Luck Is Beside the Point -4
He closes the door in his San Fernando Valley home, the one where neighborhood children blanket the front gate with posters proclaiming that D-Fish is the man.
He puts down the phone, the one he uses to call his mother at least four times a week.
He excuses himself from his brother, who rebounds his extra jump shots every day after practice.
He turns on the TV, presses the button on the VCR, slips the tape into the machine.
It is The Shot.
Five days after saving the Laker season, Derek Fisher is finally going to watch The Shot.
“Couldn’t do it sooner,” he says. “Too emotional, too overwhelming.”
Gary Payton is preparing to throw an inbounds pass with 0.4 seconds remaining, the Lakers trailing the San Antonio Spurs by one point, the Western Conference semifinal series tied at two games apiece ...
The action freezes.
His hand on the pause button, a thought fills Derek Fisher’s head.
It is the same thought that has smoldered there since he sprinted off the floor that magical Thursday night and into a locker room filled with stunned teammates wildly blabbering about what they had just seen.
A lucky shot. That’s what at least one of them called it. That’s what at least one of them believed.
Shaquille O’Neal compared it to the crazy fall-away jumper that Tim Duncan had just hit over his outstretched arms, saying, “One lucky shot deserves another.”
It was a quote so catchy, somebody put it on a T-shirt, somebody else put it on a foam fish cap, and yet nobody consulted the man who shot it, and Fisher’s mind had been collecting floor burns while wrestling with this ever since.
Luck? The shot of his life was luck? A man labors eight years in the shadows to be bathed in a singular moment of brilliance, and it was nothing more than a crack in the roof?
“Man,” Fisher says, shaking his head. “People were really calling it luck.”
It is this thought that, in the darkness of his home, he now engages.
It is this thought he must destroy, or risk being destroyed by it.
He pushes “play.”
The action begins, quick on the screen, slow-motion in his mind.
“I put myself back in the moment, what I was thinking, where I was running,” he says. “I see Kobe going over there, I see Karl coming over here, I see me getting the ball ...”
He sees himself catching the ball and twisting around.
“It looks weird,” he says.
He sees himself falling backward toward the seats.
“Definitely strange,” he says.
But then, at the last instant before the shot, he sees what he has seen for the last eight years, in his mirror in the morning, in the eyes of his coaches, in the best of his dreams.
The stare at the basket. The flick of the left wrist. The extended follow-through.
And Derek Fisher realizes that he is looking not at a magician or miracle worker, but at Derek Fisher.
“That was me!” he says. “That was like every other shot I shoot. That was my shot.”
Stare, flick, follow. Stare, flick, follow.
He wants to believe in it, buy it, never forget it, so he rewinds the tape for point-four seconds and plays it again. And again. And again.
“I literally rewind it 30 or 40 times,” he says later. “And now I know. This wasn’t some shot you throw up from halfcourt behind your back. This wasn’t some fluke. This was not lucky.”
This was him.
The strong Laker. The passionate Laker. The enduring Laker.
Funny, but what it took Derek Fisher eight years and point-four seconds to figure out, the rest of us have known all along.
So many people thinking it. So many people almost embarrassed to say it. So I will.
The best thing about this Laker championship run is Derek Fisher.
The most redeeming quality about this Laker team is Derek Fisher.
On a squad of loutish excess, he is dignified restraint. In a room of selfish whims, he is selfless wishes.
He wished he wouldn’t have been shoved aside when Gary Payton arrived last fall, but publicly he never said a word.
“That’s not the way I work,” he says. “It was worse than I thought, I had trouble sleeping, but I kept it inside.”
He wishes to play enough to make the big money and own the bright lights, but he quietly draws charges and dives on the floor anyway.
“I think that’s what people in L.A. and America respect the most,” he says. “They respect regular people, hard-working people. There’s a reason they say that everybody only gets 15 minutes of fame. It’s because people don’t want that other 45 minutes. They like normal. They like real.”
