The Los Angeles Lakers should have never let Derek Fisher go.
Fisher, a guard for the Golden State Warriors the last two seasons, represents what is right in the NBA today: An unselfish competitor with an unquenchable passion for winning.
Fisher’s most memorable Laker moment, and undoubtedly Los Angeles fans’, too, came in one of his final games with the team in the spring of 2004. Even casual NBA fans recognize the play that changed a series and a franchise.
The Lakers, coming off a disappointing season, had reloaded for a title run with future Hall-of-Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Los Angeles survived a first round series with the Houston Rockets and advanced to face San Antonio in a series that stretched to a seventh game in the SBC Center in Texas.
Tim Duncan somehow found a way to swish an 18-footer over the fingertips of Shaquille O’Neal, giving the Spurs a 73-72 lead with four-tenths of a second left. After a timeout, Payton found Fisher, who caught the ball, turned and made an improbable game winner to extend the Lakers championship aspirations. (Later distinguished by the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals).
Two nondescript seasons since then, Fisher is still facing the daunting task of resurrecting the Golden State Warriors’ miserable franchise. Two seasons of losing, team squabbles and coaching controversy has become the norm for the 10-year NBA veteran known for his clutch shooting.
The Lakers could have easily kept him, a player whose loyalty runs deep, and who still considered returning when coach Rudy Tomjanovich took over for Phil Jackson in 2004 . The Lakers, understandably more concerned about free agent all-star Kobe Bryant, nevertheless let Fisher slip out the side door. Los Angeles offered a three-year, $16.5 million contract, which was nowhere close to Golden State’s six-year, $37 million contract and promise of a starting position.
Who could blame Fisher, the consummate teammate, for wanting to take care of his family and himself? I know I couldn’t.
But it doesn’t stop me from wondering what could have been. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock product is a far more dependable point guard than his short-lived replacement, Chucky Atkins, proved to be. Fisher proved to NBA critics passion does exist in the NBA. He is a player who will willingly sacrifice his body, dive on the floor for loose balls and take charges.
The NBA playoffs start shortly, and for NBA analysts, the absence of all-stars Kevin Garnett, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady should not be as notable as Fisher’s. The popularity of NCAA March Madness is predicated on unfiltered emotions and unpredictability, where the NBA has dominant teams and emotionless stars.
Fisher gladly provides all of the above, and with the Lakers likely to return to the playoffs this season, it hurts that he won’t be there with them.