Fisher a Real Piece of Work
Their house in Little Rock, Ark., was located, conveniently enough, just behind Parkview High. Derek Fisher and his older brother, Duane Washington, took full advantage of their proximity to the gym.
If it was a good enough place for Sidney Moncrief, the greatest basketball player to come out of Arkansas, to work on his shot during the off-season, it was a good enough spot for them to pursue their own dreams of playing in the NBA.
The brothers made the trek so often, “You could almost see the path from our door to Parkview,” their mother, Annette Fisher, said. "[Derek] would head up there behind his big brother. Ever since he was little and could walk.”
It’s so easy to imagine a young Fisher making that same trip, over and over again. He never was one to stray far from the path.
“He put God, family and basketball before everything else,” said Al Flanigan, who was an assistant coach at Parkview when Derek played there. “When he wasn’t in church or with his family, he had a ball in his hands.”
That sounds like the Derek Fisher we know. Linear. Not one to zig and zag. No looping. He stands still when he talks to you, back as straight as an ironing board, fingertips pressed together. He delivers what might be the most honest and analytical critiques of the Lakers of anyone in the locker room. He’s not one for hyperbole. Or flash.
But don’t confuse plain with simple. For Fisher, it has always been a challenge to prove he belonged on the same path as his brother and everyone else. It’s something he did again and again.
He went from an annoying tag-along to his brother’s most trusted advisor during Duane’s time of greatest need. He went from a player who couldn’t make the varsity as a sophomore to the most successful member of a team that sent seven players to NCAA Division I schools.
He went from the antithesis of the hotshot new coach’s favorite type of player to an important asset on an NBA championship team that is playing better than ever.
When Duane Washington was 16, the last thing he wanted was to take his little brother with him to play down at the Boys Club. What 16-year-old wants to be anywhere near a 6-year-old?
“Man, that’s not cool,” Duane thought.
But Derek would cry and fuss and Duane had no choice. Then Duane watched Derek play, saw how advanced he was, even at that age. He changed his attitude to, “Man, he can play.”
“I got more comfortable with it,” Duane said. “I just enjoyed the fact that he really loved playing basketball also.”
Annette Fisher said, “He seemed to have a real knowledge, or feel, for the court. When he first started playing organized ball at the Boys Club, the ball was almost as big as he was, but he was able to dribble with control.”
But in 10th grade, he was not good enough to make the varsity team at Parkview.
“I think the hard part for me was the fact that all of the guys I had grown up with, like playing AAU in the summer, the Boys Club, all these guys I had played with all those years, there were four or five of them that were on the varsity team and I was pretty much the only guy that wasn’t,” Fisher said.
“It was disappointing to me to see the other guys getting a chance to play. It was always fun to watch the games, but it was disappointing not to get out there.”
Anyone who knows Fisher knows what happened next.
“That just made him work harder,” said Flanigan, who coached the junior varsity. “He got in that gym and it made him mad. He came back ready to play.”
Even though he was often the smallest player on the court, he was always very strong for his size. And of course, he had the traits that are still his best assets today.
“He was the guy that would get on that floor, [get] a loose ball, a loose rebound,” said Flanigan, who is now Parkview’s varsity coach.
Fisher did get a chance to suit up with the varsity team for the last couple of games that season, but it didn’t amount to much. His lasting memory of his first game with the big boys was taking the team bus to Pine Bluff and passing by his parents standing by their broken-down car on side of the road.
“The car was smoking and everything,” Fisher said.
They made it to the game, but it wasn’t worth the effort; he didn’t play.
The family soon had a much greater crisis to confront. Duane, who played briefly with the New Jersey Nets--at the same time, coincidentally, as former Syracuse star Dwayne Washington--and the Clippers, became hooked on cocaine. While he was rehabilitating, Derek would call him every day to offer encouragement.
“He was just kind of saying, ‘There’s other opportunities, it’s not the end of the road,’ ” Duane said. “A lot of the times, he just kind of reemphasized that what I went through, it would kind of keep him going and keep him going in the right direction and not fall in the same path.”
