The tactic did not result in a turnaround for the team.
In the end, David Fizdale was, by win-loss record, the worst head coach in franchise history. But in the beginning, he was a bespectacled salesman trying to push an underwhelming team to punch above their weight. And two years ago this week, he brought an ax into the locker room.
The Fizdale era was, well, it definitely happened. Fiz tried his darndest, but the team he thought he was coming to coach — the one led by Kristaps Porzingis — never materialized. Still, despite joining a team whose best player was on the mend, Fizdale pulled out all the stops to try and get his squad going. Not only did he have an entire roster’s worth of ex-Knicks talk to the team at practice, including Patrick Ewing, Willis Reed, Walt Clyde Frazier, Rasheed Wallace and John Starks, but two years ago this week he brought an ax into the locker room as a motivational tool.
— Steve Popper (@StevePopper) November 16, 2018
“I promise I’m not going to kill anybody,’’ Fizdale said, according to this writeup by Marc Berman of the New York Post. “That’s why I keep the rubber tip, in case someone wants to come after me over playing time.’’
The Knicks were 4-11 at the time, but don’t mistake this for having taken place just before Fizdale got fired when the Knicks had a record of 4-18. The ax thing happened during the 2018-19 season, which Fizdale would complete. The Knicks finished the year 17-65, which is tied for worst record in franchise history.
Why did Fizdale think that bringing an actual, physical ax might pump up his team? Well, the Knicks were struggling but it was still early in the season, and Fizdale thought he could persuade them to turn things around by wielding a weapon in front of their faces. He even had every player on the team sign the wooden handle of the ax as a showing of solidarity, or something.
“My thing to these guys is what we’re trying to do is to try to chop down a big tree,’’ Fizdale said, per Berman. “If you keep paying attention to if the tree is falling, you’re never going to get that tree down. We signed a covenant as a group. Every guy, ‘Hey let’s make a commitment to stick together and we keep chopping this tree together.’”
Fizdale wanted the Knicks to focus less on how bad they were and more on how good they could be. The team had just been blown out by the Oklahoma City Thunder by 25, and, again, the ax was supposed to represent the fact that it’s a long season, so you’re not going to chop down that tree in one sitting.
“When you’re a coach trying to motivate this group, I already had this thing about chopping a tree,’’ Fizdale said. “We had a quote, ‘If you give me six hours to chop a tree, I’m going to spend four of those hours sharpening my ax.’ I thought, ‘That’s a good idea. Let me get an ax.’
“Every game is not going to be great, and [Wednesday] night wasn’t great,’’ said Kevin Knox after the OKC loss, according to Berman. “We didn’t compete at all, really. But we signed the ax for a reason — that every game won’t be perfect but the ax reminds us to bounce back the next game.’’
To be fair, the ax may have ended up providing some short term gains. Within a week of the ax’s first appearance, the Knicks went on their biggest, and only, winning streak of the season: three games. That streak was followed by a 2-16 stretch, which was followed by more ugly basketball. Remember, the Knicks went 17-65 that year, despite the ax.
Much like the Fizdale era itself, the ax turned out to be all pomp and no substance. No photos of the autographed ax ever seemed to surface, and reporters didn’t really follow up on what was going on with the weapon throughout the year. A little over a year after the ax incident, with the Knicks spiraling downwards and standing at 4-18, Fizdale would get the figurative ax — aka he was fired.