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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Fisher Has Always Understood The Simple Truths

Where is Derek Fisher when you need him?
The Los Angeles Lakers displayed an alarming fragility in their Christmas showdown with Miami. Worse, it was the kind of performance that blindsided a lot of their fans, because it came just as the Lakers seemed on the verge of finding their stride without Lamar Odom, who is out with a knee injury.
Odom has come to be the foundation of Phil Jackson’s Lakers team, much as Scottie Pippen provided the base for Jackson’s Chicago Bulls teams.
Whenever Pippen was out, those Bulls of yore turned wobbly and inconsistent.
Jackson’s Lakers are the same way.
That’s a fact, not an excuse. Jackson mentor Tex Winter predicted the situation about three weeks ago when Odom went out.
Now the Lakers face a huge test, a moment of truth, in their efforts to rebuild into a championship contender. Are they going to fall apart? Or will they find the toughness and leadership to hang together during hard times?
“What happens in these next two games is pretty important,” Winter told me Tuesday, the day after L.A.’s fiasco against the Miami Heat. “You have to see how they respond, how they come back.”
Sensing the situation on the horizon, I had recently gone looking for the steadiest Laker I’ve ever known, Derek Fisher, only he’s not a Laker anymore but a Utah Jazz, whatever that is.
I’ve always said that Fisher has a rich, abiding character and an innate honesty. When I got to know him a decade ago, he immediately reminded me of a young Joe Dumars, not his style of play but his deep commitment and unimpeachable professionalism.
Usually pro basketball players get $33 million contracts because they can dunk and run and shoot. Derek Fisher got his contract because of his character and professionalism and leadership. The day that he got his deal in 2004 I knew the NBA was going to be all right, because it was still a league that rewarded special people like Derek Fisher.
Utah coach Jerry Sloan had had his eye on Fisher for more than a decade. When Fisher was a late first-round pick of the Lakers out of Arkansas-Little Rock in 1996, the Jazz had harbored secret hopes of getting him.
Sloan has always operated by a basic credo: Basketball is not a complicated game— if you just lay your heart on the line every night.
As Laker fans well know, that describes “Fish” to a T.
Heart on the line. Every night.
That’s why Sloan and the Jazz went after Fisher over the summer when they saw the opportunity. As Sloan told me last week, they haven’t been disappointed. Sloan even has him starting at 2 guard, just because he’s so tough, so professional.
“I’ll play wherever they want me to play, even out of position, if it helps the team,” Fish told me. “I like being on the floor.”
Another old Laker, Jazz broadcaster Hot Rod Hundley, is a huge Fisher fan. “He’s been great. Been absolutely great,” Hundley told me. “He has a lot of respect coming his way because he won three world championships with the Lakers. People have all seen him hit those shots at the buzzer. He’s been a great pickup for this team. In fact, he was coming off the bench, but he was playing so well they put him in the starting line up. He’s got a great locker room presence. Good leader. He plays hard. He’s a tough guy. He doesn’t back off of anybody. You’ve got to like him. It was a great move for us.”
After a sizzling start to the season, the Jazz have slipped to playing around .500 ball. It’s just the reason they wanted Fisher in the first place, for times like these.
“This is a part of this business,” Fisher said after a lackluster Utah loss in Charlotte recently. “You have to be able to respond to situations when things aren’t going your way. In games sometimes, when things aren’t going your way, you have to keep fighting back. And over the course of a season, you have stretches where the team is just not playing good basketball and things just don’t seem to be going right. You have to be able to hold it together and keep trying to win games.”
That Fisher toughness is just what the Lakers themselves need right now as they face their first major challenges of the season. Fans will recall his quiet strength that held things together during that hellish 2004 season, which he capped with the 0.04 shot that sent the team back to the league championship series.
