MEMPHIS -- Nearly two hours into the Memphis Grizzlies' first training camp practice, a screaming whistle blew what seemed to be a chaotic shooting drill to a screeching halt.
Players anticipated their first of two workout sessions Tuesday was over. But new coach David Fizdale spotted someone's effort lagging so he abruptly charged toward the middle of the court.
"What the hell is this?" Fizdale shouted as he mimicked a player who loafed through the drill. "What are we doing? Practice ain't over. These are game shots we're working on, guys. Championship shots."
"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."Marc Gasol
The Grizzlies have never won an NBA title or even a conference finals game. Doesn't matter. The language from the outset of training camp has apparently changed around here. And so has much more.
About 1,043 miles separate Fizdale's current job from his previous one. Memphis, on this particular late September day, was also 20 degrees cooler than the place that groomed him for this shot to become a first-time NBA head coach. From the motivating buzzwords to the bulletin boards throughout the practice gym, and from the system tweaks to the redesigned locker rooms and hallways, there's an unmistakable Miami Heat way of doing things that Fizdale has imported from South Florida.
There's a specific hope in Memphis. It's that Fizdale draws from his experiences in Miami, where he spent six seasons as Erik Spoelstra's lead assistant in an organization run by Hall of Famer Pat Riley. Fizdale was with Heat teams that advanced to the playoffs five times, made four straight trips to the NBA Finals and won two titles in a system that featured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
There's no guarantee that incorporating elements of the Heat culture will result in a championship-level breakthrough in Memphis. Especially when no blueprint exists for avoiding the devastating rash of injuries that led to the Grizzlies using an NBA-record 28 players on the roster last season. Despite losing Marc Gasol (foot), Mike Conley (Achilles) and several other key rotation players, Memphis still finished seventh in the West and made the playoffs before being swept by San Antonio in the first round.
If nothing else, Fizdale's energy, engaging personality and accountability represent a fresh start for the Grizzlies. Many have taken notice of the initial changes in camp. Gasol, Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are on their third coach in a four-year span. Yet even after reaching the 2013 Western Conference finals with Lionel Hollins at the helm, then holding a 2-1 series lead over Golden State in a second-round series under Dave Joerger two years ago, Memphis' "Core Four" sense a distinctive difference with Fizdale.
"He's clear with his message about his culture," Gasol said. "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."
New coaches make it a priority to establish an early connection with key players. For Fizdale, it's risen to a passion. In Miami after the Big Three's first season ended with a loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals, Spoelstra spent an unconventional offseason studying the psychology of football coaches Urban Meyer and Chip Kelly.
Earlier this week, Fizdale referenced a quote that inspired him from Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
"I remember seeing a quote from Harbaugh, pretty much saying that 90 percent of his time is spent with his players; and that rang true with me," Fizdale said. "That's the most important thing I could do -- spend time with my players over the summer, give them a vision as to how they fit into this thing."
For Fizdale, that meant reaching out to Gasol soon after accepting the coaching job in late May.
"In my first conversation with Marc, I said, 'Well, you know I'm going to start taking you out if you don't get up at least four 3-pointers a game,'" Fizdale said. "And I think he about fell out of his chair when I said it. I wouldn't have a job right now as a head coach if Chris Bosh couldn't shoot 3s. And he developed that in Miami. I plan to do the same thing with Marc, and he's already working on it like crazy."
Fizdale then followed up weeks later with a visit to Gasol's home in Barcelona. It was a trip that came at a rough time for Gasol, the former NBA Defensive Player of the Year who was rehabbing a broken foot that cut his season short in February. Gasol wasn't healthy enough to compete for Spain in the Olympics.
"He came and said, 'You're not going to play for the national team, but here are the things I want you to work on for next season,'" Gasol said of Fizdale. "And he said, 'Here's how I want you to lead the team, here's how I want you to be a captain and here's how I'm going to do my job as coach to establish the culture we want to have in a city like Memphis.' And he's doing what he says he's going to do."
It's a message and a method that resonated in free agency when the time came to retain Conley and land free agent Chandler Parsons. Conley's $153 million deal to stay in Memphis was the richest five-year contract in NBA history, and Parsons scored a $94 million contract.
Fizdale has told both that the onus to perform to the standards of those contracts falls as much on the coaching staff and other teammates as it does on the players directly under the scrutiny.
"I don't think Mike ever wanted to leave," Fizdale said. "What Mike wanted to hear was what was going to be different, how we'd take it to a different level. When I talked to him about the system and culture, we clicked from the beginning. Chandler wanted to see us keep Mike first. Once we got Mike, who wouldn't want to play with the most unselfish point guard and big man in the league?"
Fizdale's recruiting and reinforcement of expectations haven't stopped since.
"He's like, 'Man, I just want you thinking All-Star, All-Star, All-Star,'" said Conley, who has yet to represent a conference in which Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Tony Parker have stacked up selections. "'You're going to be an All-Star,' is what he tells me every single day, outside of 'We're going to win a championship.' I had kind of put that on the backburner, but it would be cool."
Conley, Gasol and Parsons are all early into long-term new max deals. But convincing Randolph and Allen to fully buy in despite entering the season with expiring contracts represented a different challenge. They also possess the strongest personalities and roughest edges in the locker room.
"I'm not the easiest guy [to talk to], but he's brave enough to do it," Allen said of Fizdale. "He's straight up front with it - nothing behind the scenes. I never had it like that from a coach. He put the light into our eyes that our window is not that big, so we need to get it done now."
Fizdale is also literally shining a brighter light along the players' path to the FedEx Forum court. That's another not-so-minor detail he's borrowed from the Heat. The tunnel in Miami that leads from the Heat's locker room to the court is referred to as 'Championship Alley' and is lined with floor-to-ceiling game photos of players and images from championship runs in 2006, 2012 and 2013.
Among the Fizdale-inspired makeovers in Memphis are oversized images of Conley, Allen, Gasol and Randolph in the hallway leading to the court. There's also a redesigned team and family lounge. Along another wall is a quote from a Chinese author and philosopher about character being forged by fire. The concept comes from a collection of motivational books Miami's staff annually gives to players as gifts.
All that's missing is the championship memorabilia in Memphis.
"He's changing the culture already here and bringing that championship attitude," Randolph said. "He's looking guys right in the eyes. You've got to respect what Fiz brings. He's got the formula for the recipe."
Fittingly, Fizdale's first batch of Memphis practices were devoted almost entirely to defense.
"It was ugly in some stretches because they aren't connected yet, but we're working," Fizdale said of the schematic instillations. "Spo and Coach Riley would kill me if they found out I did it any other way."