He wishes reporters wouldn’t trample him on their way to interviewing surreal Kobe Bryant or superhuman Shaquille O’Neal -- eight years of being shoved aside! -- but he just nods and smiles.
“I’ve never been the most talented guy on the team, I understand that,” he says.
He wishes that this summer, when he has a chance to opt out of his contract, he will be given options that could enrich his career and his life.
But down deep, he wonders whether he could ever leave the Lakers.
“I definitely want to come back, I love this game too much to be on a team that loses every night,” he says. “Life can still stink if you’re making a lot of money.”
Almost anybody on that team would have been more statistically suited to make that 18-foot jump shot that saved the season against the Spurs.
But isn’t it perfect that it was Fisher?
“Even better than me, more justice than for me,” says Karl Malone, one of the other likable Lakers. “After all he has been through here, more than anything, that kid deserved to make that shot.”
The shot did more than propel the Lakers into today’s NBA Finals opener against the Detroit Pistons, it gave Fisher a Capra-esque window into his life.
“I had no idea,” Fisher says today, shaking his head.
“About a lot of things,” he says.
Because of that shot, for the first time, people in town had an excuse to tell Fisher what they had been thinking since he arrived here -- with O’Neal and Bryant -- as a surprise and completely invisible first-rounder from Arkansas Little Rock in the summer of 1996.
“The last couple of weeks, people have been grabbing me and just saying, ‘Thank you,’ ” Fisher says. “Strangers, on the street.”
Because of that shot, Fisher finally had a nickname that could be put on a T-shirt.
“I walked through an airport, and I heard people saying, ‘There he is, there’s Point-Four,’ ” he says. “Nobody was calling me Fish, they were all calling me ‘Point-Four.’ ”
Because of that shot, Fisher has garnered national laughs with Jay Leno and consistent standing ovations at Staples Center and furtive questions in the supermarket checkout line.
“I had a guy come up behind me and kind of whisper, ‘Hey, point-four seconds, is that really all you need in life?’ ” Fisher recalls. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I guess that’s all you need.’ ”
He’s wrong, of course.
Even here in Hollywood, a man’s life does not change in an instant.
Twenty years of work went into those point-four seconds.
“A lot of fight, a lot of heartache, a lot of work,” says his brother and trainer, Duane Washington.
When Fisher’s shot went in, watching from the San Antonio stands, cool as ever, a former NBA player himself ... Washington openly wept.
“We had worked so hard together, it was like I was out there with him,” Washington says.
Watching from their hometown of Little Rock, stuck there because thunderstorms delayed her flight, Fisher’s mother, Annette, screamed. And screamed.
“When I got her on the phone right away, she was wondering why she couldn’t hear herself talk, and it was because she was still screaming,” Washington says.
They cried and screamed because they remember.
They remember the flak jackets Derek would wear as a child in Little Rock, pushed by his father, John, an Air Force veteran, to run and play basketball in the heat.
“Running up hills in the Little Rock heat, wearing the flak jacket, still in middle school, one of the toughest things in my life,” Fisher says.
They remember how he would walk two blocks to the high school gym near his house, every day in the summer, not knowing whether it would be open, always hoping.
“I would walk there in 110-degree heat and the door would be locked, and I would literally stand there and cry,” he says.
They remember the pickup games Derek’s father would arrange with his buddies from the Postal Service, adults against children, no harm, no foul.
“Those games were really hard for us to handle, those guys didn’t let up,” says Duane, who is 10 years older than Derek. “But they helped us become men.”
Fisher became known for this toughness, but toughness doesn’t always make headlines, and, after high school, he had only three Division I scholarship offers, so he took the one that was closest to home.
Four years later, unlike the stars, he celebrated draft day in his college locker room, a shaky 24th pick overall, and came to Los Angeles afraid to buy or spend or do anything but work.
