Fisher Has Always Understood The Simple Truths
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.