Derek Fisher is a natural-born leader
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GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Derek Fisher has a way of getting others to do what he wants.
Wimp Sanderson, his basketball coach at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, figured this out days after taking over the team in Fisher's sophomore year. Sanderson, who had been coaching for three decades, saw that Fisher had a unique way of communicating with his teammates and quickly made him his go-to guy.
"If things weren't going well in practice, I would say, 'Fish, you better get them together and tell them to get their heads screwed on right or we're going to practice again tonight,' " Sanderson recalled on the phone Tuesday. "He would get them together over to the side, talk a bit and that was that. That really showed his leadership ability."
It's that leadership ability the Knicks are banking on in hiring the 39-year-old Fisher to be their new coach. Make no mistake: This is a hire made on potential. Just 10 days after his final game as a player with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Fisher has zero coaching experience. What he does have, say those who know him like his new boss Knicks president Phil Jackson, is the ability to figure out what needs to be done and then persuade others to do it.
"Derek was one of those players who's unique in his ability to speak to the players both in their spirit and hearts and resonate with them as to what the purpose was and what we were attempting to do," said Jackson, who had Fisher on all five of his championship teams with the Lakers.
In Los Angeles, it was often said that Jackson leaned heavily on Fisher to be the bridge between Kobe Bryant and the rest of the planet. In New York, Jackson will lean on Fisher to be the bridge between his not-so-easy-to-learn triangle offense and a veteran roster that might balk at making major changes and sacrifices to their game.
Sacrifice is something Fisher knows about. Fisher was never the most talented point guard in the league, but there's no doubt he was one of the smartest and most opportunistic. He has never shied away from taking the big shot -- whether it be on the basketball court or as head of the players union when he helped lead the membership through a divisive strike in 2011.
So it should come as no great surprise that Fisher opened his news conference Tuesday by addressing the elephant in the room.
"There will be a lot of talk about my inexperience as a head coach and that obviously is factually true," he said. "I have not been a head coach in the NBA or college or high school. But I am experienced. Basketball is a game that I am experienced in -- playing, understanding, leading in, guiding in, helping another group of people achieve the greatest gift in the world as a professional athlete and that's being a champion. That I have experience in."
Fisher went on to say that he has been prepping for this job since he was 6 years old and first started playing basketball. And it is something he clearly wants, wants enough to uproot his family to the other side of the country to an area that his wife, Candace, associates with the scariest period in their family's life.
In May 2007, Fisher provided one of the more inspirational moments in NBA playoff history when he flew from New York, where hours before his infant daughter, Tatum, had undergone surgery for a deadly form of eye cancer, to Utah for the second half of what would be a Jazz overtime win over the Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals. Tatum is now a very healthy 7-year-old who has just finished second grade in Los Angeles.
"It was difficult for all of us," Candace said Tuesday after quietly watching her husband's news conference. "You just kind of pull together and make it happen. Our daughter was our priority."
Now with their daughter healthy, Derek's career is the family's priority. And it's clear that he is planning to find a way to win in his new job. "This is not a ceremony. This is not for PR. This is not for Phil and I to just hang out again as friends," Fisher said. "This is to go to work and get our job done and we want to add more banners to this ceiling in here as we all continue to come back to this building on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis."