Commentary

Numbers can't define Derek Fisher

Players like the indispensable Lakers guard won't ever get the notoriety they deserve

Updated: April 8, 2011, 9:48 AM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Derek FisherAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesDerek Fisher has made a career of being the utmost professional, a characteristic of excellence he brings to the Lakers.
LOS ANGELES -- The career points, assists and other supposed superlatives that define and illuminate stars in our society are suppose to explain precisely why no one ever hears much about Derek Fisher.

The Lakers point guard has never been an All-Star. His career averages don't reach the double-digit plateau. He isn't going to be a Hall of Famer, either. But sadly, there's another reason this five-time champion, destined for a space in Lakers lore someday, doesn't get much ink. And it has nothing to do with his game.

"He's a born leader," teammate Pau Gasol explained. "As close to a perfect professional as I've ever seen in my life."

And so it goes!

As the Lakers get set to defend their crown as reigning two-time NBA champions, the headlines undoubtedly will focus on the possibility of this being their last run as a team, Phil Jackson's swan song as a coach and the last legitimate hoorah for one of the greatest ever in Kobe Bryant.

[+] EnlargeDerek Fisher
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFisher's preparation, leadership and experience have been a critical, albeit immeasurable, piece of the Lakers' success.

What the headlines aren't likely to focus on, however, is arguably the quintessential professional in all of sports. An athlete as close to perfect as has been chronicled. One who doesn't make it rain at strip clubs, who isn't a locker room cancer and who never frequents the police blotters -- especially for something as ridiculous as having his pants sag below his backside. Inside a mall, no less.

When asked what he'd like said about him once his NBA career comes to an end, here was Fisher's response:

"Just that I truly believe in my heart that everything that has happened for me ... I deserve," he said. "I say that in the sense that I worked extremely, extremely hard in so many areas to be exactly where I am today. Obviously, people have helped me. Coaches, mentors, teammates, etc. But I feel very proud to say I worked for everything I have. I didn't cheat my way to any of this. I didn't take any shortcuts, and I appreciate what I've earned. I would want people to fully understand the magnitude of just that."

Understand, Fisher's significance isn't appropriately measured just by words being written about him. It's more important to point out that he has no problem with them and the responsibility that breeds.

Modern-day athletes are perceived -- accurately or not -- as ones who don't mind being recognized for the points they score, the statistics they pile up, their championship hardware or the endorsement deals they garner. But ask them to be a semblance of virtue, regardless of the level or category, and most will sprint away from it faster than Usain Bolt.

They don't want you knowing about the wife, the four beautiful kids, Fisher's daughter Tatum and her being diagnosed with retinoblastoma (a rare, degenerative form of eye cancer) back when she was 11 months old, or the inevitable trials and tribulations that come with such circumstances. And they certainly don't want to spend their time as president of the National Basketball Players Association, burdened with the responsibility of representing 450-plus players while trying to make them comprehend there's a price -- and a moral obligation -- that comes with being the face of a league generating $4 billion a year in revenue.

"I think I learned it over the years, even prior to my becoming a basketball player. It's something my parents instilled in me. Making sure you're always aware of where you are, what you stand for. Not becoming complacent. Not being OK with what you've already accomplished. Always looking to do more. To push yourself more to be better. To never been shy about representing someone or yourself. God knows none of us are perfect, but there's nothing wrong with pursuing perfection."

As a professional athlete, Fisher is pretty close to sublime.

He stands with Bryant as the only Lakers who were members on all five of their recent championship squads. Their chances are looking pretty good that there will be six come the end of the June. And Fisher couldn't be happier, considering he nearly left last summer for the Miami Heat after LeBron James signed with them "until Kobe let me know he wasn't having it," Fisher said, before agreeing on a lesser three-year deal to remain with the franchise where he spent the first eight years of his career and captured five titles.

"Yes. I definitely was considering all available options," said Fisher, who left the Lakers in 2004 before returning in 2007. "Throughout times in my career when I've been a free agent, the opportunity to assess and reassess the things I've accomplished in my career, both individually and collectively ... was something I entertained. I haven't regretted my decision to stay here one bit, but I always look at all the available options. I do that now.

"I love the game of basketball. I love sports," Fisher continued. "The opportunity to work in sports and television and/or radio, coaching or management when my career is over. Another business is being in a management or a consulting position with pro athletes and entertainers, with individuals that are having to make decisions I've had to make over the last 15 years. I don't know of a former player who's really stepped into the management world and helped these young men with some of the decisions they need to make. I'd love to lend a helping hand there."

So much for perfection when it comes to Fisher. He doesn't even realize he's already accomplished that goal, just by being himself.

And to think, Fisher actually did this without anyone paying attention.

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, host of a weekday show for ESPN New York 98.7 and a regular on "SportsCenter" and "First Take."

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