OKLAHOMA CITY — It was nearing midnight Saturday when Derek Fisher came to his locker to collect his things. He dressed in studied silence, pulling on khaki slacks, a crisp dress shirt, brightly hued polka-dot socks and polished dress shoes. He pivoted in place and then stepped forward into the unknown.
His 18th season had just faded into history, and soon there will be voices tugging at him from every direction.
Phil Jackson, from New York.
Mitch Kupchak, from Los Angeles.
Sam Presti, from Oklahoma City.
And a chorus of eager children at the Fisher homestead in Southern California.
Eighteen years into a storied career that no one could have predicted, Fisher will soon be weighing opportunities that few could dream of.
The Knicks' head coaching job is seemingly there for the taking. A position with the Lakers, on the bench or elsewhere, looms as a possibility. The Thunder, who helped Fisher extend his career when it appeared over, could make their own pitch.
When you've played in 259 playoff games (a record) and won 161 of them (also a record), including five championships, people tend to covet your expertise and wisdom.
But before Fisher considers any of that, he will consider the four young voices clamoring for daddy to come home.
"We all have professional aspirations and goals and things that we'd like to achieve," Fisher said Saturday, after the Thunder were eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. "But you still have to respect the fact that there is a balance to life."
All season, he indicated this would likely be his last run, though he never shut the door entirely, and even at 39, he remains a picture of supreme fitness. He played the final 22 minutes of Saturday's 112-107 overtime defeat, scoring a key three-pointer in the Thunder's fourth-quarter rally. If he wanted to keep playing, he probably could.
But after 18 seasons, the last two far from home, Fisher is feeling the tug of family, his wife and kids and the allure of more relaxed daily routine. Leaping immediately into a head coaching career would mean more nights away and even longer hours.
The Knicks still need a coach, and Jackson—who formed a bond with Fisher during their Lakers days and is now running the Knicks—has made it clear he wants to have a conversation. Fisher remains close to Lakers star Kobe Bryant, so a return to L.A. is always possible. The Thunder might want Fisher back as a player—or conceivably as coach if they were to part ways with Scott Brooks.
It was, of course, too soon to discuss any of that Saturday night, so soon after seeing his season end, just six victories shy of a sixth championship. Fisher said he had yet to speak with Jackson, or any other team executive, with any other team.
"There'll be, I'm sure, conversations and talks at some point," he said. "But this is still pretty raw and pretty fresh, what just happened.
"I don't think, based on the emotions that I'm feeling right now, [that] it's smart to start betting on what I'm going to do next. But I'm going to definitely take it seriously, like I've always tried to do with everything in life, consider my options, consider what's best, and then go from there. I'll try and do that as soon as possible, so that all parties involved can make the decisions that need to be made."
Fisher said it was important to "respect not only whatever my future holds, but the guys in this locker room and this organization," which was no surprise to anyone who has followed his career.
From the moment he entered the league as an unheralded, late first-round pick in 1996, he built a reputation as a stand-up figure—an intelligent, steady voice, a locker room conscience, a model of class and decorum.
When Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were at odds, Fisher was among those who kept the locker room from fracturing. Though his role on the court has decreased, his presence was just as critical these last two seasons in Oklahoma, as he mentored another generation of superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
It's no coincidence that Fisher's locker is closest to theirs.
When matters grew tense Saturday night, it was Fisher who repeatedly called the Thunder players together, simultaneously calming and exhorting them.
Oh, and he can still play a little, too. The Thunder were trailing by nine points in the middle of the fourth quarter when he swished a three-pointer on a feed from Westbrook. That shot sparked a 17-6 run that gave the Thunder a 99-97 lead—their first of the period.
If that was Fisher's final basket, it would be an appropriate coda to a career filled with timely three-pointers. His clutch shooting was just as critical to the Lakers' title runs as Robert Horry's.
If Fisher retires, he will leave the NBA as the fourth-most prolific three-point shooter in playoff history with 285 makes, behind only Ray Allen (376), Reggie Miller (320) and Bryant (292).
It seemed oddly poetic, too, that Fisher's incredible career would be ushered to a close by the Spurs—a team he battled with repeatedly over the last 18 years during his Lakers tenure.
In 2004, Tim Duncan hit an apparent game-winning jump shot with 0.4 seconds left in Game 5 of the conference finals. Fisher answered, famously, with a catch-and-shoot buzzer-beater that was instantly enshrined among the greatest shots in playoff history.
On Saturday, Duncan repaid the favor, hitting a tough turnaround jumper that sealed the victory in overtime.
"They've been one of the best and most consistent basketball teams in our league for a long time," Fisher said softly. "We were right there, but just not good enough."
On a night when the Thunder played their starters to exhaustion, Fisher was the only bench player to score, finishing with five points. Yet as he alluded to afterward, fans here have been grousing about his role since the moment he arrived.
That's nothing new, either. From his earliest days, he has been regarded as too slow, grounded and limited to be an everyday player, much less a starter on multiple championship teams. Lakers fans were constantly clamoring for the front office to replace him, even after the first couple of titles.
Back then, Lakers officials would assert that he was good enough to have a 10-year career. He has nearly doubled that expectation, compiling a career highlight reel worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. Only 13 players have won more rings, and in the modern era he trails only Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horry and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It would surprise no one if Fisher was just as successful as a head coach or general manager. That time may be coming soon.
After the final seconds ticked away late Saturday, he lingered as long as he could, hugging anyone he could find on the court, soaking in the atmosphere, in case this was his last time leaving the court in uniform.
"Definitely, mixed emotions," he would say later. "Tonight, I probably won't be able to sleep, just still thinking about how close we were to having a Game 7 and being on the doorstep of playing for another NBA championship."
Instead, Fisher will head home to his wife and kids and start plotting his next move, even if he decides it's finally time not to move at all.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
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