Derek Fisher is remembered for many accomplishments throughout his playing career, but in the state of Arkansas, his legacy will always be tied The University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the new heights he’s helped his alma mater reach both during his four-year stay and in the many years since.
On Sept. 10 in Little Rock, Derek will be honored by the university at the annual SpectacUALR event benefitting the Trojan athletics department. It’s an honor he feels fortunate to receive from a place that he still holds close to his heart.
“I’m excited to be this year’s SpectacUALR honoree and to be back in Little Rock,” Derek said. “Little Rock has meant so much to me and my family, and I cannot wait for this event.”
With the event now just a few weeks away, we take a look back at the memorable four years that made Derek Little Rock’s star, prepared him for a long, illustrious NBA career and left a lasting impression on the UALR basketball program, athletics department and the university as a whole.
In his four years at UALR, Derek became the most decorated player in the school’s 57-year history, but he also exhibited traits from an early age that made it obvious he was born to lead.
Though not gifted with the imposing physical presence of other basketball stars, Derek used his drive and impeccable work ethic to prove doubters wrong every step of the way and show that he could be a successful player. By his senior year at Little Rock’s Parkview High School, Derek was well on his way. With averages of 11 points and 3.3 assists per game, D-Fish received all-metro and all-state nods while leading the team to a 35-1 record on a state championship run. Eventually Parkview ascended to No. 4 in the national rankings, a mighty accomplishment for the school.
However, even with Derek’s impressive senior year at Parkview, he only received a lone college offer, from Arkansas-Little Rock. But the one opportunity was all he needed to continue building on his legacy of hard work and leadership, and he was happy to have a chance to do it in his own backyard.
In a standout freshman year, Fish lead the team in assists and steals, while averaging 7.2 points per game. He also became the only player on the 1992-93 Trojan team to score in every game that season.
As seems to always be the case, Fish played his best when the lights were brightest, including standout performances in both meetings with rival Arkansas State. He scored eight points and dished out a career-high seven assists in the first meeting, a 76-64 UALR win at home. Then later in the season, he scored a career-high 13 points against the Red Wolves, though the Trojans lost that contest at Arkansas State. UALR went on to post a 15-12 record that season, including 10-2 at home. But a few weeks after their loss at Arkansas State, UALR saw their season ended by the rival Red Wolves in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, adding more fuel to the rivalry.
But the story of the season in Little Rock was D-Fish, who as just a freshman, had emerged as a playmaker on the court, a hard worker and a leader of men like few the program had ever seen.
Ken Coggins, the former strength and conditioning coach at Arkansas-Little Rock, developed a close relationship with Derek in his early years with the team and helped D-Fish reach his full potential as a player. But the Coggins and Fisher connection went beyond basketball, as they both shared similar beliefs, which allowed them to build not only a working relationship, but a friendship as well.
Coggins spoke highly of Fish and recalled his work ethic, unique disposition and dedication to hard work.
“He’s the same person whether 1,000 people are watching or no one’s watching. That’s his work ethic,” Coggins told The New York Post. “One day we were in the weight room for three hours and I’d never seen a young man hurting the way he was. He couldn’t even drive home. And he still wanted more. Nobody really thought he could be that good, and he just wanted to prove it to the world. He always saw the big picture.”
A BORN LEADER
Early in his hoops career at Arkansas-Little Rock, D-Fish was thrust into a situation where his renowned character and leadership abilities were put to the test.
Derek’s first two years at UALR were a tumultuous time for the Trojan basketball program, with tensions often running high between coach Jim Platt, his staff, school officials and the players. But from the moment he arrived at UALR, D-Fish was looked up to by many on both sides for his natural leadership qualities. So when the state of the roster came into question and someone needed to step up to be a voice in the locker room for the players to rally around, Derek was an obvious choice.
“It was really something that came from my teammates. It wasn’t something I assumed would be my responsibility,” he recalled of the situation. “Once I was asked by my teammates to fill that role, at that point I embraced it 100% and really immediately took on that leadership and protector mentality of looking out for what’s best for my teammates, even more than for myself.”
Derek stepped in and met with school officials on behalf of the team, mediating a dispute with the goal of facilitating a solution that would get the team back on the court. UALR athletic director Mike Hamrick recalls relying on a 19-year-old Derek to essentially rescue the school’s basketball program.
“He was the calming voice in a very difficult situation,” Hamrick said in an interview with the New York Post. “He knew the issues and the concerns, but he also he knew what was right and what was wrong. The players weren’t going to play, and I needed Derek to help get them back out on the court. I don’t know if I would’ve gotten through that situation without Derek helping me get through it. He was instrumental in working everything out.”
