ONE OF THE GREATEST VICTORIES IN LAKERS HISTORY
Four tenths of a second.
Scarcely enough time for a thought to pass through the mind, to imagine the impossible becoming miraculous reality.
But that was all it took for Derek to provide fans of the Los Angeles Lakers with one of the most spectacular victories in franchise history.
It was May 13, 2004, Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals, San Antonio hosting Los Angeles. The Lakers had just seen a 16-point fourth quarter lead evaporate on the heels of a 24-7 San Antonio run, capped by Tim Duncan’s impossible fallaway jumper over the seemingly insurmountable reach of Shaquille O’Neal.
With 0.4 seconds left, the Spurs led, 73-72.
“As an athlete, you still figure as long as there’s time on the clock, maybe something can happen,” Fish told the Fort Worth Star Telegram.
What happened next would catapult the Lakers point guard into the national spotlight.
After three Lakers timeouts, the teams took the floor, Los Angeles guard Gary Payton set to inbound from the sideline. As the whistle sounded for play to resume, San Antonio defended the lob to Shaq perfectly, depriving Payton of his first option. With Kobe Bryant also blanketed, Payton looked frantically for a player to break free.
That player was Fish.
Payton spotted him shaking off his defender, San Antonio’s Manu Gibobilli, just enough to catch a pass in stride.
In a single motion, Derek caught the ball, turned to the basket, and heaved a fadeaway jumper from 20 feet out over Ginobli’s outstretched arms.
A packed SBC Center held its collective breath, thousands watching the soaring ball for what seemed like an eternity.
“At first I thought the shot was a little long,” Fish told the Houston Chronicle. “But about halfway there, I knew it was going in.”
And he was right. His fallaway jumper touched only nylon, and the Lakers erupted in celebration. Fish sprinted off the court, a single finger raised in victory, headed straight for the locker room.
“I just wanted to get out of there and not give them an opportunity to think that we didn’t believe that the shot went in (in time),” he said.
Officials did review the shot. Players from both teams — and a stadium of disbelieving fans — stood in their seats, anxiously awaiting the decision. In the stadium tunnel, along with a number of employees, Fish did the same.
“I stopped at that TV to listen to a local broadcast, and they kept staring and staring, and I was getting worried that they were going to possibly overturn it,” Fish said. “But I actually prayed really quick, and just hoped and prayed that they didn’t take that basket away.”
It was good, and the Lakers had an unbelievable 74-73 win. They would go on to eliminate San Antonio, the defending NBA champion, in Game 6.
Lost in the pandemonium was an interesting connection between Derek and Gary Payton.
The inbounder on the remarkable play, Payton had been brought to LA to help the Lakers reclaim their throne atop the league. He and Fish both played point guard, but Payton had started nearly every game that year — a radical change for Derek, who had started every contest the previous season. Morever, Fish was in the last year of his contract.
Most players would have responded with outrage. Derek embraced his new role as backup for the entire season. So it seemed only fitting that he would rise to the occasion on the biggest stage, saving the Lakers’ season off a pass from the man who had replaced him.
“That’s a tribute to his focus and dedication to the team and putting the team first,” teammate Rick Fox said. “He’s had to sacrifice for the betterment of the team, the addition of Gary. Tonight was a remarkable payback for his sacrifice.