On the evening of June 26, 1996, one day after my youngest sister was born, I sat in my Uncle’s car, deep in the throes of my 4th grade summer sabbatical in San Diego.
My Uncle Doug and I listened to the local sports talk radio coverage of what would be the night the Los Angeles Lakers landed the 13th pick of that particular draft, a 17 year-old kid from Lower Merion, Pennsylvania named Kobe Bryant, in exchange for their then starting center Vlade Divac. The hosts of the program praised Jerry West for his shrewd move that would prove to be his greatest gift to the franchise, and speculated the Lakers were also trying to deal their other pick at 24 for a veteran big man.
Thank goodness Zeke did not pull the trigger on that deal. For we would not have gained the opportunity to get to know of one of the best human beings to ever play professional sports.
With the 24th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, the Lakers selected a little known 6’1” guard from the University of Arkansas-Little Rock named Derek Fisher.
Over his first eight seasons with the Lakers, Derek became a vital role player. And under the tutelage of Ron Harper, Fisher became a master facilitator in Phil Jackson’s complex Triangle offense.
On May 13, 2004, the Lakers, trailing the Spurs 73-72 with 0.4 seconds remaining in the game, and reeling from a wacky circus shot by Tim Duncan that all but assured a Game 5 victory for San Antonio, Gary Payton found D-Fish, and, I don’t know how he did it, but in seemingly slow motion, Fisher nailed the 20 foot fling.
The Fish that Saved L.A. joined Big Shot Rob and Jerry West’s 60-footer in Laker’s last-second lore.
And then, in five lackluster games against the powerful Pistons, it was over.
Shaq was shipped off to Miami.
Karl and Phil faded into retirement.
The Glove was traded to Boston.
And Fisher, just like most everyone else on that 2004 squad, bolted for greener pastures.
Despite his love for the City of Angels and its fans, he signed a lucrative 37 million dollar deal over six years. When the Warriors acquired Baron Davis at the trade deadline in 2005, Fisher saw his role diminish and was relegated to the bench.
In July of 2006, the Warriors traded Derek to the Utah Jazz for spare parts and were faced with an enticing situation. He became the de facto leader for a young Jazz team looking for an identity in the crowded Western Conference, and Fisher himself, the wily vet, took Deron Williams under his wing.
In the 2007 Western Conference Semifinals against the Warriors, Derek announced that he would miss Game 2 of the series, due to the illness of one of his children. Although the announcement of his youngest daughter Tatum’s rare form of an ocular cancer called retinoblastoma came after the playoffs, her father’s dedication and pride for not only his family, but also the game he loves was clear as day.
After the Jazz exited the playoffs in the Western Conference Finals, Fisher was bought out of his contract. Not for a more lucrative contract. Not to for a guaranteed starting role.
He left Salt Lake City to find better care for his daughter.
There is no wonder why the Players Association chose him as their representative.
But this tale has a happy ending. Derek Fisher came home to the fans and the city that embraced him for the first eight years of his career. Tatum, who is receiving top care at UCLA Medical Center, is on her way to a full recovery and her Dad is having one of the best seasons of his career.
Again, Derek has taken to mentoring a young point guard through his early years in the league, this time it’s Jordan Farmar.
And the Lakers are reaping the benefits of Fisher’s leadership on and off the court and are truly blessed that this homecoming, although under frightening yet optimistic circumstances has proved to be key component to the Lakers success this season.
His near career best 12.1 points per game doesn’t hurt either.
Before this homecoming, the Lakers were a team in search of it’s heart and soul, and after two seasons with Smush Parker ”running” the point, they’ve found it.
From where I sit, Laker’s heart and soul proudly wears a number two stitched upon his Forum blue and gold jersey.