“It was always, ‘He was too short, he was not fast enough, not quick enough,’ ” Duane recalls.
But older brother knew better. Duane, who played a few games with the Clippers in the 1991-92 season, had overcome a drug addiction with help from Derek.
“My little brother was always consistent, always there for me, I knew what kind of person he was, what kind of player he could become,” Duane says.
So, together, they began working, extra, long after practice had ended, long before games were beginning.
Today, they still work, often the first two at the training facility, and the last two to straggle home.
Fisher shoots extra jump shots every day, everywhere, even when there’s no practice and he’s not near the facility.
Ever been playing pickup basketball at a Valley health club and seen somebody who looked like Derek Fisher shooting at the other end? That’s him.
Fisher has shot in gyms the size of closets, filled with the sounds of aerobics classes.
Fisher has been shooting jumpers when stray balls have bounced at his feet and dudes have shouted, “Little help?”
High school hothouses. Tennis clubs. Outdoor tracks. Duane always there.
Fisher’s brother is around so much, and in such good shape, that some have mistaken him for a Laker.
“Duane was an addict, but he got through it, and now, it’s like he needs me as much as I need him,” Fisher says. “He is now more like my friend than my big brother.”
If Duane is the Lakers’ First Brother, then Annette is the team’s First Mother, dishing out hugs and advice as she walks to her seat before seemingly every big Laker game.
Divorced from John, she still lives in Derek’s childhood home, with his sister and her husband and two children. But she’ll be at Staples Center today. You can’t miss her. Look for the crowd. Look for the smiles.
“I get my toughness and grittiness from my dad,” Fisher says. “I get my warmth and hospitality from my mother.”
Laker fans have fallen in love with both, cheering wildly as he skids across the floor on his back after drawing a charge, cherishing that he never brags about it afterward.
Never publicly curses either, come to think of it.
“Certain times I’ll say something on the court or with my teammates, but I try to be respectful with the public,” he says. “It’s nothing special, it’s just the way I am.”
The way he is, before Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, Fisher suffered a knee injury so serious it required not only an MRI exam, but a news release explaining it.
Yet Fisher took the floor that night without even wearing a brace.
“I blacked it all out,” he says. “It’s amazing when that happens.”
The way he also is, after nearly every game, when he carefully dresses in suit and tie and faces the media and answers every question, as long as it takes, even the silly ones, especially the silly ones.
For eight years, amid all the nuttiness, media visitors to the Laker have always understood one truth, a truth that will ensure a certain point guard is beloved in Los Angeles long after his playing days here are finished:
If O’Neal or Bryant aren’t talking, you can always find Derek Fisher.
“Why not?” he says. “There’s a certain level of respect that everyone deserves.”
And now, fame has finally found him.
Well, sort of.
He is doing an interview with six reporters at practice when Bryant walks out of the locker room. Cameras and boom mikes and notebooks literally bump Fisher aside while rushing to surround the superstar.
In point-four seconds, he is abandoned.
“Well, you see?” he says, swallowed again by one of the most compelling sports eras in this town’s history, yet again standing alone.
Yes, we do.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Some of the most memorable late-game baskets in NBA playoff history:
1970 NBA FINALS, GAME 3
The teams: Lakers vs. New York Knicks.
The scene: With three seconds left, the Lakers trail, 102-100, and have to inbound the ball from under their basket.
The shot: Jerry West takes the inbound pass and dribbles as fast as he can upcourt, then, with the game clock reading 0:01, heaves a 60-foot shot from beyond the halfcourt circle to tie the score and send the game into overtime.
The aftermath: The Knicks shake off the miracle shot and win the game, 111-108, and, eventually, the series, 4-3.
1974 NBA FINALS, GAME 6
The teams: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Boston Celtics.
The scene: The Celtics lead the series, 3-2, and have a 101-100 lead with seven seconds remaining in the second overtime.
