Friday, March 16, 2012

Farewell to Derek Fisher: Thanks for the Class, Memories and Giant Impact

Derek Fisher may not get his jersey retired in Staples Center. But when you look back at the last 12 seasons, he did as much to make that place special as anybody. 

Fisher’s trade to Houston marks the end of an era that won’t be forgotten anytime soon by Lakers fans. Besides Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol, no player mattered more over the last decade in team history.

You can’t measure Fisher’s impact by the stats, although he played well to validate his position as a key reserve during the 2000-2002 three-peat and the starting point guard in 2002-03.  What he means to the Lakers goes beyond what you can measure.

People will bring up the 0.4 shot – the game winning shot against San Antonio in the 2004 playoffs. The best part about it is that he was probably the fourth option but he was ready and when he got the ball, the rest was history. 

But as I wrote before, Fisher’s made a living off big moments long before and after that. One of my favorites was going 15-for-20 on 3-pointers in the 2001 Western Conference Finals. It set a record for most 3’s in a sweep and he saved his best for last when he went 6-7 from downtown to close out the Spurs in Game 4.

Another fave? Getting revenge on Allen Iverson. Iverson skunked him 48-0 in Game 1 as the Lakers lost but in Game 2, Fisher got back by dunking on AI on a fastbreak. One of the rare times I've seen Fisher dunk but considering it was on the MVP who lit him up, I remember falling backwards in my house like OOOOOOOOOO MAN!!!

He won Game 4 of the 2009 NBA Finals in Orlando with two timely three-pointers, including one to force overtime. His drive to win Game 3 of the 2010 Finals capped an 11-point quarter in Boston. And I should mention that Derek Fisher was at his most clutch on the road?

He was always the one down to do the dirty work. Whether it was him hustling after a loose ball or setting the tone in the 2009 playoffs getting ejected after a hard foul on Luis Scola, he embodied toughness every night.

Maybe it’s the fact that the Lakers took a chance on him as a first-round draft pick out of Arkansas-Little Rock. Jerry West saw something in him that he usually sees in diamonds in the rough and Fisher wanted to prove that with his hard-nosed style and timely play.

Off the court, his respect as a leader and clubhouse presence loomed large. He had Kobe Bryant’s trust – his fellow rookie from the 1996 class – and Bryant knew that Fisher wouldn’t just back down, he’d stand up to him and let his voice be heard. It says volumes that Bryant cancelled his radio appearance that day after finding out about the trade. Even he knew that just lost a valuable piece of his career.

It’s no surprise Fisher became the president of the Player’s Association and through his tireless work, he helped save the current NBA season and sacrificed any rest a 37-year-old veteran usually should get. It was a thankless job but just as important as anyone.

His faith and his family motivated him as well and the reason he came back to Los Angeles was to seek better treatment for his daughter. The cynics might sneer at that but considering that he left the 2007 playoffs to be with her, it’s nothing but pure admiration for someone who knows what matters most.

There’s a reason why Lakers fans celebrate his return in 2007 just as much as the trade to bring Pau Gasol here in 2008. It was a reminder of someone who’d be a coach in the huddle, in practices, in meetings and a steady pulse in the organization. He cared about the team more than himself and took pride in being a Laker and treating everyone with respect.

It’s no surprise that one of Fisher’s last acts as a Laker was making sure General Manager Mitch Kupchak was doing all right personally. Nor was it surprising that he went over to Lamar Odom and hugged him when Odom checked into his first game back after being traded. 

(And in true fashion, Fisher would hit the go-ahead shot that night to beat the defending champs. Doing what he always does best.)

Fisher has been first class since the day he arrived and I hope that not only will the fans give him a standing ovation when he returns in April but the team finds a way to honor him when he retires. Without him, they don’t win their last two rings and the three-peat might look a bit different.

Personally, Fisher’s big moments coincided with great times in my life. His 2001 shooting clinic occurred while I was getting ready for junior prom. The 0.4 shot had me running in my dorm room halls as a sophomore in college. The Game 4 shots vs. Orlando came celebrating a family graduation a few months after losing my uncle. And the Game 3 shot to put Boston away? I was in my car getting a late snack two nights before I left my sports editor position at the L.A. Sentinel.

Fisher was the heart of the Lakers and that pulse can't be replaced. Character, pride, clutch, faith, family and winner. All of that describes him and what you can't describe? I'm just glad I have the memories to replay and try to share with others 

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