ANALYST. COACH. FIVE-TIME NBA CHAMPION.
Over his career in professional basketball, Derek Fisher has seen the game from every side.
During 18 seasons for the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, he played an integral role in winning five NBA championships. Just after retiring from the game, Derek was hired by Phil Jackson to coach the New York Knicks. Now, Derek is applying his wealth of NBA knowledge in a new arena, working as an analyst for the Los Angeles Lakers & Spectrum TV, and NBA TV/The NBA on TNT.
It’s a long way from where his path began.
Derek was born on August 9, 1974, and spent his entire pre-NBA life in Little Rock, Arkansas. His work ethic and determination were evident even from a young age, but basketball was always what drove him. His older brother, Duane Washington, would go on to play for brief stints with the New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Clippers, allowing Derek to see the hard work and sacrifice it took to realize his dreams.
A stand-out guard in high school, Derek starred for Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High. Even as a teenager, his leadership qualities were on display for all those who encountered him.
“He’s been about as straight on anything as any youngster that we’ve had,” said Derek’s former high school coach, Charles Ripley.
Still, despite his outstanding skills, college programs did not heavily recruit Derek in his junior and senior seasons. He decided to attend the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, remaining close to his family while honing his game with an eye on bigger things.
From the moment Derek arrived at UALR, it was clear he would make an incredible impact on the basketball court. Over his four years, he was not only his team’s hardest worker, but also an outstanding teammate and player.
His career as a Trojan is widely regarded as the greatest in the history of the program. While majoring in communications, Fish averaged 12.4 points and 4.4 rebounds a game over his four years. He finished second in Trojan history in career points (1,393) assists, (472) and steals (189). He was always among the team leaders in the latter two, and even set a school record for free throws made in a career (399) and even finished third all-time in three-pointers made (125). His senior year saw him attain his greatest honor to date, earning Sunbelt Conference Player of the Year honors.
His intensity and vision on the floor — coupled with his ability to create opportunities for his teammates — made Derek one of the premier point guard prospects entering the 1996 NBA draft. His dreams now closer than ever, Derek had transformed himself from an overlooked small-college player into a first-round NBA talent.
WELCOME TO SHOWTIME
With the 24th pick in the draft, the Los Angeles Lakers selected Derek, making him the newest addition to a Lakers team rebuilding towards a championship. General Manager Jerry West also added another young gun to LA’s roster when he traded his starting center, Vlade Divac, to the Charlotte Hornets for the 13th pick in the draft, Kobe Bryant.
When dominant Orlando Magic center Shaquille O’Neal was added as a free agent, the Lakers suddenly seemed capable of reviving the Showtime years that had marked the 1980s. For Derek and the 19 year-old Bryant, was also the beginning of friendship and bond that would remain to this day.
“There’s something that’s unbreakable,” Bryant said. “We’re inseparable. We came into the league together. We practiced together when everybody else had a day off. We go way back.”
“When we first came in the league, the rule was that if you played less than 20 minutes a game you had to go in the gym the next day after playing on back-to-back nights. So he and I were always in there. Always. We were competing, shooting and playing one-on-one. We’d challenge each other. So that’s where that bond really started.”
The hard work in the gym paid off for Derek, who appeared in 80 games his rookie season and was selected to Rookie Game during All-Star weekend Cleveland, where he notched 16 points and 6 assists.
PART OF A DYNASTY
The next two seasons saw Derek’s minutes increase steadily each season, and as his game developed, so too did his role on the Lakers. Shaq and Kobe were the stars, but Fish’s influence and leadership on the floor and in the locker room were evident for anyone who came in contact with the team.
The result was a three-year run that established the Lakers as the newest dynasty in the NBA. The Lakers defeated the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 NBA finals, announcing themselves as the new superpower. Fish had established himself as a key cog of a championship club, reaching the highest totals of his career in points, assists and minutes per game.
The 2000-2001 season saw the Lakers capture their second-straight title, but Derek’s year was cut short to just 20 games due to a stress fracture in his right foot. LA completed their three-peat the following season, with Derek averaging 11.2 points per game and showing his team he could be the first option at point guard.
