He has been a peacemaker, managing to prevent Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal from killing each other long enough to win three NBA championships. He has been a union leader, serving as president of the National Basketball Players Association. He has been a smooth operator, hitting a legendary playoff shot with point-four left on the clock.
But Derek Fisher never has coached a team in his life, just as Steve Kerr never has coached a team in his life, which begs a question: Why are they being paid a collective $50 million when there is no track record upon which to judge their potential success?
Fisher agreed to a five-year, $25 million deal with the New York Knicks, assuring that Phil Jackson won’t be rejected by two of his pet coaching projects after Kerr took the Golden State job for the same price. But while Jackson now can walk the Manhattan streets without being screamed at for administrative inertia — at least for the moment — what’s happening with that franchise still doesn’t create any sense of optimism. Maybe Fisher will be the next Doc Rivers, who had no coaching experience before launching a Hall of Fame career on the NBA sidelines. Or maybe he’ll be devoured by New York, recalling how a kid from Arkansas was too intimidated to leave his Midtown hotel room when first visiting there with the Lakers.
“It grew on me,’’ Fisher said.
It also could wear on him, regardless of whether Carmelo Anthony stays or uses his opt-out clause next month to sign with the Chicago Bulls or Houston Rockets. If Anthony stays, Fisher becomes the conduit challenged to channel Jackson’s triangle offense and defensive mandates into the brainwaves of a selfish, ball hoggish scorer. If Anthony leaves, is there any certainty Fisher will have prime talent to coach? Kevin Love doesn’t want to play in New York. Kevin Durant doesn’t want to play in New York in 2016. The Knicks are paralyzed by fat contracts this season and have no No. 1 draft pick later this month.
Is Fisher sure he doesn’t want to spend more time with the family after retiring as a player just days ago?
“In the last maybe decade or so, I’ve really felt like my purpose in life, my calling so to speak, was to be in a leadership position or some position of impact on other people,’’ he said. “Coaching allows me to positively impact other people’s lives, to help people find success when they haven’t or have, working together for common goal. That’s what I did for 33 years as a player, starting with basketball at age 6. There’s a love for helping other people, where you can positively impact others and work to reach a common goal. That’s exciting to me.”
His now-former colleagues in Oklahoma City have no doubt he’ll succeed. “Derek is like an older brother to me since I’ve been here,’’ Russell Westbrook said. “He did a great job of always showing me the right path regardless of what may be going on. He always tries to tell you what’s right. It may not be what you want to hear all the time, but what’s right is what’s right.’’
“Without a doubt. He’s a smart guy, smart mind. He’s a great motivator, great speaker and can really relate to a lot of guys and demands that respect from everybody,” Durant said. “He’s a great locker-room guy. I’m sure he’ll do a great job. He’s unique, one-of-a-kind. The only guy I ever played with who can address the team in a way as a leader. He’s able to address the team more so than anybody I played with and he backs it up on the court, too.’’
Said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who is lucky general manager Sam Presti didn’t fire him and hire Fisher: “He probably is one of the best pros I’ve ever been around. He’s relentless in his work and preparation. Fish has always been that way. He’s as prepared as anybody I’ve ever been around. He understands other teams’ personnel and playbook.’’
Now, he becomes the bridge from Jackson to the locker room, the bridge from Madison Square Garden to an NBA championship. He’s about to realize it’s a much longer span than the Triborough.
Your move, Carmelo. I’m betting Chicago.