The shot: The Bucks inbound the ball to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the right wing. Abdul-Jabbar takes a couple of dribbles and then makes a 20-foot sky hook to give the Bucks a 102-101 victory.
The aftermath: The Bucks sent the series back to Milwaukee tied at 3-3 but lose Game 7.
1976 NBA FINALS, GAME 5
The teams: Phoenix Suns vs. Boston Celtics.
The scene: John Havlicek appears to give the Celtics a one-point win with a running 15-foot bank shot with one second left in the second overtime. Fans storm the court at the Boston Garden. After order is restored, Phoenix purposely takes a technical foul by calling a timeout that it did not have. The Celtics make the free throw for a two-point lead, and the Suns then get the ball at halfcourt instead of the baseline.
The shot: Garfield Heard takes the inbound pass near the free-throw line, turns and hits a 20-footer to force a third overtime.
The aftermath: The Celtics win, 128-126, in three overtimes and then win Game 6 to close out the series.
1986 WESTERN CONF. FINALS, GAME 5
The teams: Lakers vs. Houston Rockets.
The scene: The Rockets lead the series, 3-1, and the score is tied, 112-112,
at the Forum.
The shot: Rodney McCray passes inside to Ralph Sampson, who, with his back to the basket, makes a half-turn jumper with one second left that hits the back of the rim and drops in. The shot propels Houston into the finals, much to the dismay of Michael Cooper, who lies flat on his back under the basket in disbelief.
The aftermath: The Rockets lose to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.
1987 EASTERN CONF. FINALS, GAME 5
The teams: Boston Celtics vs. Detroit Pistons.
The scene: The series is tied, 2-2, and the Pistons lead, 107-106, as they inbound the ball with six seconds left.
The shot: Larry Bird steals the inbound pass and, while falling out of bounds, throws it to Dennis Johnson, who makes a layup to give the Celtics a 108-107 win.
The aftermath: The Celtics win the series and go on to the NBA Finals, where they lose to the Lakers.
1987 NBA FINALS, GAME 4
The teams: Lakers vs. Boston Celtics.
The scene: The Lakers lead the series, 2-1, but the Celtics are leading the game, 106-105, with seven seconds remaining.
The shot: Receiving the ball on the left wing, Magic Johnson drives to the right and sees Robert Parish and Kevin McHale in his path. Johnson throws up a 12-foot hook to win the game.
The aftermath: The Lakers win the title in six games.
1989 EASTERN CONF. FIRST ROUND, GAME 5
The teams: Chicago Bulls vs. Cleveland Cavaliers.
The scene: The best-of-five series is tied, 2-2. There are three seconds left in the game, and the Cavaliers lead, 100-99.
The shot: Michael Jordan takes an inbound pass and swings to the top of the key, where he shoots a jumper over Craig Ehlo. Jordan seems to hang in the air forever, and he is still in the air when Ehlo lands. Jordan’s shot at the buzzer is good and the Bulls win.
The aftermath: Jordan’s shot wins the series for the Bulls, who lose to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals.
1990 NBA FINALS, GAME 5
The teams: Detroit Pistons vs. Portland Trail Blazers.
The scene: The Pistons lead the series, 3-1, and the game is tied, 90-90, with Detroit holding the ball for the final possession.
The shot: Point guard Isiah Thomas winds the clock down from 20 to six seconds. He passes to Vinnie Johnson, who drives, backs off to make some space and fires an off-balance jumper from 14 feet for the win.
The aftermath: Johnson’s shot gives the Pistons the title.
1993 EASTERN CONF. FIRST ROUND, GAME 4
The teams: Charlotte Hornets vs. Boston Celtics.
The scene: The Hornets lead, 2-1, in the best-of-five series but are trailing in the game, 103-102.
The shot: Alonzo Mourning sinks a 20-foot jumper with 0.4 left on the clock to put Charlotte into the conference semifinals.
