Derek Fisher Knows What You May Think About Him, and He's Cool with It, Sort Of

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterJanuary 30, 2017

HOLLYWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 17:  (L-R) Gloria Govan and Derek Fisher attend the premiere of 'Boo! A Madea Halloween' at ArcLight Cinemas Cinerama Dome on October 17, 2016 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images)
John Salangsang/Invision/Associated Press

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — In the moments on the studio set while waiting out commercial breaks, or in the car on the way home from school drop-off or heading to pickup, Derek Fisher has time for some perspective.

It has always been one of his gifts, to take situations and put them in a context that makes sense to people—teammates, reporters, fans, even Phil Jackson. With one set of particularly wise words, Fisher actually got Andrew Bynum early in his career to start saving his money.

Now that Fisher has been through the New York wringer—the opportunity Phil giveth and so soon Phil taketh away—he has come to realizations about what went wrong while he coached the Knicks, what actually went more right than people appreciate and what the heck his personal circumstances with Matt Barnes say about the world in which we live.

Fisher is back in Los Angeles, offering studio analysis on Lakers games for their regional TV network and watching NBA contests on TV pretty much every other night, too. He remains open to coaching in the future, but he's open to other life paths as well.

He got the girl, by the way, though he would never phrase it like that. Fisher remains in a relationship with Barnes' ex-wife, Gloria Govan.

"My life has gotten easier over the last several months," Fisher told Bleacher Report earlier this month, "because there was so much judgment made and assumption passed through this situation that people read about on me, my character and my integrity that isn't true. So it has made it easier for me to focus on me.

"We were doing a lot of really good things with the Knicks. That's what bothers me. The good that was being done got overshadowed by opinion, actuallyinaccurate opinion about a personal matter. Nobody really knows what happened, because there's been just noise about what happened."

What ultimately took place with Fisher's job was Jackson's deeming after a year and a half that Fisher didn't have what it took to be the team president's protege or the right coach for the Knicks.

"To observe something from the place that Phil has sat and experienced, you can't compare to that," Fisher said. "You can't try and say someone else isn't doing it the way possibly one of the greatest who has ever been able to do it, did it when he did it. They don't teach ninth-grade algebra the same way they used to teach ninth-grade algebra."

Derek Fisher coached the Knicks to a 40-96 record during one-and-a-half seasons with the team.
Derek Fisher coached the Knicks to a 40-96 record during one-and-a-half seasons with the team.Elsa/Getty Images

Dating Govan, mother to former Lakers teammate Barnes' twin sons, has also left a massive stigma on him in league circles. Two NBA players familiar with Fisher said they could not trust him the same way because of an unwritten code not to get involved with teammates' families.

"If the worst thing someone has to say about me," Fisher said, "is that I'm now going out with a woman who used to be married to this guy I worked with for a year six years ago…"

Fisher paused for a helpless chuckle, then added: "Cool."


The anniversary of his firing as Knicks coach arrives next week.

Fisher can still feel his emotions in the days leading up to his hiring.

The energy surging inside him, encouraging him to build something big and bold. The idea of energizing the city he'd grown to love from all his time spent in New York as president of the players union. The advice from proven NBA coaches to jump at a job where the guy in charge truly has your back.

The belief that Jackson would have his back.

June 2014 was essentially the first time in his life that Fisher, who could've continued playing or pursued opportunities in a front office or the business world or broadcasting, was choosing a job.

"When we're young, sometimes we're quick to go after the first or the newest or the shiniest opportunity that is in front of us, because we don't quite know any better," Fisher said of the Knicks. "The prettiest girl, the shiniest car, the best-looking house. Then once we open the door and walk inside the house, we realize the walls aren't painted, the foundation's cracked, the plumbing is leaking in the backyard and the pool is about to collapse.

"You don't see those things or you don't have a feel for the idea that you kind of have to inspect all of that before you decide to buy that house."