Derek had everything he’d ever dreamed of heading into the 2002-2003 season. He was a three-time NBA champion, and after six seasons with the Lakers, he was finally their main option at point guard.
Fish didn’t disappoint. He started all 82 games for Los Angeles and averaging just under 11 points and four assists a night. But the Lakers lost in the Western Conference semifinals to the San Antonio Spurs, who would eventually go on to win the NBA title.
Derek had built his career sacrificing to get to the top of the game, and now his team would ask him to sacrifice the starting role he’d worked so hard to achieve. The consummate professional, Fisher agreed to take on a backup role to new offseason addition Gary Payton. The Lakers were determined to reclaim their throne atop the league, and the additions of Payton and Karl Malone gave them an All-Star starting five.
A free agent at season’s end, one of the true team-first players in the league took the change in stride.
Derek saw his minutes cut by over 12 a game, but he never wavered, and remained the leader and locker room influence his teammates had leaned on for so many years. The Lakers once again met the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs, and fought back from an 0-2 hole to even the series heading into the pivotal Game 5.
In that contest, Derek Fisher went from NBA veteran to household name, hitting a stunning buzzer-beating shot to give the Lakers the victory, and fans one of the most miraculous moments the game had ever seen.
Fish’s dramatic prayer carried the Lakers all the way to the NBA Finals, where they faced the Detroit Pistons. It would be the end of the Lakers Kobe-Shaq dynasty. They were defeated by the Pistons, and Shaq was then traded to the Miami Heat in the offseason. Head coach Phil Jackson also departed, leaving the team in a state of transition.
Derek was also going through a transition of his own.
Now a free agent, Derek knew it was time for a change after his eight seasons in LA. He wanted to be the main option at point guard for his next team, and the Golden State Warriors presented him with a lucrative long-term offer, allowing him to be the veteran floor general for the young squad.
Derek’s two years with Golden State saw him post the two highest scoring averages of his career, but the Warriors missed the playoffs in both seasons. Halfway through the 04-05 season the Warriors traded for point guard Baron Davis, who was immediately named the starter. As he had always done, Fish put the team first, and once again accepted his role as a backup.
In 2005, Derek finally got the opportunity to give back to the school that had sent him on his journey to an NBA star. He donated $700,000 to his alma mater, UALR, to help build an auxiliary gym and set up the Fisher Fellows program, designed to provide mentors for middle school aged children in the Little Rock Area.
“It’s fitting for Derek Fisher to have his name on our life skills mentoring program. He made himself into a great basketball player, and he has great life skills,” UALR Athletic Director Chris Peterson said. “There’s not a facility or a program that should have Derek Fisher’s name on it more than we do.”
For his efforts, Derek received the NBA Community Assist Award for April 2005. But he couldn’t find satisfaction on the basketball court.
When the Warriors missed the playoffs again at the end of the 05-06 season, Fish decided it was once again time to move on. He wanted the ability to lead the team from the floor, and provide a solid locker room voice.
A NEW BEGINNING
Before the ’06-’07 season, Derek got his wish, and was traded to the Utah Jazz. He welcomed the role of veteran leader for a young, up and coming Jazz squad, and started 61 games for Utah, playing in all 82 regular season tilts. Derek also received one of the highest honors a player can achieve: he was named the president of the NBA Player’s Association in November 2006.
The Jazz entered the postseason ready to make a serious run at a title for the first time since the days of Karl Malone and John Stockton. But during Utah’s first round series against the Houston Rockets, Derek found himself facing with a potentially tragic personal struggle.
One of his ten-month old twins, Tatum, had been diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a cancer of the retina.
Surgery was needed immediately. On the day it took place, Utah — already onto the second round of the playoffs — was scheduled to play Game 2 of its series against Derek’s old team, the Golden State Warriors. Understandably, Derek had missed Game 1, but after Tatum’s surgery and with his daughter in stable conditon — and with the blessing of his wife, Candace — he boarded a plane for Utah.
Arriving at the arena in the second half to thunderous applause, he hit a key three-pointer in overtime, and led Utah to a dramatic victory.
