Laker Leader is A Fisher of Men

You were expecting Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal, perhaps? Nope, when it comes to matters of the heart - it's Derek Fisher

Derek Fisher
It could be said that timing is everything for Derek Fisher.

The 27-year old, 6-foot-1-inch-guard has come a long way since joining the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996 as the 24th pick in the NBA draft. Fisher has gone from being a quiet but hardworking player to a team spiritual leader and key component of a championship team.

He reminds many of the same kind of team and spiritual leadership that A.C. Green carried for many years as a member of the Lakers' "Showtime" teams of the 1980s.

The timing couldn't have been better for Fisher, who was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was after the draft but before moving to the entertainment capital of the world that he accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior.

Over the years, Fisher has overcome surgery, coaching changes, and alleged team disunity to become a big factor in the Lakers' two consecutive NBA titles.

As a little-known draftee from the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, where he was the 1995-1996 Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, Fisher was about to move to a city and join a team that was on the verge of rebuilding into another dynasty. The Lakers had just acquired Shaquille O'Neal from the Orlando Magic and an unproven high school player named Kobe Bryant.

"I didn't know anyone in Los Angeles, and I had never even been here before," says Fisher. "So for the most part I was on my own. I was about to face a big transition in my life. I knew that I couldn't make it alone.

"Right after the draft my brother and his wife were in town, and the whole family went to church. After the sermon that's when it hit me. I think that was God's plan all along. It was His timing that I accepted Christ just as I was about to leave for L.A. and the NBA."

Fisher, one of three children (brother Duane Washington, who played in the NBA, and sister DeAndra), comes from a home where Christianity, reading the Bible, and going to church where the standard.

"My mother was a big influence on me when I was younger and even now," says Fisher. "We always went to church each Sunday. Being from the South, that was just a part of growing up. But I have to say that early in my life I didn't' have a real understanding about Christ. All the way through high school I never really got to know Christ one-on-one."

It wasn't until college that Fisher's spiritual journey began to move forward. There he became active with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and became close with the UA-Little Rock's strength and conditioning coach Ken Coggins. Under Coggins, Fisher started attending weekly chapel services, reading the Bible, and searching for truth.

"Ken Coggins was the spiritual leader of the team," says Fisher. "We spent a lot of time together. He was a big influence. He was a very positive person and really into the Word."

After the draft and after he had trusted Jesus as Savior, Fisher packed his bags and headed for L.A.. For support he also moved his cousin Anthony Grant and close friend Clarence Finley with him.

During his first couple of seasons in L.A., Fisher remained quiet and kept to himself. He was not one to take advantage of L.A.'s nightlife nor have it take advantage of him. So he spent much of his time at home, fishing, listening to music, or hanging out with Grant and Finley.

Rick Harville, who has been the chaplain for the Lakers for 16 years, says that when Fisher first joined the team, he didn't' really see much of him chapel services.

"Derek was a young guy coming into a league with a bunch of superstars," says Harville. "He has a very low-key guy who worked very hard. He didn't come to services very much, but he would always ask questions."

A.C. Green, who helped the Lakers win two titles with the 1980's "Showtime" era teams with Magic Johnson and James Worthy, came back in 2000 after stints in Phoenix and Dallas to win one more title in L.A. with a whole new group of players, including O'Neal, Bryant, and Fisher.

"I only had a chance to play with A.C. for one season, and we won a championship together," says Fisher. "It was a great experience. Not only being a teammate of his, but also getting a chance to know him as a man and getting a better understanding of the Christian walk.

"He's a walking example for younger people like me who want to work hard and walk in the Christian faith. It was great to have him there because it was almost like having a piece of God there. You knew that he was your brother in Christ, and he was always there to listen to you if you needed to talk."

Because of Green's influence, Fisher progressed dramatically as a main of faith and as a player. He has emerged as a spiritual leader of the team. He's bolder, more aggressive, and more confident as a player and as a Christian.

"When A.C. was here, Derek watched him carefully," says Harville. "He learned so much from him. Derek has grown so much that people on the team respect him. To know how much he's grown is to look at the relationship he has with others.

"He plays with two of the most high-profile players in the league, and they listen to what Derek says - as does the rest of the team. This is only the beginning. I expect even bigger and better things from Derek." Now Fisher can be seen leading the Lakers and opposing teams in prayer after games - with his mother sometimes joining in. He is a regular at the team's chapel services and has earned the respect of the entire Lakers team.

