Lakers veteran guard has quite a 'Fish' tale
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Michael Tsai
At the end of another day of practice at the 'Iolani School gym, what remains of the Los Angeles Lakers line up along the baseline for a round of full-court sprints followed by free-throw shooting.
Exactly how long this daily ritual lasts depends on how well the players shoot after completing each grueling run.
It's just practice and, beyond a little fatigue, there are no real stakes to speak of. But it's the accumulation of seemingly insignificant moments like this that speak to the character of a team, and of its leadership.
Kobe Bryant is sitting out with one knee wrapped in ice. Lamar Odom is rehabbing an injured shoulder. Luke Walton is also sidelined with a troubled hammy.
And so it's left to prodigal point guard Derek Fisher, who returns to the team after two years with the Golden State Warriors and another with the Utah Jazz, to keep the team sharp.
"I'm really excited," Fisher says. "We have a young group, but I think it's a group that wants to do well and wants to be successful. We just have to learn how to do that."
And so, Fisher and probable understudy Jordan Farmar, a second-year guard out of UCLA who supplanted Smush Parker as the team's staring point guard last season, leave the rest of the scrimmage-weary team in their wake.
Fisher is the first to the charity stripe and he calmly nails the first free throw.
Fisher is no stranger to Hawai'i. He spent three training camps here as a Laker and another with Golden State in 2005.
At was his last camp as a Laker in 2004, when the NBA media was abuzz with the addition of likely Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton to Cirque du Shaq et Kobe, reporters routinely turned to Fisher for context and clarity.
It would be a tumultuous year for Fisher — who ceded his starting spot to Payton — and it's ending would be particularly bittersweet.
In Game 5 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals that year, Fisher, referred to simply as "Fish" by his teammates, nailed a turnaround jump shot with .4 second left on the clock to seal a 74-73 victory for Los Angeles. The win put the Lakers ahead 3-2 in the series, which they would eventually win.
Fisher was feted as "the Fish that saved L.A.," but the Lakers' bid for a fourth consecutive championship ended weeks later at the hands of the Detroit Pistons.
That summer, Lakers coach Phil Jackson retired, Shaquille O'Neal was traded to Miami and Kobe Bryant threatened to opt out of his contract. The Lakers offered Fisher a three-year contract worth a reported $15, but Golden State, looking for a high-character player who could provide veteran leadership, made an offer the 30-year-old guard could refuse: $37 million over six years.
Fisher's two-year tenure with Golden State was a disappointment. Though he posted his career high in scoring average at better than 13 points a game, the team floundered and Fisher again gave up his lead spot to a more-heralded player, good friend Baron Davis.
Last summer, the Warriors traded Fisher to the Jazz for a trio of spare parts (Keith McLeod, Andre Owens and Devin Brown).
The move north proved redemptive for Fisher, who averaged 9.5 points and 2.6 assists as a backup to rising point guard Deron Williams.
And while the end of that season again proved bittersweet, the long-term implication are proving to be more sugar than ash.
As the young Jazz team made its march to the Western Conference Finals, Fisher and his wife Candace learned that one of their infant twins, Tatum, had retinoblastoma, a rare cancer that manifested as a tumor between the child's left eye and her brain.
Fisher took a leave of absence from the team to accompany Tatum to New York for treatment.
Fisher returned to the team in dramatic fashion. With Williams in foul trouble and his team wobbling in its Game 2 semifinals matchup with, who else, the Warriors, Fisher charged through the arena tunnel to a rousing ovation from Jazz fans — a moment many compared to New York Knick Willis Reed's dramatic return in the 1970 NBA Finals for its pure inspirational power.
Fisher would hit a key three-pointer late in the game to give Utah a 2-0 series lead.
Again, his team would advance only to fall short (to the San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals) and again Fisher would seek a new home in the offseason.
But this time, the moves were all positive. The Jazz were never expected to advance as far as they had, and Fisher short stint with the team was highly valued. So great was the team's respect for Fisher that they allowed him to rejoin the Lakers to allow Tatum to be closer to needed medical care.
The Lakers were all to happy to have his calming presence back in the fold.
It' certainly doesn't hurt to have another veteran on the team who knows how to play and knows how to handle himself in this element," says Jackson. "We expect that he'll hit shots like he's always done in the past and have a sense of how we want to play. He'll play in control and be a playmaker at times, set the table for other guys and (be) a tough-nosed kind of guy on defense."
