On Sunday there he was. It was the same Derek Fisher of a long time ago, the one who was celebrated and admired. He played 22 minutes and in a pressured fourth quarter drained back to back threes. He did it against the team that drafted him, the team he won championships with that abruptly traded him even as he was a co-captain. He did it on the floor he will never play on again, at least not with the Lakers logo. And all that means is that Derek Fisher will never look up and see banners he helped create. He will never run through screens and get to the three point line and know Jack Nicholson is watching. He will never deliver hard picks and be cheered. He will never arc his shot while Lakers fans watch transfixed. He is retiring at this end of this year. And so it is- basketball life wrapped in a hard dose of reality. Everything ends. Derek Fisher is 39 years old. Everything ends.
He is a long way from home, from where he started. Derek Fisher, the kid from Little Rock who came to Los Angeles with a hope and a dream, was trusted for much of his career. He believed in a moral world and he delivered titles for the city of Los Angeles by making big shots. Never the most talented, he exhibited grit and calm in the most stressful situations. He was as necessary as Shaq, as tough as Kobe, as inspirational as Phil, as persuasive as Dr. Buss, as kind as Jeannie, as intelligent as a Rhodes Scholar and he lived with honor. As the Lakers are finding out this year, leaders don’t grow on trees, neither are they manufactured. They are special. Derek would lead by example and he would lead by his own competitive nature and he would lead by inspiring.
Throw the word great around and you will eventually arrive at 1996. Drafted that year were players who left their mark upon NBA history, whose names are in the record books. It was a draft that produced 14 NBA titles. 4 Most Valuable Players. 6 scoring titles. 62 All-Star appearances. 37 All-NBA selections. 1200 playoff games. 27 Players of the Month. 2 NBA Finals MVP’s. There was Allen Iverson, the #1 pick. Marcus Camby, the #2 pick. Stephon Marbury, the #4 pick. Ray Allen, the #5 pick. Kobe Bryant, the #13 pick. Steve Nash, the #15 pick. And Derek Fisher who was chosen 24th, the only NBA player Arkansas-Little Rock has ever produced so of course he was a long shot to have a memorable career. But, oh, what happened.
If good things come in threes than it was inevitable. Kobe was first, then Derek. And to round it all out, to make it work, Jerry West convinced Shaq he could have success in Los Angeles, he could follow in the footsteps of Wilt and Kareem. The Lakers coach that year was Del Harris. Although the fans were desperate to see Kobe play, Del was conservative and held him back. Shaq was dominant. And then there was Derek. He and Kobe, the two rookies, went at each other a lot, testing one another and preparing one another. Derek backed up Nick Van Exel and started every game in the playoffs his rookie year. When Phil Jackson became the coach three years later, the triangle offense was a perfect fit for Derek as a big guard who could move the ball and integrate himself into the Shaq and Kobe offensive matrix.
But if Derek is known for anything it is what he did in the playoffs. In the 2001 Western Conference Finals, Derek had his best playoff performance of his career. In game 1, he made 56% of his shots, 75% from three. In game 2, he made 66% of his shots and all of his threes. In game four he made 84% of his shots, 85% of his threes. He finished with a career high 28 points. The Lakers swept the Spurs and would go on to repeat as champions.
But it would be in the city of San Antonio that Derek Fisher’s greatest singular triumph, a moment in the light, would earn him a unique place in Lakers history for he vanquished the enemy by himself. It was May 13, 2004, the Western Conference Semi-Finals. The Lakers and Spurs were tied two games a piece. Game 5 was back and forth. The Lakers won the first quarter, the teams were nearly even in the second and in the third. The Spurs took control in the fourth, the Lakers scored 12 points in the quarter. The stars did what they usual do. Kobe played forty seven minutes and had 22 points. Duncan played forty six minutes and had 21 points and 21 rebounds. The Lakers were leading 72-71 with nine tenths of a second left. Tim Duncan made a fade away one legged, impossible 18 footer over Shaq to give the Spurs the lead, 73-72. There were four tenths of a second left, not many options. Of course the Spurs were counting on something from Kobe. But Gary Payton inbounded the ball to Derek on the left wing. Derek sailed a three pointer to win the game, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest clutch shooters in NBA playoff history.
And then it was five years later. 2009. The Lakers were trailing the Orlando Magic by 3. Dwight Howard was at the line with eleven seconds left. His failure was all Derek needed, he drained a three to tie the game. The Lakers won in overtime, took a 3-1 series lead. It would be title number 4 for Derek Fisher.
What is it that makes a player special? Is it his titles? Is it his relationship with his teammates? Is it the little things that go unnoticed, that never wind up in the box score, the screen on Luis Scola, the hockey assist that ends up in a Shaquille O’Neal dunk, the hustle for a ball out of bounds. Or is it playing against the Celtics in the Finals, winning a game in Boston Garden. Then, Derek made four shots in a row in a tense fourth quarter to decide who would break a 1-1 series tie. Kobe was setting screens to get Derek open looks. Perhaps that is what is truly special after all. One of the greatest scorers in NBA history willing to give up his glory so his friend and teammate could thrive.
No two teammates since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen have won 5 titles together. For that to happen you need luck and you need trust. But you also need more. You need a rope that will not break. A chain with a link. Derek was tough and dedicated and intelligent. He liked control, he needed it, and he understood Kobe’s ethic to win and to work. They depended upon one another because they had faith in one another; they were co-captains. Even as they were different. If Derek was Martin Luther King as his teammates came to understand, then Kobe was Malcolm X. One was conflict while the other was peace. But peace in the world is what you strive for.
Derek tells this story. When he decided to leave the Lakers he called Kobe. Kobe pleaded for him to stay. His speech was so impassioned, Derek almost changed his mind. But he couldn’t. He had given Golden State his word. He played for the Warriors and he played for the Jazz. He made an appearance in a playoff game after his daughter was diagnosed with cancer and he scored 20 points on 70% shooting.
Rarely does he speak about his years with the Lakers besides the generic description of accomplishing so much. Kevin Durant and Thunder coach, Scott Brooks, are hoping to talk Fisher out of retiring but he will be 40 on August 9th. What more is there for him to accomplish; he has done more than anyone could have imagined, he has created friendships, built a foundation, driven a team to titles. He says he misses Kobe every day, he says he made a lot of friends when he was with the Lakers; he does not say he forgives the organization for trading him. Set that aside. Derek Fisher played in the NBA for 18 years. He made his mark. Some men you cannot help but admire. They live in a moral world. They demonstrate their leadership and their toughness. They win five titles. They take seriously advice: make your career count, wring every ounce of talent you have, leave your footprints. All of it is a privilege. From the very beginning Derek knew this to be true and at the very end he has proven it to be true and somehow through the middle there are very few things he would take back. He did what no one in Little Rock thought he ever could do. He made it to the NBA, they remember his name. They remember too his game winning shots and his greatness as a leader. It is eighteen years later and Derek Fisher has earned his reputation. He made his way. From there to here to the top. It’s been a good career.