Dwyane Wade remembers the interaction a little differently than David Fizdale does.
It occurred during a game in 2008, a few months after Fizdale returned to the Heat organization as an assistant, hired back by new head coach Erik Spoelstra after 10 years at other coaching stops.
Fizdale had spent the summer aiming to earn Wade’s trust by offering the Heat’s then-singular star — who had endured two injury-plagued seasons — some fresh thinking about how he could evolve offensively, maintaining efficiency even as he aged.
It was all going quite well, until …
“We had a moment,” Wade said.
“The first time he yelled at me,” Fizdale said.
“He might have yelled at me first, by the way, if my memory serves me correct,” Wade said.
“I think he was yelling to see if I was going to get personal,” Fizdale said. “And when I just took it, and said, ‘OK, I hear you, let’s go, boom,’ then we started building that real relationship of look, when it gets heated, we know what it’s about, and we’ll never let anything split us.”
“We went out to dinner afterward,” Wade said.
“So it just solidified us,” Fizdale said.
In the five seasons since, Fizdale, 38, has solidified his status as an integral member of the Heat staff, one equally valued by the head coach who calls him a close friend and the Heat stars who call upon him for suggestions and representation.
As such, his value is spiking around the NBA, with the Portland Trail Blazers seeking an interview for their head coaching vacancy last summer — an opportunity he declined. As the Heat play in the second round against the Chicago Bulls, he continues to be mentioned as a possible candidate for current and potential openings, such as the one in Atlanta.
Still, in casual assessments of the Heat’s success, his contributions — as well as others on a staff including Ron Rothstein, Bob McAdoo, Keith Askins, Chad Kammerer and Dan Craig — tend to be overlooked. And it has been rare, during the Pat Riley era, for assistants to be buzzed about for promotions elsewhere. Jeff Bzdelik became the head coach of the Denver Nuggets, but only after a season in between as a scout for the team.
So what do people see in Fizdale, the former University of San Diego point guard who never played in the NBA?
Actually, it’s as much as about what they hear, from him and about him.
“He does a great job of communicating with us,” said LeBron James, first introduced to Fizdale when Mike Brown, then in his first stint as Cavaliers coach, twice tried to hire him in Cleveland.
Communication is widely deemed Fizdale’s greatest strength.
“And with the most diverse types of people,” said Spoelstra, who supervised Fizdale on the video staff when the latter was a Heat intern in 1997-98. “You can throw him into any room, and he will be able to work with that room. Anywhere. From where he grew up in South Central, to a board meeting to a basketball camp, he can bring any group of people together. And I know I’ll always get the truth out of Fiz, even if it’s not what I want to hear.”
That’s why Spoelstra has entrusted him to serve as the bridge between the players — primarily the Big 3 of Wade, James and Chris Bosh — and himself, as he once served as a bridge between players and Stan Van Gundy or Pat Riley. Fizdale characterizes himself as something else: extinguisher.
“I try to make sure that if there’s anything smoking, that I can put that out before it ever gets to Spo,” Fizdale said. “And if there’s anything smoking that Spo needs to know, I try to make sure that it’s communicated from them to him, from him to them, without fire.”
That means providing context and clarity.
“This is where LeBron’s coming from, Spo,” Fizdale said. “LeBron, this is where Spo was coming from. I translate for them and we keep everybody moving in the same direction. I try to be the glue as much as I can.”
Or, as Wade put it, skillfully and honestly “facilitating the relationship, between our individual wants and needs versus team wants and needs.”
That’s a delicate balance.
So, too, is there a balance every young coach must strike between comfort and ambition. Fizdale insists he’s not anxious to explore options.
“I’ve got the best assistant coaching job in the league,” he said. “I live in Miami, I work with my best friend for the best team, and he lets me do whatever I want. I get to coach offense, defense, individuals, you can’t beat that. I’ve gotten to do things that some coaches go through a whole career and never get to do.”
That included coaching the Heat’s summer league team, and one squad in the NBA All-Star Rising Stars Challenge.
“I’m two feet in here,” Fizdale said. “Spo knows it, Pat knows it. I’ll never be an assistant anywhere else, unless they fire me. And then, for head coaching opportunities, I want it to be a situation where they tell me to go, you can’t pass that up.”
Eventually, they will.
“We’ll lose him someday,” Wade said.
And they will laugh about that time they lost their tempers.