The team that Fisher has returned to bear little resemblance to the juggernaut he left three years ago. Jackson and his staff have returned and Bryant remains (for now) but other key players have all changed.
"We're just getting started," Fisher says. "It's an interesting dynamic because the staff and trainers who I basically grew up with are the same but it's my teammates, the guys I'm going to be on the court with, who I need to learn and get used to."
TEACH A MAN TO BE LIKE FISH
Fisher and his teammates line up for another round of sprints and free-throws. Again, it's Fish and Farmar at the vanguard.
"I've got my money on Fish," assistant coach Kurt Rambis mockingly chants from the sideline. "I've got my money on Fish."
Farmar takes up the challenge and the two make it back to the baseline in a virtual tie.
Fisher is enjoying his role on the team. He says he hopes to lead by example and, as Farmar and rookie point guard Javarris Crittenton get to know him, share what he has learned about surviving in the league.
"He's a professional and he comes ready to play every day, — play defense, knock down shots," says Farmar. "He's been here in this organization under this coaching staff and he's won titles. He knows what it takes. Me and Javarris and the other guards have to sit back and observe, not necessarily him on the court, but how he goes about his business every day."
But Fisher hasn't forgotten that his return to Los Angeles serves a greater purpose.
Tatum Fisher endured three rounds of chemotherapy since her illness was first diagnosed and her father says the cancer is under control.
Because of the location of the tumor, the Fishers' and Tatum's physician have settled on a treatment of trying to shrink the tumor rather than trying to remove it, which would require the removal of the eye itself.
"We've tried to do the responsible thing by giving her a chance to save her natural eye and possibly regain some vision," Fisher said. "As long as we feel comfortable that the cancer and the tumor is diminishing and under control, we feel comfortable leaving the eye. If at any point they give us news that puts her life is in jeopardy, or comes close to being in jeopardy, we're not going to be afraid to make that decision.
"She can have a life, a great life, with just one healthy eye," he said. "There are a lot of kids that we've seen ourselves and a lot of adults that have experienced this or some other kind of affliction where they've had to have an eye removed and their life is still great after that, so we're not keeping her from that just because. But if treatments are out there so she can keep her eye, we want to try and do it."
The family flies back and forth to New York every four weeks or so to monitor the tumor. The fear is that it could grow and metastacize into the optic nerve or the brain.
Fisher said being in LA allows his daughter to receive regular observation and follow up care between the New York visits. The proximity of top-flight medical centers is also a benefit should an emergency arise.
Though he is closely involved in his daughter's care, Fisher credits his wife Candace with bearing much of the burden.
"My wife has just been unbelievably strong in keeping us together as a family and keeping things moving along," Fisher says. "Especially with me being back to work this week, it puts a lot of pressure on her. But she's definitely there for our children and there for me, also."
Fisher used the media attention from last year's playoffs to make an appeal for parents to have their children tested for retinoblastoma. He and his wife are researching various organizations and nonprofit groups trying to determine how best to share information about the disease, and they plan to participate in public service messages when Fisher returns to Los Angles.
Fisher's contract will pay him $14 million over three years, which just may take him to the end of his storied career.
"The way I feel right now I feel I could play forever," he says. "I'll play for three years and at a certain point I'll take a long look back at my 15 year career, at what I've experienced and what I've been a part of, and make that decision about whether I want to continue to make that commitment. Hopefully we'll win a championship or two in the meantime and that will make the decision a little easier.
For now, Fisher says he and his family are happy to live in the moment.
"There are obviously some good days and some days that aren't so good, but when you consider what we've been through in the last six months, I don't see how we could be doing any better," he says. "We're all healthy we're alive and we're just taking it one day at a time. I think this has allowed us put things in perspective even more that each day is a gift and you try to make the most of it and you go to sleep and hopefully you get the opportunity to do it again the next day."
• • •
|Warriors' Ellis leaves hostpital
LA'IE, Hawai'i — Golden State Warriors guard Monta Ellis was released from the hospital after injuring his neck in practice and was expected to sit out yesterday’s workout.
Ellis, 21, left Castle Hospital Friday night on his own accord with what the team said was a neck sprain. Ellis underwent a battery of tests, including an MRI exam and CT scan, and all were normal.
“It’s as good as can be expected,” Warriors spokesman Raymond Ridder said.
He hit his head on teammate Brandan Wright’s hip as he was driving toward the basket. His status was listed as day-to-day and his availability wasn’t immediately known for preseason games against the Los Angeles Lakers Tuesday and Thursday.
Reach Michael Tsai at email@example.com.