Fisher has also developed close relationships with other players in the league, such as Arkansas native and Detroit Pistons forward Corliss Williamson and Miami Heat forward Brian Grant.

Fisher has matured as a Christian and a player. There may have been two breakthrough moments last season to prove it.

The first took place in a regular season game against the Boston Celtics on March 13. It was his first game back after the first foot injury sidelined him for the entire first half of the 2000-2001 season. Fisher came back in style, scoring a career-high 26 points and picking up six steals in a 112-107 win in front of the hometown crowd at Staples Center.

The second breakthrough moment came in Game 2 of the NBA finals against the Philadelphia 76ers. Fisher scored 14 points, including a key three-pointer and a rare slam-dunk as the Lakers ties the series at 1-1 with a 98-89 win. Fisher was just as big a threat on defense, holding Allen Iverson to 10-for-29 shooting.

That was a big difference compared to Game 1 of the series, in which Fisher was humiliated by the NBA's Most Valuable Player. Iverson scored 48 points while being guarded most of the time by Fisher. On the offensive end Fisher was held scoreless and sat out the last 20 minutes and 30 seconds of the game in a 107-101 overtime loss.

"Both times I felt I had something to prove," says Fisher. "Coming back the first game after an injury. I wanted to play well and get back into the swing of things. During the playoffs, I wanted to prove that I could play at a championship level consistently and do whatever I'm needed to do."

The 4-1 series win for the Lakers capped off a league-record 15-1 run. Fisher played in all five games and averaged 9.8 points and went 10-of-19 from three-point range.

Fisher played the entire series in some pain. For the second time in 2 years he would need surgery, but Fisher decided to wait until after the season to have it done.

"I think deep down I knew something was wrong," says Fisher, "but I didn't want to sit out the championship series. It meant too much to me, and I wanted to contribute to the team in whatever ways I could."

After Green was let go by the Lakers following the 1999-2000 season, Fisher was on his own. It was almost as if the torch or team spiritual leadership had been passed to him. As far as any comparisons to Green, Fisher said that many of the Lakers already made them, whether he likes it or not.

"Phil Jackson even jokes with me about it," says Fisher. "There's an understanding on the team that I'm different. That doesn't mean I'm perfect or that I'm better than anyone else on the team. I know that people are watching me, and I've accepted the role of being a 'spiritual leader' on the team. I take it very seriously.

"What I try to bring to this team and guys like Mike Penberthy, Mark Madsen, and others is that you can be successful, have a great career in this league and still walk with Christ. You don't have to give in to the system or do what everyone else does to be a good player in this league."

While sitting in a restaurant in Culver City just outside of Los Angeles, the kid from Little Rock was more than happy to sign a few autographs for Lakers fans. At times Fisher seemed almost flattered by the attention. But after winning two consecutive championships and being on a team that is the favorite to win it again this season, Fisher has accepted another role on the team and in L.A. - that of a celebrity.

"The people have really made it easier for me to be here," says Fisher. "The fans around here are great. I've never seen anything like it. There has been a great deal of support for the team and for me ever since I've been here.

"It's a great feeling. I really appreciate all the kind words and encouragement I've received, and especially during the summer after the surgery. There have been people coming up to me telling me that they're praying for me. The support has been overwhelming, and it's been great being a part of this organization. I hope I'll be here for a lot of years to come."

At the same time he's still the same Derek Fisher who came to L.A. 5 years ago. Although he just bought a home in the very upscale Encino area just north of L.A., Fisher still enjoys video games and hanging out with his cousin and close friend. Fisher does get out more these days. He likes to travel and was a regular at many of the WNBA's L.A. Sparks games during the summer.

Fisher said he's grown and learned a lot since first arriving in Los Angeles. He emphasizes that living the life of a professional basketball player is more than playing an 82-game season, winning championships, and the admiration of fans.

"It's not as easy as it looks, and there are a lot of temptations out there," Fisher says. "That's the one thing I'd like to get across to Lakers fans and basketball fans in general. We're human. We have struggles. They may be different from what the average person goes through, but they are struggles and they're real. To do what we do and still walk the Christian walk is very difficult.

"All of us make mistakes, and will continue to make mistakes. We ask God for forgiveness and try to learn from our mistakes and move on. That's all a part of growing up and shaping us into who God wants us to be."

And God will finish what He started.

Taken from Sports Spectrum, a Christian sports magazine. Used by permission. For subscription information call 1-800-283-8333.

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