Because you can never walk in someone else’s footprints Derek Fisher didn’t try, not after an exhausting overtime defeat, not after his 39 year old body had seemingly closed the last chapter of a very glorious book. At thirty three minutes past the hour he was unable to dispel even one more molecule of energy. Because once it was over, it was really over. Every moment that had come before this moment had evaporated into the thin air. For this was Derek Fisher at his best-competing like he would never play again. And this was Derek Fisher at his worst- competing because he would never play again. The lens of the camera in one moment captured the expression upon his face, etched there because he was one person 18 years ago, the 24th pick of the Los Angeles Lakers, a little known guard from the University of Arkansas-Little Rock- now he was someone else, champion, leader, president, teammate. Here. And then gone. Hello and then goodbye.
He has not decided if he is going to retire even though the signs seem to indicate he shall. Retire or not, Derek should be allowed the luxury of marinating on the season that ended the way most seasons end: the sallow taste of a loss clinging to a cliff. Derek’s loss was more dramatic than most. It was an epic, exhilarating, breathtaking, guts and glory defeat. Thus it was more painful, more heartbreaking, more…everything. A 39 year old playing in a game he can no longer save is a 39 year old playing in a game he has to leave.
The fragility of Oklahoma City since the James Harden trade has always been about their bare boneness, their over reliance on two. Derek Fisher’s intelligence and toughness and experience and leadership could not erase what was a flawed proposition. No longer can two dynamic players beat a team of 8. The math will forever be wrong. Derek Fisher, coming off the bench, the best the Thunder had to offer, was further illustration of their collateral damage. And so it was that long look at where he was standing on the court, the absorption of one sort of life as he is on the cusp of another. He was taking it all in as if his brain was both oil and water, mixing and repelling, for there were the years of greatness and success and championships and there were the years of disappointment and regrets and defeats.
Last night he entered the game and it was his 259th playoff game. Not since his rookie year has Derek Fisher shot such a low percentage in the playoffs, 31%. But even as he was inserted into the game for his ability to make pressure shots and to calm the Thunder offense which often is predicated by aggression and imbalance, he was also inserted into the game for his toughness, self discipline and unselfishness. His career arc can be defined by a lack of greed- or if he is greedy it is for winning and everything that encompasses it. And so it was last night that Derek Fisher, the clutch perimeter shooter and deadly screen setter, had 6 rebounds. He had more rebounds than Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams. In the overtime period, with the Thunder leading by two, Derek Fisher had an offensive rebound which led to Kevin Durant attempting a 14 foot jump shot. It would have given the Thunder a 4 point lead. But Durant missed. That led to a Manu Ginobli layup which tied the score. The Spurs had Tim Duncan and so they outlasted the Thunder and sent Derek Fisher, more than likely, into the second part of his professional life: coach, front office executive or something else altogether different.
In his first playoff game in 1996 Derek Fisher played the Portland Trailblazers. He was on the floor for 13 minutes. He took four shots and missed them all. He had one point, one assist and one rebound. The Lakers won by 18 points. 18 years would pass between that unremarkable performance when he was 21 years old and last night. Memories would add up and great players would surround him and winning shots would define him. In what may have been his last playoff game Derek Fisher was on the floor 32 minutes, a 2014 playoff high. He took four shots. He missed two, he made two. He made one three point shot. He had one assist and six rebounds. It said nothing about what Derek Fisher did in that game, what he meant. He will forever be classified, years from now, as a playoff performer, someone who meant something to Kobe and Shaq, someone who meant something to Kobe and Pau, someone who meant something to Deron Williams, someone who meant something to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Four years ago, in 2010, Derek Fisher openly wept after a playoff game in Boston. It was game 3 of the NBA Finals; the Lakers and Celtics were tied 1-1. Derek Fisher played 40 minutes. In the 4th quarter the offense evolved into getting Derek Fisher, not Kobe Bryant, the ball. Kobe set screens for Derek. The offense depended on him and it was not the usual Derek Fisher camping out in the corner waiting to be noticed. He made a layup. He made a 13 footer. He made a mid range jumper. He made a tough perimeter shot. With the Lakers up by 5 he connected on another jump shot inside the arc. With less than a minute left and the Lakers up by 4 Derek Fisher rebounded a Kobe Bryant perimeter miss and finished with a layup. He would make two free throws to ice the game. The Lakers won in Boston and afterwards Fisher’s tears were part euphoria, part relief, part gratitude. The Lakers had Hall of Fame talent and yet they went to him. They trusted him. They believed in him and in that one moment it was everything he always knew about himself and what his basketball career was about. He was the man of honor who respected the game so much he did whatever was asked. On that night he was asked to be their best player. The Lakers would end up winning the series in 7, they would slay their enemy in such heartbreaking fashion Celtics players and fans and even their hallowed coach, Doc Rivers, would not be able to look at what came out of it, a Lakers championship banner. It still makes the Celtics sick.
Yes it is true. 18 summers have come and gone since the draft class of 1996. No matter how you slice the draft of that year it all comes out the same. It was a draft class that would become iconic. Allen Iverson, drafted #1. Marcus Camby, drafted #2. Stephon Marbury, drafted #4. Ray Allen, drafted #5. Kobe Bryant, drafted #13. Peja Stojokavic, drafted #14. Steve Nash, drafted #15. Jermaine O’Neal drafted #17. And then there was Derek Fisher at the end of the draft from a school that had never produced a championship player. He was their first, he was their greatest.
Jerry West saw something in Derek and made it all possible in 1996. Of course Jerry West wouldn’t know about Derek Fisher the leader and Derek Fisher the teammate and Derek Fisher the disciplinarian. He would not know that in 2001, in a series against the Spurs, Derek Fisher would make 6 out of 7 threes and bury the Spurs; the Lakers would sweep. He would not know that some three years later Derek Fisher, against the Spurs, would drive a stake through their heart. He hit an impossible shot that will live on in the dog eared pages of the history books. The game winning shot with four tenths of a second left symbolized the fortune of the Lakers in that particular era. And so perhaps there is such a thing as a circle coming to a close. Because it was the San Antonio Spurs, the team that was the repository for Derek’s greatest triumphs as a NBA player, that would set the stage for his last fall even as it was never intended to be about him. In one moment it was. It was. Derek looked east and west. He looked north and south. It was all the tender emotion of a goodbye, all of the resignation. Because everything changes. All things end, especially careers. But for Derek- and this is the beautiful part for him- it just might be hello to something even greater.