for Coach.”
Gasol and Fizdale hugged each near midcourt after the game. Gasol said after the game, “It was good. It was a competitive game. We asked about our families. All good.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.