Derek Fisher, the Knicks' rookie coach, knows what to do in a crisis. He flourished playing alongside Kobe Bryant with the Lakers. He was president of the NBA players' union during one of its most turbulent times. And he might have saved his own college basketball program when he was 19 years old.
In Fisher's sophomore year at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, his teammates boycotted a practice and threatened to boycott a game because they wanted coach Jim Platt fired. Players didn't like the way they were treated by Platt and didn't buy into some of the changes he made in his first three seasons as coach. Mike Hamrick, then the school's athletic director, recalls how Fisher brokered a deal that ended the mutiny. Platt stayed through the rest of the season before he was fired.
"Derek Fisher is a natural leader," said Hamrick, now the athletic director at Marshall. "I can't say I would have predicted he would end up as the coach of the New York Knicks. I thought he was going to end up being the governor of Arkansas or a United States senator. He's really one of a kind and he knows how to deal with different kinds of people."
Fisher's crisis management skills will come in handy with the Knicks, who in recent years have lurched from one crisis to the next as they searched for the right combination of coaches, players and management.
Fisher's ability to deal with people is a key reason Knicks president Phil Jackson decided to put his faith in him, decided he was the right man to translate the team-first principles of Jackson's triangle offense to a me-first generation.
Fisher said he fully realized the magnitude of the trust Jackson was placing in him a month after accepting the job. He and Jackson took a chartered plane to Manhattan, Kansas, to visit 92-year-old Tex Winter, the architect of the triangle offense Jackson used to win 11 championships with the Bulls and Lakers.
"As we were leaving, it hit me that this was way more than a social visit in Phil's mind," Fisher recalled. "He needed to officially pass the torch. That was the purpose.
"I feel like I'm carrying the torch now, and it has to be respected. I'm proud of that, but with that pride comes the appropriate pressure to do it in the way it's supposed to be done, but to do it in my own way. Phil didn't try to be Tex. Phil was Phil. I can't try to be Phil Jackson, and Phil respects that."
Hope for instant credibilityJackson and Fisher certainly took different routes to their first head-coaching jobs. Jackson had to take a decidedly unglamorous job in the CBA and as an assistant in Chicago before catching his first lucky break and taking over Michael Jordan's Bulls.
Fisher, by contrast, has never coached a minute in the NBA, never coached a minute on any level.
A year ago, he was in an Oklahoma City Thunder uniform playing against the very players who now call him "Coach.'' While much has been made about the challenges of going straight from the playing floor to the bench, there also are some big pluses when working with young people who do not have an overly keen sense of history.
"I do view it in some ways as an advantage," Fisher said. "I hope it gives me instant credibility. It gives me great comfort and confidence that I can communicate with our players in a way that's meaningful and impactful to them. I think they can hear me speak about the game and situations that they know for a fact I've experienced not more than six months ago."
Fisher, of course, isn't the first player to retire and go straight to a head-coaching job. Jason Kidd took over the Nets last season after playing for the Knicks the year before.
Being an assistant no longer is seen as a prerequisite to getting the top coaching job. Steve Kerr, Jackson's first choice for the Knicks, now is Golden State's coach. He replaced Mark Jackson, who had never been an assistant when he was hired three years earlier.
Jackson, now an analyst for ESPN, says the key to hiring a successful coach is hiring the right guy for the right job, whether he comes from the floor, the broadcast booth or someone else's bench.
"I think when you look at Derek Fisher . . . there's no question that he's a guy that you can see being a head coach in this league for a long time to come," Jackson said. "He's a young, talented basketball mind that's going to do very well."
He believes that while Fisher's close relationship with Phil Jackson will help him do his job, it ultimately has to be his to do.
"I think it's overblown to believe that somebody from the front office could win or lose ballgames," Mark Jackson said. "This is going to be on Derek Fisher. And if it's not on Derek Fisher, then he loses credibility within that locker room."
The ring is the thingThe Knicks haven't tested the triangle offense in the regular season -- their opener is Wednesday night -- and Fisher still is working on getting his players to buy into it. Just last week, shooting guard J.R. Smith publicly admitted he was struggling to adjust his game to the team-first mentality. Fisher, however, has something that Smith wants -- championship rings -- and Smith is willing to buy into the triangle if he can get them.
"He just told me -- look at the rings they have," Smith said. "It's worked. I want one so bad, I'll do whatever it takes. If it takes me sacrificing my scoring, that's what it takes."
That, in a nutshell, will be the key to Fisher's success, the key to making the triangle offense something important and relevant. And he has to do it in New York, in the media capital of the country, where the importance of each win and loss is magnified by 10.
Fisher said of all the challenges he has faced in his professional life, this might be the biggest.
"It's pretty high up there," he said. "In the course of my life, I've always found myself in leadership positions, and it's all prepared me for this. Except for some personal things, it's as challenging as it can get. And I embrace that."