“His value in the locker room, the way he handles his teammates, the way he looks at the whole game, is exceptional,” Tex Winter says of Fisher. “We’re (the Lakers) lacking it right now. And we could really use it. Kobe (Bryant) has really blossomed as a leader, but Kobe doesn’t look at the game quite like Fisher does. Not many do.”
When he speaks about the Lakers, Fisher’s voice still turns a bit pensive, like a man speaking about an old, irretrievably lost love. After eight seasons, he left the team as a free agent after that 2004 season for a huge paycheck with Golden State, where he spent two lost years.
“I’ve tried to watch them when I get the opportunity,” he says of the Lakers. “They’re playing good basketball. They got a solid team. Kobe is leading those young guys. He’s grown up a great deal. I’m very happy for him and I’m proud of him.”
Fisher and Bryant share more than a bit of history, having come in as rookies together in 1996. Leery of all the team’s veterans then, the young Bryant slowly came to trust Fisher as someone willing to work as hard as he.
Today, that means that the two remain close.
“We talk a lot, actually,” Fisher said. “He’s really taken to the role of big brother, to the guy that everybody has to look to, not only for statistically carrying the team, but really the rock of the organization and of the team. It’s a role that he’s always felt like he was capable of handling. And now he’s getting an opportunity, and he’s relishing it, and he’s doing a great job.”
The irony, of course, is now that he has the mantle of leadership, Bryant continues to struggle in returning from off-season knee surgery. Winter says he still has yet to see Bryant’s old explosiveness and quickness, or his defensive ability return.
“He can’t do some of the things he used to do and get away with it,” Winter said. “Right now, he can’t go into a crowd (of defenders) and make the plays that he used to make. I don’t know what he’s thinking. But he’s not playing the kind of game that he ought to be playing.”
Strangely, Winter thinks Bryant needs to do more. “He wants to involve his teammates,” Winter explained. “Perhaps he’s trying to do that too much. He needs to be more selective, but — you almost hate to say it — he also needs to be more aggressive. He can’t be so passive. It’s gonna be very hard for us, the way he’s playing right now.”
The problem is even more pronounced defensively, Winter said. “Kobe’s defense is not what it used to be. He’s kind of a roamer and he’s getting burned quite a bit.”
The thing that shelters Bryant in these circumstances is his trademark confidence. Always unwavering, always a bit chippy, Bryant irritated some fans by seemingly minimizing the play of Washington’s Gilbert Arenas after he lit up the Lakers and Bryant recently. But that’s just his signature expression of confidence, something that in the past has fortified both himself and the team.
“One thing we know, he doesn’t make excuses and he doesn’t offer alibis,” Winter said of Bryant. “Somebody ought to make excuses for him. He’s not in the playing condition he needs to be in.”
This is an issue that has concerned Winter since what he saw as Bryant’s premature return in November.
Even with the current turbulence, Winter sees plenty that is encouraging. The Lakers lost a road game in Chicago they should have won, but recovered quickly with wins over Minnesota and New Jersey.
“That victory against New Jersey was really good,” Winter said.
The two wins highlighted a previously suspect Laker bench. “That second unit has been playing better basketball than the first unit,” Winter said.
That might have continued against Miami, except that the first unit struggled so much that the coaching staff started searching for answers. That search interrupted the substitution patterns. The Lakers never found a footing in the game, with Miami’s Dwyane Wade breaking down the defense at will.
The emergence of the second unit is the sign that Fisher looks for in the hard casing of a team. Tough times can do that for a team, if they’re negotiated with a lot a starch and a little patience.
Kobe Bryant may want to get on the phone with his old friend this week to get a refresher course on that important element of leadership.
Fisher will tell him it’s all about pulling together as a team. The good news for both Bryant and Fisher is that it’s always been about hard work. That remains a simple truth for the Lakers now. “With the work that I’ve always had to put in to try to compete at this level, it feels great when everybody on the team competes that way and everybody’s giving their best effort,” Fisher says. “It’s a great feeling. It really is.”