Fisher felt that Phil Jackson's presence in the Knicks' front office made it difficult for Knicks players to commit to Fisher's approach.
Fisher felt that Phil Jackson's presence in the Knicks' front office made it difficult for Knicks players to commit to Fisher's approach.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Fisher's faith in Jackson drove the decision. Certainly Jackson's faith in Fisher did, as Fisher had no coaching experience whatsoever.

Almost like a naive young couple's knowledge that above all they love each other, Fisher and Jackson just figured they'd make a marriage work, regardless of what real life was like.

"We both didn't know exactly what we were doing," Fisher said. "Being the head coach is not like playing. Being president is not like being the head coach. That's one of the reasons why we didn't quite complete our meshing and blending of talents and thoughts, because those two positions are not always aligned."

On the Lakers team plane back in the day, Jackson and Kobe Bryant sat across the aisle from each other. Fisher sat immediately in front of Bryant.

It was that easy to get on the same page.

It was that easy to set up the triangle.

Fisher never felt that close to Jackson in New York. Jackson has acknowledged privately that he gave Fisher too much space for fear of smothering him as he learned the coaching craft, no matter the hot topic of Jackson's pushing the triangle offense on Fisher.

In any case, Jackson's dreams that he and Fisher would develop unshakable trust and unfiltered communication—akin to what Jackson enjoyed with his longtime mentor, Tex Winter—did not come to pass.

"One of the challenges for all of us was we were in the basketball department under the umbrella of Phil Jackson and who he was and who he is and what he was able to do as coach and leader," Fisher said. "Then [when you're] asking me as a head coach in a sense not to create the same results, but take the same system or way of playing and try and teach these guys how to play it—and utilize it in similar ways as when he taught it—I think at times it was more challenging for our players to really understand, 'Who am I committing myself to? Who am I selling myself to? Who am I running through the brick wall for?'"

For all the structural defects in that house, Fisher nevertheless is adamant that something was cooking.

First off, there was the unicorn-ucopia of growth, featuring Kristaps Porzingis.

"I know what was going on," Fisher said. "I know day to day the work that was being done. I know what we deposited into Kristaps Porzingis that is coming out this year. He isn't where he is now by himself. He deserves all the credit, but what we were helping him do for himself—that matters."

Under Fisher, Kristaps Porzingis won Rookie of the Month honors three times and was named All-Rookie first team last season.
Under Fisher, Kristaps Porzingis won Rookie of the Month honors three times and was named All-Rookie first team last season.Reid Kelley/Getty Images

As much failure as the Knicks have endured since their 1973 NBA title, the record book lists Fisher with the worst winning percentage of any New York coach who lasted more than one season (.294). With a roster in flux and Jackson's clearing players out, the Knicks went 17-65 in 2014-15.

They were 23-31 when Fisher was fired last season.

But they are 21-28 now under Jeff Hornacek, about the same winning percentage with a roster everyone assessed before the season as more NBA-ready than what Fisher had. Jackson and Carmelo Anthony have been at odds, too.

"We were able to take a team that wasn't as talented as the team they have now, and we were much better and much further along than this group is that they have now," Fisher said. "Because the foundation was being laid.

"That's different than just trying to coach basketball—and it takes longer. That's the part that you can't measure in wins and losses either. That's what we were doing the best at."

Jackson clearly disagreed, despite wanting those very same foundational things.

Jackson believes in transformational leadership as opposed to transactional, which basically means he wants a coach who inspires deep group evolution as opposed to superficial, patchwork accomplishment. Jackson didn't see, according to NBA sources, Fisher's self-image dissolving into the greater good of teaching, given the lack of emphasis on details, defense and team play.

Fisher and Jackson both wanted to be the proven winners who showed New York how proven winners do things. That's ego, for sure, but that's the way men who have a primal need to be significant in this world think.

Fisher only began to listen to the many people who were nudging him toward coaching when he saw how much he helped Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as their veteran teammate in Oklahoma City. By his own admission, Fisher thought the profession "was limiting in the parts of you that you have to access."