Derek’s emotional postgame interview helped raise awareness about Tatum’s disease, and allowed us all to see the type of person and teammate he had been throughout his career and life. The Jazz went on to lose to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, but those playoffs will always be remembered for Fish’s unprecedented heroics.
At the end of the 2006-07 season, Derek and his family decided they needed to be in a place where Tatum could receive care regularly.
The Jazz released him from his contract, and Derek found a perfect landing in Los Angeles, where his old team — the Lakers — needed a point guard, and there were hospitals with the experts who could provide Tatum the care she needed.
“He makes shots,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “He’s a guy who gets the ball back for you on defense by taking charges. He gets steals. There’s a tough aspect to his defense. He’s somebody Kobe identifies as a person who can put down a shot at a critical time when people are double- teaming (Bryant). I think that he gives Kobe another option. It gives him a real comfort zone.”
His veteran influence could be felt all throughout the team, especially with the younger players who the Lakers intended to build their future around.
“He’s been nothing but great,” guard Jordan Farmar said of Fisher. “You want to surround yourself with winners. Whether it’s to play good defense or make an extra pass or have enough in you to knock down the big shots, it’s just the professionalism he brings.”
Derek’s impact was felt immediately, and he had an incredible season, starting all 82 games while averaging just under 12 points per game. He was able to create opportunities for Lakers star Kobe Bryant, and be the calming veteran influence that would allow him to focus on being the dynamic offensive player he was known to be.
Bryant claimed league MVP honors, and Fish commanded the Lakers to their first NBA Finals appearance in four years. They eventually fell to the Boston Celtics in six games, but Derek had reestablished himself as one of the premier point guards in the league heading into the 08-09 season. And over the two years that followed, Derek captained the Lakers back to glory, winning back-to-back titles — making a total of five for his career.
Derek spent four and a half seasons with the Lakers during his second stint in LA. In the midst of the 2011-12 season he was traded for the second time in his career, to the Houston Rockets. The Rockets agreed to waive Derek, making him a free agent and he signed on March 21, 2012 with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“There were specific things I was looking for, the type of players, coaches, atmosphere and everything fit here with what I wanted to be a part of,” Derek said at the time. “When you can be a part of something special you have to do it.”
One of the league’s best up and coming teams, the Thunder added Derek and his playoff experience to a core that included two of the game’s great young players, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. After reaching the Western Conference Finals for the first time the year prior, Oklahoma City believed that adding Derek could help get them over the hump to the Finals.
“He has winner all over his DNA,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “You can never have enough winners in your locker room, and we have a locker room full of them. He just gives us one more winner.”
Derek’s presence indeed helped OKC take the next step. The Thunder swept the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks in the first round, then beat Fish’s former team the Lakers in five to head back to the Western Conference Finals. There, OKC faced off against a team with which Fish had plenty of familiarity, the San Antonio Spurs and won in six games to advance to the NBA Finals. The trip was Derek’s eighth in 16 NBA seasons.
The Thunder came up short of getting Derek his sixth championship ring, falling to the Miami Heat in five games and after the season D-Fish was once again a free agent. He signed with the Dallas Mavericks, but in just his ninth game with Dallas, Fish suffered a knee injury that would knock him out of action for two months. Days after his injury, Derek was granted his release by the Mavs. He spent the next two months rehabbing while spending some much needed time with his family.
When he was healthy and ready to return, D-Fish again signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Derek played 24 games with OKC down the stretch of the 2012-13 season and 11 more in the playoffs, but the team could not secure a return trip to the Finals, falling in five games to the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round.
Following the season, Fish was non-committal on his future, but after thinking long and hard about his options, Derek announced on July 24, 2013 that he would return to the Oklahoma City Thunder for one final season and one more chance at the his sixth NBA title. Before the season Derek pledged to put his all into this, his final NBA season.
“I have been blessed to do what I love so much, and as I step into this final season I will cherish every game, every cheer, every boo, every whistle, every win. I have loved this time in my life and I am humbled to have shared it with so many of you.”
