dEDGE Post Scriptum
Don’t be fooled by his stocky appearance or his calm demeanor. Underneath the purple and gold jersey he proudly wears, Derek Fisher is all chiseled framework coupled with heart and courage few can rival. Fisher entered the league alongside a precocious Kobe Bryant in 1996 as the 24th overall pick out of Arkansas Little Rock. Considered one of the best NBA drafts of all time, Fisher arrived with little fanfare or notoriety. But Jerry West obviously saw great potential in the 6’2″, 210 lbs. warrior. Coached by Del Harris and featuring a newly signed free agent in Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers embarked on several seasons of not quite matching up to the rest of their Western Conference opponents. Playing behind veterans Nick Van Exel, Byron Scott, Derek Harper and Ron Harper, Fisher nonetheless was a valuable and steadying force off the bench. The eventual hiring of Phil Jackson as coach in 1999 led the Lakers to their first championship title since the glorious Showtime era.
A foot injury sidelined him for much of the 2000-’01 season, but Fisher returned in time for the last 20 games of the regular season and went on to average 13.4 points in 34 minutes per game in the playoffs. The Lakers prevailed again with a repeat title against the Philadelphia 76ers. In 2001, Fisher firmly implanted himself as the starting point guard on the Lakers three-peat team, averaging 11.2 points in the regular season. The next season saw the Lakers stumbling to the eventual champions, San Antonio Spurs, led by Tim Duncan and David Robinson. What was embossed into the hearts of Laker fans after their defeat, was the tear-riddled face of Fisher as the team watched the Spurs celebrating around them. That offseason saw the Lakers making drastic changes to their roster with the addition of future Hall of Fame members, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Fisher was forced back to the bench but remained a key catalyst and contributor. This was also the season of discontent as the Shaq/Kobe feud reached new heights and unparalleled lows. But it was also a season of tremendous personal highlight for Fisher, as he nailed an improbable turnaround jumper with .04 seconds left on the clock to beat the Spurs in a memorable semi-final matchup. The Lakers marched on to the Finals as the heavy favorites, only to lose to the Detroit Pistons, 4-1.
Clearly torn between returning to an uncertain Lakers squad, or to test the free agency market, Fisher ultimately chose the later and signed with the Golden State Warriors for $37 million over 6 years. In contrast, the Lakers offered only $15 million for 3 years. Gone too were familiar faces Shaquille O’Neal, Payton, Rick Fox, Phil Jackson and eventually Malone as well. Left in the shambles was a solitary good friend, Kobe Bryant, who nonetheless wished his friend well with his newfound financial security. Fisher initially started with the Warriors but soon discovered that running the point guard spot was more difficult without the luxury of having a star, such as a Shaq or Kobe to dish off for easy buckets. Fisher soon found himself in a familiar position as the Warriors signed Baron Davis and he was once again relegated to the bench. But in this role, Derek posted 13.3 points per game, his highest scoring average of his career. The 2006 offseason saw Derek being traded to the Utah Jazz in a clear move to reduce payroll. His role was to mentor and provide veteran leadership to an up-and-coming point guard, Deron Williams.
That same year saw Derek Fisher nominated as President of the NBA Players Association. He had finally reconnected himself with a team that had tremendous potential and quickly became a fan favorite. His teammates looked to him for guidance and reassurance, and he delivered. Following their first round playoff victory over the Houston Rockets, a glum Fisher announced that one of his four children was ill. He later disclosed that his 11-month old daughter, Tatum, was suffering from retinoblastoma, a rare, degenerative form of eye cancer. With an okay from Utah’s front office and head coach Jerry Sloan, Fisher missed the first game of the second round and attended to his family. A few days later, Tatum underwent emergency surgery at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital. With permission from her doctors, Fisher and his family flew back home to Utah, and upon landing, with Game 2 already in progress against the Warriors, a surprised Fisher learned that PG Williams was in foul trouble and back-up Dee Brown had just suffered a serious injury.
Arriving at the arena midway through the 3rd quarter, Fisher quickly suited up and made his way out onto the court. He was met with a thunderous ovation and tremendous output of support from his teammates. Even former running mate, Baron Davis offered his prayers and best wishes. He was quickly inserted into the game without warming up and the Jazz immediately mounted a huge comeback. Fisher made a key defensive play, forcing Davis into a costly turnover in the final moments of the game, allowing the Jazz to force overtime. And in the closing minutes of overtime, Fisher drained a victory securing three pointer as he looked up and pointed to the heavens. The Jazz defeated the Warriors, 4-1, but were eventually eliminated in the Conference Finals by the Spurs, but Fisher’s emotional heroics in Game 2 was nominated as Best Moment at the 2007 ESPY Awards. In the offseason, Fisher requested and was granted a release from his contract with the Jazz to better care for his daughter in a city that had the proper medical facilities. After much speculation, Fisher resigned with the Los Angeles Lakers, reuniting him with his rookie year partner, Kobe Bryant.
Fisher has gone on to say that he has really appreciated the entire Utah Jazz organization for their tremendous support, understanding and compassion. He specifically mentioned recently deceased Jazz owner, Larry Miller, for allowing him to part ways. Fisher left behind $8 million on the table by signing with the Lakers. The Utah fans were less sympathetic, feeling Fisher left for his own personal gain. And in his first game back to Utah as a Laker, he was met with a stinging chorus of boos and catcalls. Fisher clearly was upset, yet he never spoke out badly about the experience. But an equally stung and angry Kobe Bryant vowed to Fisher, “never again.” The Lakers reached the Finals that year and even though they lost to the eventual champions, Boston Celtics, Fisher once again endeared himself to the millions of Laker fans worldwide. That any father should go through what he has endured speaks loudly of his faith and commitment to his family. That anyone should continue to question his decision further reinforces what kind of person Derek Fisher has been, and remains.
Now in his 13th season and 34 years of age, this three time champion may no longer possess the speed and quickness to slow down the buzz saws of the league, but his tenacity and ferocity remain. He is the glue that helps unite and fortify the frayed nerves of our inexperienced players. He is the sound, senior statesman who relays his worldly experiences to a relatively young team. And he is still the same sinewed, powder keg, capable of draining a key shot, making a game saving defensive stop, or leading the cheers, urging his younger counterparts on so that they too, can experience what we have enjoyed with him all along.
For another fantastic read, check out Kevin Ding’s article on Derek Fisher in the OC Register.