By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, June 10, 2010; D01
BOSTON It wasn't the final game of his career or the clinching victory of a championship. It wasn't Derek Fisher's greatest ever performance and he didn't drain a shot with fractions of a second left to win the game, as he has done before in the NBA playoffs. Nonetheless, there he was, trying to compose himself during a postgame interview on the court, trying not to bawl his eyes out.
The meatheads who feel the need to celebrate college sports by belittling the pros would have you believe professional basketball players don't care enough to cry at such a moment, that they don't obsess over the game as well-compensated adults as much as they did as children in the back yard or as students in college, when just the opposite is very often true.
There was Fisher late Tuesday night, having led his Lakers to victory in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, having to gather himself not once but twice before beginning to talk to ESPN's Doris Burke. And here he was Wednesday explaining what had overcome him so in such a relatively non-dramatic moment. "My thoughts," Fisher said, "were about how meaningful it was to be in this position in my career again."
In other words, Fisher was on the verge of tears from the joy of just having the chance to help his team win a championship. He couldn't have cared about the game nearly this much in the back yard or in college. Neither could Paul Pierce, who while not on the verge of tears Wednesday was completely somber about his Celtics being down, 2-1, in this championship series.
The people who think mercenaries don't experience the human drama of athletic competition, the highs and lows and every mood swing in between should come and take a look around the Lakers and Celtics locker rooms after practices these days, see the emotions change from one day to the next, watch the Celtics' Ray Allen prepare to shoot hundreds of jump shots one day after going 0 for 13, three days after setting an NBA Finals record for three-pointers made. They should come and see grown men, some of them future Hall of Famers, head for extra practice as if nothing else in their lives matters.
Neither of these teams has been able to win consecutive games yet, probably because these Lakers and Celtics are too evenly matched and because the losing team hurts too much to let it happen again. They hear observers say they do this for money and not love. "And of course it's upsetting," Fisher told me Wednesday after practice. "That's mostly because we make it look easy. You know how professional golfers make shooting under par look so darned easy while the rest of us struggle to put the club on the ball? Well, that's what we do. But it's not easy, and it's hardly ever done without passion. This is our livelihood. This is how we provide for our wives, for our children. This is how a brother-in-law goes to culinary school. . . . And it's how reputations are made and how legacies are formed."
It's also how Fisher helps his little girl, Tatum who is about to turn 4, fight a rare form of cancer, a battle she's handling nicely.
It's been a trying season for Derek Fisher, 14 years into a career few thought would last one-third that long. Many in the Los Angeles media, folks close to the team feel, have ripped him to shreds for not being the player he used to be, essentially for growing old. The fans in Salt Lake City, who feel Fisher betrayed them when he was with the Jazz by leaving to live in Los Angeles, where he found better care for Tatum, taunted him during the playoffs by accusing him of being a liar and/or traitor. Never mind that Fisher took $8 million fewer to do so and was on the verge of playing for the godawful Clippers before the Lakers came to the rescue.
The Lakers, over time, have come to adore Fisher because of the way he plays and the way he handles his life off the court. Kobe Bryant said, beaming with pride, that Fisher is the only guy he listens to.
After he choked up during the interview after Game 3, teammates sought him out individually. Lamar Odom said: "I gave him a hug in the locker room and at that time it was all that needed to be said. There's so much to make of his emotional reaction. Every man on that court has his own story of tragedy and triumph. To get to this level you have to persevere. At the beginning of the year Derek was criticized a lot for being in a slump, for not making shots, for basically being older. To be so clutch, like he's been so many times before in his career. He stays in incredible shape. He doesn't miss games. He carries himself in a certain way. He's prepared to be in whatever situation arises. I admire that."
Fisher was a Laker when Luke Walton arrived as a rookie. And when Fisher was coming back from some time at Golden State and in Utah, Walton remembers being thrilled. Told that Odom had used the word "admire" to describe how he felt about Fisher, Walton said, "Admiration . . . that's rare in this league because we're all peers. But we couldn't ask for a better teammate, a better captain."
Okay, some young point guards may run up and down the floor and do some spectacular things during the regular season. But when the playoffs come around. Do you know how hard it is to chase Ray Allen off screens all night and still score (11 points) in the fourth quarter when your team needs you do it?"
It's a great point Walton makes, since in these playoffs alone Fisher has outlasted four much more celebrated point guards: Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams, Steve Nash and to this point Rajon Rondo. Kobe Bryant isn't the only guy of consequence in the Lakers' back court.
Fisher and Kobe came to the Lakers at the same time, in the summer of 1996, and they have evolved as something of Good Cop-Bad Cop, Fisher the former and Kobe the latter. Kobe jokingly refers to his style as Malcolm X (by whatever means necessary) and Fisher's as Martin Luther King. The team finds balance in the Yin and the Yang, with few outsiders realizing how much weight Fisher carries. Asked Wednesday if he could understand why Fisher was on the verge of tears, Kobe said, "No. I'm not an emotional person; I can't understand."
But when Kobe was asked to name his favorite qualities about Fisher, he didn't hesitate. They're traits that serve Fisher and the Lakers well, especially this time of year when the most talented and resourceful men are more hell bent than ever on winning. "His toughness," Kobe said. "He's very, very, very, very tough, mentally and physically. He doesn't back down from anything or anyone."