The aftermath: The Hornets lose to New York in the conference semifinals.
1995 WESTERN CONF. SEMIFINALS, GAME 7
The teams: Houston Rockets vs. Phoenix Suns.
The scene: There are 7.1 seconds remaining in the series-deciding game, with the score tied, 110-110.
The shot: Mario Elie, left alone in the left corner, makes a three-pointer and blows a kiss to the Suns’ bench as the Rockets win the series.
The aftermath: The Rockets win the NBA title.
1995 NBA FINALS, GAME 1
The teams: Houston Rockets vs. Orlando Magic.
The scene: The Rockets trail by three in Orlando with 1.8 seconds left.
The shot: Kenny Smith takes an inbound pass and launches a shot from beyond the three-point line. It swishes through the hoop to tie the score, 110-110, and send the game to overtime.
The aftermath: The Rockets win the game, 120-118, and the NBA title, 4-0.
1997 WESTERN CONF. FIRST ROUND, GAME 4
The teams: Phoenix Suns vs. Seattle SuperSonics.
The scene: The Suns are down, 107-104, with 4.3 seconds remaining.
The shot: Rex Chapman catches a cross-court pass while running to his right, squares his shoulders and lets the ball fly for a three-pointer while in full stride.
The aftermath: Phoenix loses in overtime, then loses Game 5 in Seattle two days later.
1997 WESTERN CONF. FINALS, GAME 6
The teams: Utah Jazz vs. Houston Rockets.
The scene: The Jazz leads the series, 3-1, and the score is tied, 100-100.
The shot: Jazz point guard John Stockton is left open and drains a 25-footer at the buzzer to put Utah in the NBA Finals for the first time
The aftermath: The Jazz loses to the Chicago Bulls in the Finals, 4-2.
1998 NBA FINALS, GAME 6
The teams: Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz.
The scene: The Bulls trail, 86-85, and the Jazz has the ball with 12 seconds left.
The shot: Michael Jordan steals the ball from Karl Malone, dribbles upcourt and makes a 20-footer with 5.2 seconds left. The Bulls win, 87-86.
The aftermath: Jordan’s shot gives Chicago its sixth title in eight years and is his last shot as a member of the Bulls.
1999 EASTERN CONF. FIRST ROUND, GAME 5
The teams: New York Knicks vs. Miami Heat.
The scene: In the series-deciding game, the Heat leads, 77-76, with 2.9 seconds left.
The shot: Allan Houston lofts a shot in the lane. It hits the rim and the backboard before falling through to give the eighth-seeded Knicks a 78-77 win.
The aftermath: The Knicks advance to the NBA Finals before losing to the San Antonio Spurs.
2002 WESTERN CONF. FINALS, GAME 4
The teams: Lakers vs. Sacramento Kings.
The scene: The Kings, trying to go up 3-1 in the series, have a 99-97 lead with eight seconds left.
The shot: Kobe Bryant misses a short runner with five seconds left, and Shaquille O’Neal misses a layup with three seconds left. Vlade Divac knocks the rebound away from the rim, up the middle of the lane, right to Robert Horry, who calmly drains a three-pointer to give the Lakers a 100-99 win.
The aftermath: Lakers win the series, 4-3, and go on to win the NBA title.
2004 WESTERN CONF. SEMIFINALS, GAME 5
The teams: Lakers vs. San Antonio Spurs.
The scene: Tim Duncan has given the Spurs a 73-72 lead with an off-balance, fall-away 18-footer. There is 0.4 on the clock, and it appears the Spurs are about to take a 3-2 series lead.
The shot: Derek Fisher takes the inbounds pas and has just enough time to turn and fling up an 18-footer that swishes through the net for a 74-73 victory.
The aftermath: The Lakers win the series, 4-2, defeat Minnesota in the conference finals, 4-2, and will play Detroit in the NBA Finals.
-- Researched by Houston Mitchell
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.