Are you running the triangle offense?
As his on-stage companions laughed, Derek Fisher started to answer.
“That’s a good question,” he said with a smile. “I’m not going to tell everybody what we’ll be doing before we see us.”
Fisher paused to chuckle. He was fired from his previous coaching assignment for not running the triangle enough.
“We probably will not in the truest, most authentic form of it in terms of the way Tex Winter innovated the offense and the way I played in it for Phil Jackson,” Fisher said.
Now, it was his turn to make the audience crack up.
“At some point, there will probably be some players in the shape of a triangle,” he said jokingly.
At the Friday news conference introducing him as the new coach of the Sparks, Fisher was the same person who won the admiration of Los Angeles when he was a championship-winning point guard with the Lakers. Perhaps diminished in stature by his association with the New York Knicks, but still the same person.
Thoughtful. Warm. Well spoken.
And something else: Still a fighter.
His only other foray into coaching was a humiliating 20-month calamity with the Knicks in which he was 40-96 and reduced to tabloid fodder.
But he’s a five-time NBA champion and five-time NBA champions aren’t wired like that.
“Learning through adversity, bouncing back, improving, evolving, growing, that’s who I am, that’s what I’m made of,” Fisher said. “The book is not finished yet. If you open a book and it’s 300 pages long, you can’t assume how it’s going to finish on page 57. You have to read the whole book. I feel like this is an opportunity to continue writing my coaching book.”
He denied he was using the Sparks as a platform to launch a return to the NBA.
“I’m here,” he said. “There isn’t a future outside of what we’re here to talk about today. That’s the way I approach everything that I do. I’m the coach of the L.A. Sparks.”
Maybe this position won’t lead to another. But even if that’s the case, he has an opportunity to repair an image that was damaged in recent years.
In 2015, he was involved in a physical altercation with former teammate Matt Barnes at the home of Barnes’ ex-wife, Gloria Govan. Fisher is now engaged to Govan, who attended the news conference Friday. Fisher and Barnes have made peace.
Last year, Fisher pleaded no contest to driving under the influence after flipping his car on a Los Angeles freeway. He apologized profusely in the aftermath of the accident, saying it would never happen again.
If the Sparks’ hiring of Fisher looked like something that happened overnight, it wasn’t. Penny Toler said that over her 19 years as the general manager of the Sparks, she frequently consulted with Fisher. She described him as a longtime supporter of the team who attended games and spoke to players.
So Fisher was the person she thought of when then-coach Brian Agler resigned early last month.
Agler, who coached the Sparks to a WNBA championship in 2016, signed a contract extension only last year.
Toler said the decision to resign was Agler’s and that the coach wasn’t forced out. As for the reason for his departure, Toler said that remains a mystery.
“I have no clue,” Toler said. “I didn’t ask.”
She said Fisher was the only candidate considered. Before she introduced the idea to ownership, Toler ran the idea by Sparks forward Candace Parker, a former league MVP. Parker gave her consent.
“This is what people have to understand,” Toler said. “With women, you better be listening to us. Here is a guy that I know is going to listen.”
Responding to criticism that she didn’t hire a woman for the position, Toler said, “I’d like to say the GM is a woman. I don’t look as coaching as man or woman.”
“If diversity is an issue within the WNBA, it’s not an issue with the L.A. Sparks,” Parker said.
Fisher’s history with the Knicks wasn’t a problem for Toler. If anything, it further reinforced in Toler’s mind that Fisher was the right person for the job.
“Great adversity doesn’t break people,” Toler said. “It makes us stronger.”
And Fisher said in his case, wiser.
“What I learned is that if there is not clarity in purpose, vision and mission from ownership to management to coaches to players to staff, it doesn’t work and it doesn’t matter what offense you run,” he said.
So as Fisher explored his coaching options in the last couple of years, whether it was at the collegiate or professional level, he searched for a place that could provide him with the organizational unity the Knicks lacked. When Toler approached him about this position, he interviewed her more than she did him.
He thinks he found what he was looking for with the Sparks, a chance to fight the narrative of him as a coach, a chance to rewrite his story.