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 12: Oklahoma City Thunder players Kevin Durant #35, Russell Westbrook #0 and Derek Fisher #6 share a laugh during a game against the Portland Trail Blazers on April 12, 2013 at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER:
Cameron Browne/Getty Images

 

Yet Fisher has no regrets about rebuilding with the Knicks as opposed to maybe seeking a title chance to coach Durant and Westbrook with a Thunder organization he respects.

"I don't know if it would've been as gratifying, as fulfilling, as challenging—or with as many sleepless nights—trying to figure all this stuff that you have to figure out in New York," Fisher said. "In Oklahoma City, the coach primarily needs just to coach basketball. And I don't know if that would've been as fun for me."


To believe you deserve to have your cake and eat it, too, takes a special appetite, but that's why many people admire Fisher: He wants to be a game-changer, whatever game he plays.

It's why the 6'1" guard overachieved out of Arkansas-Little Rock given his size and speed on the court, why he sought out big moments in the same way Bryant did and why he answers so boldly now when asked what lane he thinks he'll choose as his next career.

"I'm in the success lane," Fisher said. "The one thing about me, whatever it has been or whatever I've tried to do—even in the failures numbers-wise or statistics-wise or whatever—I've succeeded in a major way. And that won't stop. So whatever opportunities are presented that I choose, there will be a level of success in that."

Such a sentiment, laden with self-worth, rubs some the wrong way.

It's why people in Utah deemed Fisher shifty for getting out of his Jazz contract to secure his daughter's medical care in Los Angeles and getting to go back to play for the Lakers. It's why some in Dallas felt uneasy about Fisher's asking for his release from the mediocre Mavericks for family reasons and signing up to pursue a title with the Thunder two months later.

It's why folks in New York deemed Fisher shady for daring to fly to Los Angeles on a training camp off day for time with his kids and time with Govan.

That time was unforgettably interrupted by Barnes.

Barnes was suspended two games by the NBA for the incident in which he attacked Fisher. (Barnes on numerous occasions acknowledged the violence.) Barnes' beef, aside from believing he and Fisher were friends, was that Fisher and Govan didn't inform him directly of their relationship, according to league sources.

Fisher said if his relationship with Matt Barnes' ex-wife, Gloria Govan, costs him a chance to coach again in the NBA, then "maybe that's not the place for me."
Fisher said if his relationship with Matt Barnes' ex-wife, Gloria Govan, costs him a chance to coach again in the NBA, then "maybe that's not the place for me."Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press/Associated Press

For Fisher, the entire situation has been an eye-opening assessment of how easily public judgment is formed.

"I see how quickly it shifts and changes when people are told something they don't even know if it's true or not," Fisher said. "It's comical and hypocritical that we seem to live that way. For whatever reason, we've become that type of society. 

"Particularly in sports. There's this tough-guy bravado culture we've created in sports—where if you're not the toughest, baddest, craziest, strongest dude on the block, then you're maybe the softest dude on the block. Our point of reference with these things and how we judge someone else's situation so quickly is crazy to me. It is beyond crazy."

Asked if his ongoing relationship with Govan—they live together, meaning Fisher spends considerable time with Barnes' sons—validates his past decisions, Fisher said: "I'm not trying to make decisions or do things in a way where everything is being measured by, 'Well, maybe they'll think better of me if we're together.'

"It's too stressful; it takes too much time. That's not the life that I want to live."

Considering Fisher's desire to make a mark on the world, it has occurred to him that the Barnes situation might even be one way in which he is meant to be an example.

"There's a larger reason than maybe even I understand as to why I've been fortunate enough and blessed enough to be given this stage and this platform," Fisher said. "Even if it's for other people to learn, to observe how I handle things and how I try and manage certain things and make certain decisions, manage imperfections and flaws, then maybe that's what it's all for."

Fisher is aware that some, especially in the NBA community, don't view him in the same light, though. Asked if he understands how some might say he fundamentally violated a bro code, Fisher said: "I would be doing the same thing they are doing if I tried to define what is right or wrong for someone else. I just think that's where we all go wrong."

