Derek Fisher: Leader, Legend And Laker For Life
With Derek Fisher being introduced as the New York Knicks’ head coach on Tuesday, D-Fish’s extensive NBA playing career has officially come to an end.
The 6-1 point guard from Little Rock, Arkansas had his share of big-time moments, adversities, and triumphs during his 18-year career with numerous teams, but he’ll mainly be associated with and remembered for his success as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
After reading his book (Derek Fisher: Character Driven), I confirmed one of the reasons Fisher will always be my second-favorite player (behind Kobe Bryant) of all time. Fish was always an underdog, yet always worked hard, and always found a way to prosper and rise above adversity. I felt similarities within myself, where I’d be doubted or underestimated yet always managed to prove people wrong — much to their surprise.
With Fisher, he came from humble beginnings, worked his way up, and developed into a leader while never forgetting where he came from.
He was never going to be an All-Star, put up big numbers, or even reach double-digit assists on a regular basis, but he would always play his tail off, lead with his head and his heart, and many times with the Lakers, do all he could to help his team win — and win they did.
Fresh out of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock at the age of 21, Fisher was drafted by the Lakers in 1996, the same year Kobe Bryant was acquired by the Lakers via a trade on draft day.
The two would develop a strong bond, but not at first.
Fisher recalled the two being left in the gym after practice, playing one-on-one against each other for hours. The two competitors played hard, and often came close to blows in the heat of the moment. They never actually fought, but neither player would back down, either. The two earned respect for each other after that, which resulted in a partnership that eventually raised five championship banners atop the Staples Center rafters.
Fisher would be a starter off and on under different coaches, and it was no different once Phil Jackson arrived in 1999. Fish actually averaged a little more than half the minutes in the 1999-2000 playoffs (in which the Lakers won their first championship under the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant era) than he did in the previous season.
Jackson preferred bigger guards, and had brought in Ron Harper — who had helped him win three championships in Chicago — to start for the Lakers.
Phil had historically favored bigger lead guards in his triangle offense, which Derek certainly was not.
As always, this did not deter Fisher. It just made him more determined.
Unfortunately, Fisher suffered a stress fracture prior to the following season, which kept him out for the first 62 games of the regular season. However, once he returned, Derek started and the Lakers’ defense and offense received a boost as Fisher averaged 11.5 points, 4.4 assists and 2.0 steals for the rest of the season as opposed to the 6.3 points, 2.8 assists, and 1.0 steals he had averaged the previous year. Fisher remained the starting point guard for throughout playoffs, as the Lakers went 15-1 en route to their second championship in as many years. His hot shooting (13.4 points per game on 52 percent shooting from behind the three-point line) was crucial to the Lakers’ success.
Fisher had earned his keep and the trust of his teammates and coaches, and the Lakers would go on to win their third championship in a row.
Two seasons later, however, the Lakers brought in Karl Malone and Gary Payton to help the Lakers rise to another championship after being eliminated from the playoffs the previous year. This once again put Fisher on the bench, not starting a single game in the playoffs. The Lakers eventually lost to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, leaving much uncertainty surrounding the Lakers.
Shaq was traded, Phil left, and Derek wanted a change of scenery and to land somewhere where he could expand his game and take on a role with more responsibility, so he opted to leave for the Golden State Warriors. Bringing championship experience, Fisher became a leader on a young Warriors team, although they did not make the playoffs for the two years he was there.
He was traded to the Utah Jazz, and by then a seasoned veteran, became a mentor to point guard Deron Williams.
A true test of character came when his daughter, Tatum, was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer — retinoblastoma. Fisher once again came through in the clutch, as he had done countless times on the court, by doing loads of research and figuring out the best way to attack the cancer head on. Not being able to control the outcome of that situation completely, however, he gained patience, perseverance, and an ability to place trust in others to do a job that he could not. All the while, he had to manage his daughter’s care while also fulfilling his obligation to perform in the playoffs for the Utah Jazz (which we’ll get to in just a moment).