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, a comprehensive oral history of the Lakers published by McGraw-Hill.

14 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

roland;
I'm suprised kobe didn't give an interview to you.:))
It seems like he is everywhere trying to give interviews to everyone. He is going to be overexposed He needs to find the balance.

7:53 AM  
Blogger roland lazenby said...

I'll be talking to him soon.

7:59 AM  
Blogger john marzan said...

i remember reading that derek fisher did not like to go to utah at first.

8:02 AM  
Blogger roland lazenby said...

I asked Derek about his difficulty at first. He said, Hard making the move.
“It was really difficult. I’d been in California my entire career. Even the first move from L.A. to the Bay area was different. Moving from the Bay to Salt Lake City was a huge move. It came right on the heels of our starting a family in California (his wife had just given birth to twins). Just very tough timing. But we’ve adjusted well. For a guy with a family there’s enough to do, but not too much to get into. When family is your priority, you don’t really need a lot of stuff to get into anyway. It’s worked out well for us.”

8:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Roland;
we all admired kobe's killer instict but recently in all big matches he was a no show. Game 7 against suns and the last match.
I've never seen a superstar outplayed that badly by his star opponent.
What is wrong with him? I don't think it is only because of surgery.

8:21 AM  
Anonymous RG Gaznabi said...

Mr. Lazenby,

Great piece about the intangibles of someone like Derek Fisher. And of course, what a perfect time to bring it up.

I was so disappointed with the Lakers performance against the Heat that I had to find a way to go back in time to bring back some of the joy that I had as a Laker fan. And the easiest way for me was to start reading “The Show” where you talked about the Lakers days of yore during their three-peat with Shaq, Kobe, Phil and of course…Derek Fisher.

You captured some great anecdotes from ‘D-Fish’ and reading them, it was clear what a mature, understanding and socially gifted individual Fisher was. And he had all these qualities even as a rookie. In fact, even when most teammates shunned a young Kobe Bryant during his first few years as a Laker (for a variety of reasons), it was Fisher who kept approaching a socially skeptical Bryant until he broke through the barrier and actually became someone who Kobe eventually trusted more than others and even became friends.

By reading about this fascinating journey of the Lakers and the role Fisher played in it, I couldn’t help but admire the foresight and the mental toughness of Derek Fisher. He really was such a vital cog not only during the Lakers’ 3-peat but also both BEFORE and AFTER the winning spree.

I really wish the had Derek Fisher but I don’t personally see it happening espcially from a salary cap aspect of the Lakers.

Which leads me to my next thought…who among the Lakers squad right now can become that tough as nails team leader and inspirational figure (other than Kobe) that can bring the intangibles of someone like Derek Fisher?

Can it be Luke?

Or maybe Lamar? (Lamar already seem to take on the role of a Scottie Pippen where he really holds everything together for the team on both ends of the court)

What about Jordan Farmar?

Or is it Ronny Turiaf? (Even though he barely gets any playing time)

Whoever it is, I really believe that the Lakers do need someone other than Bryant to step into that leadership role who will pull the guys together during a tough game or a tough stretch.

Thanks for the great blog once again.

~ RG Gaznabi

9:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Roland:
Tex really hit the nail on the head: Kobe is getting burned badly -- a lot. Someone needed to say it. And it's not just due to his roaming, although that's part of it.

Your buddy in LA,
JR

10:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When we have Kwame [Brown] in there, there's certain things that we can do defensively. But he was in foul trouble most of the night, so when he would go out, we'd put Andrew in there. Putting an 18-year-old kid up there, trying to control Wade coming off that pick, it might be a little too much for them."
"I'm fine," Bryant said. "What they did (Monday) with Wade, which was smart, is they set a pick on me so Wade would go one-on-one with Andrew (Bynum) or Kwame (Brown). That was the thrust of their offense in the third quarter."

"He's already one hell of a one-on-one player, but when you have him going full speed at them two dudes, that's a hell of a matchup situation. But I feel fine defensively."



I got it from one of the lakers forums. Kobe isn't taking the responsibility but putting it on the shoulders of bynum and kwame.
He is referring bynum as a just 18 year old kid .
wow what a leadership .
I hope he is reading your blog ,Roland.He really needs an advicer like Tex.

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Involving teammates is fine, but an attack mode Kobem is better for himself and the team. Roland, remind Kobe he's the mamba.

Also tell him that most of the fans support him wholeheartedly despite some louder mouthed/oversensitive critics.

Most importantly, get well 100%, Kobe.

1:01 PM  
Blogger LakerKing said...

Roland: so far whats your status on this Laker team? do you feel there a elite team?

2:27 PM  
Blogger roland lazenby said...

Thanks for these great comments. A lot of questions now to answer, and I'll get to them by the weekend.
But I can respond to the last question quickly: Are these Lakers an elite team?
No, not now.
I'm only guessing, but I think the coaching staff is trying hard to like this team.
Everything is on interim status.
Until Lamar Odom gets healthy and back comfortably in the lineup, coaches and fans alike really won't know what they have with this group.
Until then, it's hard to love a mystery.

Roland Lazenby
author of The Show

2:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Taking 45 shots !!!and again getting owned in the defense is not going to help Kobe.
Isn't there anyone that can tell him how bad his defense is?

2:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ROLAND;
WHERE ARE YOU?

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Lazenby,

We had a discussion at some basketball board on great players without a ring and we ended up arguing over Elgin Baylor. Some say he did get the 1972 ring, as he was on the team even though inactive (kind of like Phil Jackson and the Knicks during the season he missed due to back surgery) as no player was signed to take his spot. I contend that he did not get the ring because he was not inactive but formally retired and hence no longer a part of the roster.

Could you please clear this out for us? Did Elgin Baylor get his ring or not?

10:06 AM  

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