For now, Fisher is outside that NBA community. Though he is still getting paid by the Knicks and isn't actively looking to be a head coach or associate head coach again, he said he was not contacted by any NBA clubs over the summer when 10 of the 30 franchises changed head coaches.

It is possible that Fisher's interest in coaching again or moving into a front office role could be affected by the NBA fraternity's opinion of the Barnes situation.

"All that says to me then is the business that I loved and have loved being in for as long as I have been," Fisher said, "maybe that's not the place for me."

Current Lakers head coach Luke Walton played with Fisher on the Lakers in 2003-04 and again from 2007 to 2012, winning NBA championships in '09 and '10. He understands the backlash over Fisher and Govan in league circles. "I get it, for sure," Walton says. "I don't feel that way about him, personally.

"Obviously, I understand if other people do. But we've been through a lot together, and he's been great to me since I was a rookie in this league. I'm not at a point where I would turn my back on him or say I can't trust him. My personal experience with it is that I still consider Fish a very good friend and hope things work out for him."


Before Walton became an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors in 2014, he was doing what Fisher is now: staying close to the league by working Lakers games in the TV studio. It's quite conceivable that their career paths will be flipped if Fisher sticks with broadcast work. 

Besides doing more prep work than most ex-athletes, Fisher applies his incomparably experienced eye—he holds the NBA record for most playoff games (259)—via a knack for explaining what outsiders find interesting.

Again, perspective.

Fisher has spent some of his time away from the league analyzing Lakers games for Spectrum SportsNet, the TV home of the Lakers.
Fisher has spent some of his time away from the league analyzing Lakers games for Spectrum SportsNet, the TV home of the Lakers.Kevin Ding

"His analysis is smart and insightful," said A.J. Ponsiglione, senior coordinating producer at Spectrum SportsNet. "And as a five-time champion with the Lakers, he is a voice Lakers fans trust and respect. We couldn't be happier with his performance."

Fisher has done other recent spots for TNT and NBA TV, and he will join Brent Barry and Grant Hill to form a game-commentary team for TNT's new "Players Only" Monday night franchise next month. Fisher has developed a lighter tone to go with his natural inclination to dive deeper, poking fun at himself on one show recently by saying: "I was a coach for like two seconds."

"I'm having fun with it," Fisher said of his new career. "It's definitely less stressful."

Still, it would not be surprising if Knicks fans at Madison Square Garden serenaded Fisher while he's a courtside analyst with "Matt Barnes!" chants in the same way they brought a chorus of "Derek Fisher!" when Barnes played against the Knicks last month.

Fisher is determined not to sweat it.

"If that somehow becomes this thing that hangs there and for whatever reason people want to place that between me and what I'm actually capable of or have earned or deserve, then that's their choice," he said. "I don't control their choices. And I won't make my life decisions on their feelings and their insecurities and their belief systems, because I'm not them."

Fisher needs only to recall Bryant's career to understand how individual passion can be polarizing to others.

"People try to project their belief and their stuff on to you when you allow them to," Fisher said. "When you just move on and live your life and smile and love and laugh and go and do whatever you feel strongly about doing and you believe in, ultimately you just be yourself, people grow to respect it."

Fisher brought Govan and her sons to The Angry Birds Movie premiere in April. They all went to a Lakers exhibition game in October without qualms. He posted an Instagram photo of himself dressed as Winnie the Pooh and her as Piglet for New Year's.

He is trying to appreciate all he learned from his time as Knicks coach even though he can't shake the firing completely, saying, "It was strange to me that it was cut short prior to really seeing it all the way through."

Fisher is not piping down or slinking away, even if this is his first year out of the NBA in two decades.

"I've been getting judged since I was six," Fisher said. "I laugh at anything, really, or anybody who thinks somehow I'm going to crawl up into a hole and not still win and be successful, because people have been telling me I can't for a very long time."

                      

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.