Duane has managed to forge a 15-year career in basketball. He played in the now-defunct CBA, and overseas in Spain, Italy, Israel and Germany.
And Derek was headed toward a place in the pros as well. Duane first saw the potential after Fisher’s sophomore year at Arkansas Little Rock.
During Duane’s recovery, he became close with former NBA player John Lucas, a recovering addict himself. Washington was in Houston with Lucas and Fisher once again came along.
Houston is a popular off-season hangout for a lot of pros, and Fisher played in games against Penny Hardaway, Avery Johnson, Dennis Rodman and Rodney McCray. He held his own.
His senior year, he was the Sun Belt Conference player of the year. But nothing about a 6-1 guard who averaged 14.6 points and 5.1 assists screamed “first-round draft pick”. Nevertheless, watching the 1996 NBA draft with a couple hundred people gathered at the Arkansas Little Rock student union to root him on, Fisher was taken by the Lakers with the 24th selection.
By his second season, he had supplanted Nick Van Exel in the starting lineup, and his spot was solidified when the Lakers traded Van Exel to Denver in the summer of 1998.
All Fisher did with it was miss tons of open jump shots, connect on only 38% of his shots and score six points a game.
When Phil Jackson arrived in the summer of ’99, one of the first things people noted was that Jackson didn’t like small guards. Jackson brought his former Chicago Bull guard Ron Harper into camp.
When Fisher got a chance to start in Kobe Bryant’s place for the first month of the season while Kobe had a broken bone in his hand, he didn’t do anything to stay there. More missed shots. Even the layups.
“I think I wanted it so bad, I tried so hard to prove that I could be a starter and help this team win that I didn’t allow myself to just go out to play instinctive basketball and just allow my natural God-given abilities to take over,” Fisher says now.
“I think that experience is helping me now to understand that when you’re out there, you should play basketball and don’t worry about starting or being on the floor a lot of minutes or whether you make or miss your shots. Just go out and play the game.”
When Bryant came back, Fisher was relegated to the bench. His shooting sank to a career-low 35%. He was bothered by a stress fracture in his right foot that eventually required surgery last August. That kept him sidelined for the first 62 games of this season.
Fisher came back on March 13, taking charges as usual, but also scoring at an unprecedented pace. He pumped in a career-high 26 points his first night out against Boston. He made 41% of his shots and nearly doubled his scoring average to 11.5 points.
With Fisher back, the Lakers took off. Other things came together as well, among them a renewed harmony between Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. But the most telling statistic is this: The Lakers are 22-5 since Fisher returned.
“It meant a lot, the defensive presence and intensity, but look at the offense,” Rick Fox said. “He’s an added threat, along with the rest of the guys who have been here all year.”
Fisher scored a playoff-career-high 21 points in the Lakers’ first-round opener against Portland. He scored 20 points when they finished off Sacramento last Sunday, and is averaging 13.7.
What’s the secret? With Fisher, what would you expect it to be?
“Just work,” Fisher said. “In order to be good at anything, you have to put the time in. The injury allowed me to work on some individual things that I wanted to improve on, and I’ve been able to carry it onto the floor.”
Fox said, “He continued to work on his stroke on the sideline. He couldn’t do a lot of running, but what you see now is, he’s continued to improve himself.”
And he’s at peace. Fisher, who turned 26 last August, bought his first house this year, which can make anyone feel a bit more mature. He likes the feeling of coming home and knowing the place belongs to him.
“I feel like I’ve really grown up as a person, and I think it’s helped me on the floor,” he said.
It’s all part of the natural progression, the course that makes sense for someone who never left the path.
J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: email@example.com.
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The Lakers after and before Derek Fisher returned from the injured list:
After Category Before 22-5 Record 41-21 101.5 Pts. per game 100.8 95.4 Pts. allowed 97.7 .461 Field goal % .467 .435 Opp. field goal % .436 14.4 Turnovers 14.4 14.4 Opp. Turnovers 12.8