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Column: Sparks coach Derek Fisher likes the home he has found in the WNBA

Sparks head coach Derek Fisher is seen on the sidelines against the New York Liberty during a game on July 20 in White Plains, N.Y.
Sparks head coach Derek Fisher is seen on the sidelines against the New York Liberty during a game on July 20 in White Plains, N.Y.
(Gregory Payan / Associated Press)

This was the same arena in which Derek Fisher experienced many of his greatest moments as a player, but only in a literal sense.

There were more empty seats than fans. The majority of luxury suites were unoccupied. The atmosphere was similar to that of a minor college game or the undercard portion of a boxing show.

At 45, this is the version of Staples Center that feels like home to Fisher.

“What I learned about myself is that I really love doing this,” he said.

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The former Lakers point guard is near the end of his first season as the head coach of the Sparks. After their 70-60 win over Atlanta Dream on Tuesday night, they have only two games remaining in the regular season.

Despite being down to as few as seven players in July because of injuries and a domestic violence suspension, the Sparks are tied for third place and have secured a place in the WNBA playoffs. Fisher is a legitimate coach of the year candidate.

“Just getting into coaching right after playing, you don’t know if that’s your thing,” Fisher said. “But I feel like now I do.”

The Sparks leaned on the star power of Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray and Chiney Ogwumike to earn their 12th straight victory at Staples Center on Tuesday.

The reference was to his disastrous tenure with the New York Knicks. Hired to coach the team by Phil Jackson, Fisher was fired two-thirds of the way into his second season.

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Fisher acknowledged the experience left him despondent.

“I think leaving New York, how it happened, the way it happened, a lot of the untruthful conversation that was disseminated following my firing there, it can leave you feeling dark and cynical about organizational politics and culture and working with certain people, etc.,” he said.

As the coach of the Sparks, Fisher has emphasized and re-emphasized to his players the importance of fundamentals. A return to the basics was what he needed as well. The WNBA provided that for him.

“There’s less of the facade of being a part of the biggest sports thing in the world,” he said.

If the absence of outside noise offered him a degree of peace that would be impossible to find in the NBA, his players supplied him with inspiration.

There is no chartered travel in the WNBA. Roster sizes are limited. Many of the athletes supplement their incomes by playing in Europe in the offseason.

Fisher mentioned the hypothetical example of an NBA player who develops his body and game over multiple offseasons to make a gradual transition to an All-Star.

“A lot of times, these women aren’t getting that chance,” Fisher said. “They’re battling Achilles injuries, knee injuries, back stuff, shoulder stuff, from just playing year round.”

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He also appreciated how the players treated each other.

“I think women, in general, care about the other woman’s experience and her teammate’s experience, sometimes too much their opponent’s experience, just because that’s how women are,” Fisher said. “There’s a care there. There’s a compassion there.”

Chelsea Gray scored a career-high 30 points and tied a franchise record with seven 3-pointers, leading the Sparks to an 87-83 victory over the Indiana Fever.

Speaking of NBA players, he continued, “We never cared about each other like that. We just didn’t. It was like, literally, cannibalism in a sense. So it made it hard at times to build team camaraderie, chemistry, compassion for your teammate, etc.”

The bonds on his team were severely tested in July, when key players such as Candace Parker and Alana Beard were injured and Riquna Williams served a 10-game suspension for her involvement in a domestic violence incident.

Fisher leaned heavily on his two All-Stars, point guard Chelsea Gray and forward Nneka Ogwumike.

“He kind of regards us as student-coaches,” Ogwumike said. “We’re able to have certain conversations with him in-game that contribute to the effectiveness of what we’re doing out there. It rests a lot heavier on Chelsea.”

Gray welcomed the responsibility.

“Him being a point guard and him trusting me so much with the calls, with the leadership role, I think it’s great,” Gray said.

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The Sparks had a 5-2 record in July.

“I think we found our team identity in the month of July,” Ogwumike said.

Fisher welcomed the input of his players even before he was short on bodies. He wasn’t afraid to ask them questions. His candor about what he didn’t know helped him gain their trust.

He’s enjoying the process so much so that he talks about the organization’s long-term goals, about the importance of developing young players and creating the kind of culture that others would want to be a part of. From the time he was hired by the Sparks, he has insisted he doesn’t view them as a stepping-stone back to the NBA.

Asked if he would be open to returning to what he called the “cannibalism” culture of NBA after this experience, Fisher laughed.

“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s a good question. I love basketball, so I think in some respects, I’ll always want to be in the game, around the game. But right now, I’m enjoying this balance. I think as a man, as a father, having a family, the ages where my kids are, this works. It was a big reason I was able to say, ‘Yes,’ with so much conviction. I’m having a lot of fun.”

In the relative obscurity of the WNBA, the man who spent his career in the spotlight has found what he wanted.


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