By Chris Lehman
With the 24th pick of the 1996 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Lakers selected Derek Fisher, the guard from Little Rock, Arkansas. This was the same year Kobe Bryant was drafted. At the time, they had no idea that they would become one of the most successful backcourts in NBA history.
To most people, Fisher is an inefficient point guard who averaged just under 9 points and 3 assists a game through his career. But to the dedicated Lakers fans who spent their childhood watching him, he is respected as the Lakers’ glue and one of the best team leaders in the NBA.
Fisher played a limited role for his first few years in the NBA. It wasn’t until the 2000-2001 season that took over for Ron Harper and became an integral part of the lineup. The Lakers were coming off a very successful championship season. With their new point guard running the offense, they would go on to win the next two as well.
Fisher wasn’t valued for his 11.5 points a game, or his 4 assists. His true value was intangible. He brought a leadership quality to a team that every coach, player and fans dream of. The level of respect he gained from his teammates, coaches and the NBA as a whole was second to none. With Kobe and Shaq, arguably two of the top ten players of all time, on the same team, there was no doubt that the team had the talent and knowledge needed to be great. When a role player would make a mistake, one of the two would be there to put him in his place. When Kobe or Shaq messed up, Fisher was the only one to stand up to them.
After the Three-peat, Shaq parted ways with the team, leaving Kobe and Fisher with an assortment of role players. In an effort to rebuild, the Lakers brought in Karl Malone and Gary Payton. The experiment almost worked as the team made it to the NBA Finals but ultimately lost to the Detroit Pistons.
The next year, Fisher parted ways with the Lakers and moved north for Golden State. He was soon traded to Utah to play for the Jazz. In Fisher’s last year with the Lakers, the team won 56 regular season games as well as having a great post-season run. The next year they only won 34 games. In 2006 and 2007 they would win 45 and 42 games respectively. In those three years, the Lakers saw Chucky Atkins start for one year and Smush Parker started the last two.
At this point, it was obvious what Fisher was to this team and without him, they lacked leadership at point guard. During the 2007 season, Derek Fisher’s daughter, Tatum, was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer called retinoblastoma. At this point, basketball became an afterthought. The Utah Jazz were in the Western Conference Finals. I still remember hearing the news that Fisher would miss one of the games because he was with his daughter. Then right before the game started, he came running out of the locker room just in time to make the game. Obviously his main concern was his family, but he was still dedicated to his team and fans. Ultimately, the Jazz lost the series and Fisher opted out of the remaining years of his contract so he could take care of his daughter.
At the start of the 2008 season, the Lakers made Fisher an offer he could not refuse. He now had his old job back and he would be able to get his daughter the best help available due to the superior medical facilities in Los Angeles. With Fisher back in the lineup, as well as other additions such as Pau Gasol, the Lakers instantly regained their success as they went back to the NBA Finals where they would lose to the Celtics.
While all was right again for Fisher, the Utah fans he left behind were not as happy. In my opinion, in one of the most classless acts the sports world has ever seen, a Utah fan actually taunted Fisher and made fun of his daughter’s eye cancer in a game where the Lakers played an away game against the Jazz. When Fisher shot a free throw, one of the fans in the stands covered one of his eyes (referring to Tatum).
Being the class-act that Fisher is, he did not retaliate against the fan, but instead focused on basketball. For the next four seasons, he started every game for the Lakers. In that time, he and Kobe Bryant regained the backcourt dominance that they established a decade ago as they won consecutive championships and almost locked up another Three-peat. Until yesterday, he had started every game for the Lakers in his fifth year back in Los Angeles. Unfortunately for many Lakers fans, he has also started his last.