Meanwhile back in Los Angeles, the Lakers were struggling. Phil Jackson returned to the sidelines, but the Lakers had twice been eliminated by the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs.
Leading them at the point guard position was Smush Parker (we all remember that guy, right?) throughout the 2006 playoffs. However, Parker was not cut out to be the kind of player to play next to Kobe Bryant, and Jackson even opted to start rookie point guard Jordan Farmar in his stead for the 2007 playoffs. Needless to say, the Lakers lacked some serious leadership on the court.
Kobe Bryant was so frustrated that he demanded a trade.
I remember saying that if we just had a solid point guard — more specifically Derek Fisher — to run the triangle offense in those seasons, that it would have been a different story and the Lakers would have at least 10 more victories (they went 42-40 that season).
Personal circumstances surrounding Fisher’s family forced him to ask to be let out of his contract with the Utah Jazz, and Larry Miller was gracious enough to do so. Fisher had a limited amount of options of where he could relocate, and fortunately for the Lakers, Los Angeles was one of them.
It was the perfect move for both parties, and I got my wish — Derek Fisher was once again donning the purple and gold! Although the team had significantly improved overall by the time the season was over, the Lakers ended up going 57-25.
It didn’t quite start out so smoothly, though. Kobe Bryant was still adamant with his trade request, but he finally had a teammate with him who understood championship DNA. The two had maintained a close relationship while apart, and Fisher’s calming presence and vocal leadership were able to keep Kobe Bryant’s mind in the moment. With the recent revelation that Kobe wouldn’t even talk to Smush Parker during breaks in practice, it’s safe to assume that Kobe wasn’t the best locker room confidant at the time. Fisher, however, became the voice of the locker room, allowing Kobe to lead by example while Fish would give the necessary motivational speeches and provide a steady hand on the court.
Midway through the season, Andrew Bynum had developed into an impactful player, and the Lakers acquired Trevor Ariza. The Lakers were rolling until Andrew Bynum suffered a devastating knee injury. Kobe Bryant even declared the Lakers a championship caliber team with Bynum — who he had discounted in a secretly taped parking lot video just months earlier – in the lineup, which was a complete contrast in tone from the summer. Shortly after the injury, the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol and the Lakers went on to make it to the 2008 NBA Finals, before losing to the Boston Celtics. Bryant was once again fully invested into winning a championship in the purple and gold.
Fisher was widely considered the heart and soul of the team, and would often give motivational speeches to the team during critical games. Simply put, he would talk and guys would listen. He was an extension of the coaching staff, which Phil alluded to in his introduction of Fisher on Tuesday.
The Lakers would go on to win championships in 2009 and 2010 with plenty of memorable big shots from Fisher, proving he was not only a leader who talked the talk, but one who walked the walk as well.
He would keep guys calm when opposing players tried to get under their skin, but also hand out some retribution when he felt the need to stick up for a teammate (remember Luis Scola?).
After Fisher was traded midway through the 2011-2012 season, he ended up with the Oklahoma City Thunder in stints, before finally playing his final season there for the duration. Head coach Scott Brooks and All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook all considered Fisher a great teacher and mentor as well.
Kobe Bryant recently said that Fisher’s the one former Laker he would love to play with once again, and it’s well known that Fisher was one of the few — if not the only — players that could call Kobe out without Kobe getting mad or showing hostility towards. Even when Pau Gasol would try to criticize Kobe on the court, you could visibly see Bryant shut him down, no matter who was at fault. With Fisher, he’s the only player Kobe truly saw as an equal in terms of basketball knowledge and knowing the best way to go about winning a ballgame.
Fisher’s leadership once he came back to the Lakers was just one of the assets he brought to the team, but now let’s get to some of the fun stuff.
Let’s check out some of his work in the form of clutch performances that legends are made from.
Next Page: The Legend