FISH’S FINAL RUN
With the No. 6 on his OKC jersey, signifying his quest for title No. 6 for his career, Fish embarked on his final season as a player in the NBA.That quest was off to a fantastic start, as the Thunder ripped through the first two months of the season with just six losses and 25 victories.
As expected, Derek filled a veteran’s role off the bench, but also turned in several very productive outputs, including eight games with eight points or more in January. That month brought a 15-point outburst against the defending NBA champion Miami Heat in which D-Fish sunk 5-of-5 attempts from three. That victory affirmed OKC’s status as a title contender, and led by eventual MVP Kevin Durant, the Thunder were looking as strong as any team in the league.
Unfortunately, down the stretch of the season, they found themselves looking up at the frustratingly consistent San Antonio Spurs. The Thunder won all four contests against their rivals, but still settled for the No. 2 seed in the daunting Western Conference. Fish’s squad took the second best record in the league into the postseason, where Derek broke the NBA records for playoff appearances and victories with 259 games played and 161 victories.
In the postseason Oklahoma City was matched with a physically imposing Memphis Grizzlies squad—a rematch of the previous year’s conference semifinals. OKC won Game 1 with ease at home, but collapsed late and fell in overtime in Game 2, giving up home-court advantage. After that defeat, Fish’s leadership and experience was on display
“We understand that this is the NBA, this is the playoffs. There isn’t a script for how this is supposed to go,” D-Fish said. “For us this is about learning from it and responding. Whether we won this game tonight or not, our focus to be the same on trying to find a way to win Game 3 in Memphis. From that perspective, that doesn’t change. It’s one game at a time, and we lost this one. Now we have to focus on the next one.”
The Thunder did focus forward, only to fall again in Game 3, and again in overtime—the second of four straight contests to be decided in extra time. After the second straight heartbreaker, OKC rebounded and retook home-court advantage by beating the Grizz on their floor in Game 4. However, they turned around and dropped a pivotal Game 5, putting them on the brink of elimination.
But in the next two contests, Durant scored a combined 69 points to guide OKC to a pair of blowout wins, sending it to the conference semis against the Los Angeles Clippers.
A much more favorable matchup than the defensive-minded Grizzlies, the Clippers set up a shootout with the Thunder. The winner of all six games of the series was in triple digits scoring.
After dropping Game 1, OKC turned around and won three of the next four before closing out the Clips in the Staples Center. As Fish tallied seven points, three boards and a pair of dimes in the semifinal clincher, he secured his 11th trip to the conference finals. And just like the two previous seasons, it was a familiar foe in the Spurs on the other side of the West semifinal matchup.
Fish dropped 16 points off 4-of-6 shooting from three in Game 1, but the Thunder succumbed to a late Spurs rally on the road. OKC also fell in Game 2, though it turned around and protected its home court with wins in Games 3 and 4.
After a Game 5 loss in San Antonio put the Thunder on the break, the stage was set for a Game 6 classic. A poor third quarter forced Derek’s squad to rally late, but No. 6 buried a key triple during that late run, and OKC forced overtime at home. Unfortunately, the Thunder went cold in the extra period, hitting just one field goal in the five-minute frame, ending their season, and Derek’s playing career with a 112-107 defeat.
After the loss, Fish told the media that, despite this being his planned final season, his heart was still very much into playing the game he has loved since the age of six.
“If you watched the game last night, you know my heart is definitely still in it,” he said. “But I’m also realistic about knowing I can’t do this forever, even if I’m physically capable of still doing it.”
EMPIRE STATE OF MIND
After taking a little over a week to assess his situation and allow the emotions of a long season to subside, Derek made a decision regarding his future in the NBA. Rather than shoot for title No. 6 as a player, he chose to team up with the man that helped him win the first five rings as a Los Angeles Laker: Phil Jackson, now president of the New York Knicks.
On the morning of June 10—6,558 days after he was drafted in the first round by L.A.—Derek was introduced as the 26th head coach in N.Y. Knicks history, a fate he saw as his destiny for his entire basketball life.