Through all the tumult, Derek also took his game to another level on the court. And after Derek played an integral role in bringing his team back together, they rallied around him on the court as well.
Expectations had risen for him after a high-impact freshman year in Little Rock, but Derek didn’t disappoint as a UALR sophomore. As he grew into his role with the team, D-Fish started to find more opportunities to score consistently and obliterated his previous career highs. In the first game of his second season, when he scored 21 points and dished out eight assists in an 82-75 win over Livingston. Less than a week later, he pushed his career-high assist total up a notch with nine in a loss to South Alabama. But Derek really hit his sophomore stride in February.
On Feb. 17 he scored a new career-high 29 points against Western Kentucky, though the team again lost 66-62. Then two nights later he ensured they wouldn’t meet the same fate against Lamar when he hit a three with three seconds left to give the Trojans an 81-78 win. That victory was a bright spot in an otherwise tough finish to the season for UALR as they went 5-10 over their final 15 games of the regular season. They managed to advance to the second round of the Sun Belt tournament with another win over Lamar, but a tight battle with Western Kentucky in the next round resulted in a three-point loss to end the season.
Though the Trojans fell short of their team goals, there was growth throughout the team, especially for Derek, who embraced his bigger role and bumped his average up to 10.1 PPG. He also improved his three-point percentage from 29 percent his freshman year to an eye-opening 41.8 percent his sophomore year. In addition, he lead the team in assists and steals for the second straight season.
At the crossroads of Derek’s four-year stay at Arkansas-Little Rock came a big change for the betterment of the program and ultimately Derek’s career.
After riding out the 93-94 season with Platt as coach, the school relieved him of his duties and hired Wimp Sanderson, who had previously coached at the University of Alabama for over a decade. Sanderson’s arrival instantly gave the UALR hoops program more stability and credibility, and his guidance helped Derek take his game to new heights.
Under Sanderson, D-Fish broke out in a big way in his junior year with the Trojans, earning unanimous All-Sun Belt Conference honors. For the first time in his career, he led the team in scoring with 17.7 points per game, and he also paced the Trojans in assists with 124 and steals with 44. Sanderson also leaned on him heavily to be the team’s floor general, both during games—playing him an average of 34.7 minutes per—and in practice where it was Derek’s duty to rally the troops.
“If things weren’t going well in practice, I would say, ‘Fish, you better get them together and tell them to get their heads screwed on right or we’re going to practice again tonight,’ ” Sanderson told Newsday last year. “He would get them together over to the side, talk a bit and that was that. That really showed his leadership ability.”
Derek also displayed that leadership ability with his play and persistence. He helped the Trojans get off to a 5-0 start for the season, highlighted by his performance against Abilene Christian on Dec. 3 when he tallied a new career-high 14 assists in a dominant 117-87 victory.
Adversity struck a few weeks later, when Derek suffered a broken bone in his hand in a late December contest. However, D-Fish miraculously missed just two games. Still UALR struggled through a tough stretch in their schedule, at one point losing four straight to fall to 7-7 on the season. But Derek was again there to pick them up and break his team out of the doldrums. They broke the skid with a win over Texas Pan-American, then topped rival Arkansas State in a tight battle. But it was two nights later that D-Fish had his signature performance, against South Alabama. With his team in need of a big win, Derek poured in 36 points, including five made threes and 13 free throws to rally the Trojans to a 102-94 win.
That victory was part of a seven-game UALR winning streak that took them into February. They lost four of their final five regular season games, which sent them reeling into the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. But the conference tournament being played on their home court for the first time ever give them the home court advantage they needed to provide a morale boost.
In their first game of the tourney, they blitzed Jacksonville, who had beaten UALR by 16 points just five days earlier in the regular season finale, winning by 23. A day later, they topped New Orleans by 12, setting up a meeting in the tournament final with Western Kentucky. The Trojans fell short by just three, but the presence in the game, on their homecourt was a watershed moment for the program, capped by Derek being named to the Sun Belt Conference All-Tournament Team.
After a tremendous junior season, Derek was on the national radar and returned to UALR with hopes of leading his squad to a Sun Belt crown and NCAA Tournament appearance while solidifying his chances of being selected in the 1996 NBA draft.
Early in the season, all those goals appeared well within his reach.
In the team’s second regular season game, a non-conference showdown at Sam Houston State, Derek knocked down two free throws late to send the game to overtime and finished with 28 points in a 93-89 win. That game was followed by another tough non-conference battle against Texas Tech, and although the Trojans lost to the Red Raiders, they gained confidence from playing a tight game with a Texas Tech team that went on to post a 28-1 regular season, nabbed a three-seed in the NCAA Tournament and made it to the Sweet 16.
