AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Erik Spoelstra and David Fizdale have talked about what it would be like to coach against each other for the past few years.
But not even those discussions can prepare them for their meeting Friday night in Memphis.
“There are going to be a lot of emotions,” Spoelstra said of going up against his close friend and former assistant. “It will be strange.”
Fizdale spent the past eight seasons next to Spoelstra on the Heat’s bench and the past two seasons as the assistant head coach to Spoelstra. But Spoelstra lost his confidant when Fizdale was hired as the Grizzlies’ head coach in May.
The two friends will face off as head coaches of opposing teams for the first time Friday when the Heat take on the Grizzlies at FedExForum. And if once wasn’t enough, they will do it again the next night on the back end of a home-and-home set at AmericanAirlines Arena on Saturday.
“I’m glad we’re getting the situation on a back-to-back so we can get it over with because it won’t necessarily be fun,” Spoelstra said.
But they both knew the time would come at some point. Fizdale’s name had popped up for other head coaching vacancies around the NBA over the years and he even met with the Trail Blazers about their opening in 2012.
“He’s definitely head coaching material,” said forward Udonis Haslem, who is the only player on the roster who was in Miami for Fizdale’s entire Heat tenure. “I actually expected him to leave a lot earlier, but I knew at some point he would be a head coach somewhere and I knew at some point he would be a great head coach somewhere.”
That “somewhere” turned out to be Memphis.
The Grizzlies are 10-5 this season and feature the NBA’s third-best defense, which allows 99.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s not a surprise considering defense has been a consistent trademark of Spoelstra’s Heat teams.
“He’s clear with his message about his culture,” Memphis center Marc Gasol said of Fizdale to ESPN before the season. “He’s coming from a place that went four straight times to the Finals. We haven’t talked much about X’s and O’s. The last two months, it’s been about culture and trust. His message has been so profound from Day 1 … and I needed that.”
Known as a players’ coach, Fizdale has used that approach to gain the trust of his team. With the 42-year-old growing up in the inner city of Los Angeles, Haslem believes that background helps him relate to players.
“He’s a very player-coach guy,” Haslem said. “He comes from the same background as a lot of players. He can speak the same lingo as a lot of players and can relate to a lot of things that players had to go through to get to the NBA and some of the things that players are going through currently.”
Spoelstra said he didn’t give Fizdale any advice before he left to Memphis. In Spoelstra’s eyes, Fizdale didn’t need advice from him.
“I think he had a pretty good feel for it going into it,” Spoelstra said. “We were really essentially co-coaches the last couple of years. It’s different, obviously, when you’re sitting in that chair. But I think he’s become more poised as a head coach ironically than as an assistant coach. He has such an enthusiastic personality. But when I watch him on the sideline, I check myself. I’m like, ‘wow.’ He’s extremely poised and calm. I’m really impressed with that.”
Impressed, yes. But Spoelstra isn’t surprised by Fizdale’s success.
“I’m thrilled for him,” Spoelstra said. “He deserved this opportunity. He’s a great basketball mind. I think everybody in Memphis is seeing that. But I think what they’re also seeing is he’s an even better person and that’s why he’s one of my closest friends.”