“I played my first game of organized basketball at six years old, and although I was one of the better kids on that team, I have very rarely been the best player, the most talented, the tallest, the highest jumping, the best shooter on a basketball team,” Derek explained at his introductory press conference. “So right away as a young person, I had to start thinking about the game of basketball and how it was played and where I could find my advantages and how I could be most effective even though I wasn’t physically the most gifted or talented. So the last 33 years, that’s the way I have viewed the game. And in the last 18 years as an NBA player, in this business, that’s the only reason I’ve been around for 18 years, because I’ve thought as a coach.”
In addition to talking about his history—one that he believes will set him up for future success as the Knicks boss—Coach Fisher talked about the future, outlining his objectives of building a new basketball empire in the Big Apple.
“I thank you all so much for opening your arms to me, to my family and to who I am and what I can possibly be as your head coach,” Fish said. “I’m taking a tremendous amount of pride in coming here and doing my job. This is not a ceremony, this is not for PR, this is not for Phil and I to just hang out again as friends. This is to go to work and get our job done—and we want to add more banners to this ceiling here. I look forward to helping reestablish the New York Knicks as not only the best team in the city of New York, but one of the best teams in the world.”
Derek’s first year as a head coach was a pure transitional period for the New York Knicks as a franchise.
D-Fish’s first win as a coach came in his second game, and a mighty one it was. The Knicks downed the Cleveland Cavaliers on the road, spoiling the much-anticipated return of LeBron James to his home city. Derek’s crew turned around and won a second game in a row over the Charlotte Hornets, but adversity soon hit the team.
Injuries and trades shook up Fish’s lineups throughout the season. Of New York’s opening day starting five, only guard Shane Larkin suited up in the final game of the season. Carmelo Anthony was the only other player from that group still on the roster, but he was shelved after the All-Star break due to injury.
With Melo and numerous other leaders gone, the Knicks turned to several young players, including D-League call-up Langston Galloway to provide a spark. Galloway was one of the stars of the second half, as Derek’s young crew came up with a few impressive wins to close the year, including one over the defending NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs and another over the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed, the Atlanta Hawks.
“If we can keep working hard and we can stay together, we can create some of our own special moments,” Derek said late last in the season “We haven’t had a successful season, but we feel like we’re becoming successful because of the traits that we’re building and the culture we’re establishing. Anything great takes time.”
Derek brought optimism into his second year as a head coach, and into the second transitional year for the storied Knicks franchise. Phil Jackson and the New York brass added a few new pieces to the puzzle, and Coach Fisher set out to raise the Knicks to a new level after a disappointing 2014-15 season.
A big part of that was grooming the team’s top draft pic, a dynamic 7-foot-3 player with star potential, Kristaps Porzingis. Derek helped Porzingis navigate the ups and downs of being a rookie in the NBA, and his efforts helped Porzingis blossom. The Latvian newcomer became New York’s second leading scorer and rebounder, trailing only one of the game’s top talents in Carmelo Anthony.
Fish was having success fitting together the numerous new pieces in Manhattan, while also trying to teach the team’s youth—including Porzingis, Galloway, Lance Thomas and Jerian Grant—how to compete night in and night out at the highest level. The Knicks had put together big wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets early in the year as they hovered around or above the .500 mark. In early January, the Knicks won three straight over top Eastern Conference contenders: two over the Atlanta Hawks and against the Miami Heat, and with that already eclipsed their win total from the previous season.
The Knicks had shown major improvement in season No. 2 under Coach Fish, but in early February, they hit a midseason slump and slipped a bit off pace just before the All-Star break. At that time, the Knicks decided it was time for a change and parted ways with their second-year coach.
With that, Derek thanked the New York front office for a tremendous opportunity, wished his players the best of luck and looked forward to the next chapter in his basketball career.
“I want to express my deepest gratitude to James Dolan, Phil Jackson, Steve Mills and the entire New York Knicks organization for giving me this incredible opportunity. I also want to thank my staff, players and the fans for their passion and support. This is a very talented team with strong character and I am confident they will succeed. Obviously, I’m disappointed, but have learned an immense amount from this experience and hope to grow from it.”