Leading up to the 2007-08 NBA season, Kobe Bryant had become a bit disenchanted with the Lakers organization.
He publicly slammed the front office — even requesting a trade — and was booed by his home crowd on opening night.
But by the end of 2008, the Lakers were again in harmony, on their way to a pair of NBA titles over the next two seasons.
And in his tell-all book, legendary Lakers coach Phil Jackson said “probably the most important reason” for that turnaround was the re-signing of Derek Fisher.
Now in his 18th season, Fisher has already announced it will be his last. He’s retiring after this final run with the Thunder.
But even though the veteran guard will close out his career in OKC — his fifth team — Fisher will always be remembered as a Laker.
Thirteen seasons. Five championships. More than a thousand games in the purple and gold. An NBA success story born and bloomed in Los Angeles. And a chapter of his career that will close on Sunday afternoon, when Fisher plays his final game against the Lakers in the Staples Center.
“He was always underrated as a Laker,” long-time L.A. basketball writer Mark Heisler said. “From his first day to his last day.”
Los Angeles is a metropolis overrun with stars. And it’s a basketball fanbase that naturally gravitates toward the big names. So playing alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe, Fisher was always an overshadowed role player.
But ask those around the Lakers’ last five title teams, and Fisher’s importance becomes clear, far beyond his on-court numbers.
Back in 2007, the organization was in a bit of turmoil.
But Fisher’s arrival steadied the ship. It was his second stint with the Lakers, this time bringing a veteran presence and respected voice for some of the young talent.
But, more importantly, he was a trusted ally for the Lakers disgruntled superstar.
Fisher and Kobe came into the league together back in 1996. And because of his tireless work ethic and professional approach to the game, Fisher immediately earned the respect and ear of Kobe.
“Very few people were able to have Kobe’s confidence and trust,” former Laker Rick Fox explained. “Derek was one of them.”
In an interview this past offseason, Kobe said Fisher was “my all-time favorite teammate.” And adding him to that 2007-08 team reinvigorated Kobe and, in turn, the organization.
“Fish was the perfect leadership partner for Kobe,” Phil Jackson writes in his book. “They had come up together as rookies and trusted each other implicitly. Derek was more patient than Kobe and more balanced in his approach to problem solving. While Kobe infused the team with his drive to win, Fish had a gift for inspiring players with his words.”
But Fisher’s impactful leadership qualities weren’t limited to that second stint. He arrived in Los Angeles with rare maturity for his age, according to long-time Lakers trainer Gary Vitti.
Heisler tells a story of Fisher’s second year in the league. The team was going through a rough patch. The chemistry was off, with some friction amid a team that featured the commanding personalities of Shaq, Kobe and Nick Van Exel.
So Fisher, at 23 years old and not yet a key rotation piece, wrote each player an individual letter, urging them to come together.
“It was pretty remarkable that a guy like that, a guy as junior as that, would take that upon himself,” Heisler recalls. “Wouldn’t feel intimidated doing it. Tells you a ton about him.”
But beyond those intangibles — which still resonate in OKC today — Fisher left a lasting on-court legacy in Los Angeles.
He’ll rightly be remembered for the big shots. The 0.4 game-winner in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference Finals in San Antonio. The two dagger 3s to put the Lakers up 3-1 over Orlando in the 2009 NBA Finals. The countless others.
But he was far more than a big-shot maker.
“An iron man,” Gary Vitti called Fisher. “He’s the guy you don’t have to worry about.”
In the storied history of the Lakers’ franchise, Fisher is littered throughout the record books. He’s fifth all-time in games played, ninth in minutes, second in threes and seventh in steals.
And a few months from now, likely, Fisher will pass Robert Horry for the most postseason games played in NBA history. Horry is at 244. Fisher is at 240, with 193 of those coming in the purple and gold.
“The people of Los Angeles love Derek Fisher,” Vitti said. “And I think the day that he retires and steps into that arena, that place will erupt with applause and standing ovations for him.”