Following the loss to Texas Tech, UALR won seven consecutive games, a streak that was sparked by a 70-68 win at then-No. 8 Mississippi State. It was in that game that Derek’s reputation of persistence in the clutch was perhaps born. The contest was a back and forth battle in the second half, with each basket seemingly either tying the score or breaking a tie. D-Fish was the last to tie it when he buried a shot with 44 seconds left to knot it at 68. After a stop by the Trojan defense, UALR had a chance to win the game and Derek wouldn’t be denied.
Though D-Fish had multiple scoring attempts blocked out of bounds by Bulldogs players in the waning seconds of the game, he kept coming and with just a few ticks left he lobbed up an inbound pass for teammate Derrick Crayton, who tipped it in just before the horn to give the Trojans a signature win.
The win kicked off a seven-game run that featured four non-conference wins and three in-conference wins, including victories over rival Arkansas State and a revenge game from the Sun Belt Conference tournament against Western Kentucky that UALR won by eight. The Trojans hit a bit of a hiccup in mid-January, losing three of four, including a double-digit defeat at Western Kentucky, however they righted the ship by beating Louisiana Tech in their next game, which tipped off another seven-game winning streak. That run was highlighted by another win against Arkansas State, this time in Jonesboro.
A few nights after that win streak ended at the hands of Southwest Louisiana, the Trojans picked up a milestone win for coach Sanderson in Edinburg, Texas against Texas Pan American. Derek had just 14 points in the contest, but the last two were monumental, as he knocked down a 10-foot jumper in the lane with three seconds left to clinch the victory. The win was No. 300 in his career for Sanderson, making him just the 10th coach in NCAA history to log 300 wins in 14 seasons or less.
The victory at Pan American sparked one last winning streak for UALR carrying them into the conference tournament, which was again held on their home court. They routed that same UTPA team by 18 in the first round, then survived a tough battle with Jacksonville in the semifinals to secure their second straight visit to the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game, this time against New Orleans.
After falling behind early, the Trojans mounted a 10-0 run late in the second half to take a three-point lead with over three minutes remaining. Unfortunately, they went cold from there and didn’t make another shot. They nearly managed to hang on anyway, but Privateers senior guard Tyrone Garris hit a teardrop at the buzzer to give New Orleans the conference crown and leave UALR agonizingly short of their first NCAA Tournament trip in six years.
However, that was not the final game of Derek’s college career. The Trojans were selected to participate in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) where they played Vanderbilt in the first round, falling 86-80 to bring and end to Derek’s illustrious four-year career.
The postseason accolades poured in from there.
After proving to be a tremendous and multi-faceted playmaker by averaging 14.5 points-per-game and a career-high 5.2 assists per game as senior, Derek was named Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, the first Trojan ever to receive the honor. He was also named as an honorable mention on the All-American teams selected by UPI and Basketball Weekly, a Basketball Times All-Southwest Team honorable mention and a NABC/Sears All-District 8 First Team selection.
A LASTING LEGACY
In his time at the University of Arkansas Little Rock, Fish was able to establish himself as the cornerstone of the program and one of the most respected players in a conference that doesn’t garner much national attention.
He finished his Trojan career ranked second all-time in school history in points with 1,393, assists with 472, and steals with 184. He remains second all-time in assists and steals, and is now third in points behind all-time scoring leader James Scott (87-91) and his three-year teammate Malik Dixon (93-97).
He’s also first all-time in UALR history in free throws made (399), ninth in field goals made (432), 10th in three-pointers made (125), 12th in three-point percentage (38%), 10th in games played (112). In addition to the 95-96 Sun Belt Player of the Year award, he was also a two-time All Sun Belt Conference selection and a two-time Sun Belt Conference Tournament Team selection.
But Derek’s greatest achievement was becoming the first and still the only University of Arkansas Little Rock player ever to be chosen in the first round of the NBA Draft when the Lakers selected him No. 24 overall in 1996.
Fish achieved that goal through hard work and by creating a niche for himself in his college playing days that he carried throughout his career to becoming a five-time NBA champion.
“Instead of being one of the many, he found a way to create a niche for himself and grow and take on a bigger role,” said former teammate Rick Fox to the New York Post. “That’s what makes him unique. A lot of people don’t know how to deliver when given an opportunity. He doesn’t wilt under the pressure. He’s paid his dues. When given an opportunity to get in the door, he does more with that opportunity.