|'I'm for sure enjoying my time here,' says Fisher about playing in Oklahoma City. (Getty Images)|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- In the early morning hours of Nov. 26, Derek Fisher walked out into the pre-dawn calmness of Manhattan, out of the law offices of Weil, Gotshal & Manges and out of a grim chapter of his basketball life. This was D-Day for the NBA, the moment when his union leadership would result in a triumphant resolution or a bitter defeat for everyone.
For months during the lockout, Fisher had withdrawn. The ugliness of the work stoppage, the combativeness and futility of the negotiations, had changed him. Time and again he'd emerged from one hotel conference room or another, his face pale and drained by the bleakness of it all.
His relationship with National Basketball Players Association executive director Billy Hunter had deteriorated into little more than feeble attempts at public unity. Their efforts to hide the deep personal distrust that had dug a chasm between them was successful in front of the cameras and digital recorders -- from the sidewalk on E. 63rd Street to the Waldorf-Astoria and finally, to a law office on Fifth Ave., where the labor settlement finally was reached. Behind closed doors, according to an ownership source involved in the labor talks, it was painfully obvious that Hunter and Fisher were deeply at odds.
"I'm sitting there and wondering, 'What am I missing here?'" the ownership source said. "We didn't know who was speaking for the players."
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Now, all these months later, after a 66-game season and a compelling postseason that has yielded a marquee Finals matchup between the Heat and Thunder, Fisher has closed that chapter -- but only for now. What a turn of events, what an appropriate stroke of circumstance, that Fisher stands here at the end of this journey with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Finals.
"With everything that has happened and all the changes and the craziness, I've developed a greater appreciation for just what it means to wake up every day and face the new challenges that present themselves head on and just keep fighting through it," Fisher said. "As long as you know you're doing the right thing and you're being authentic in who you are and what you're trying to do, everything will take care of itself."
Fisher, the face of the lockout for the players, is in the closing act of a nearly 11-month drama that would seem to be the stuff of movie script rather than reality. I always thought the lockout would end eventually, that no one was arrogant enough to throw away $4 billion over a few million here or there. But if you'd have told me that Fisher, the union president, would come out the other side in the Finals, wearing No. 37 for the small-market success story in Oklahoma, I would've told you that you'd overdosed on BRI.
"For obvious reasons, we all had a vested interest in trying to find a way to get basketball back onto the floor and out of the conference room," Fisher said. "I think we all should be, I guess, proud of our efforts, but most appreciative of the people sticking with our game and coming back once we did resume play."
And so here is Fisher, put through the wringer of the labor talks and the personal anguish of getting dumped by the Lakers, still standing in June and hunting down another goal -- a goal for which no compromise can be reached. It would be championship No. 6 for Fisher, a magical number if he can find a way to transform his experience into part of a winning formula for the Thunder, and it would nudge him ahead of his friend and former teammate, Kobe Bryant.
"What it would mean to win a championship means enough by itself without adding what has happened before now," Fisher said. "I think for this particular team and group of guys, this particular organization, there's a lot of meaning that could come from us finding a way to win three more games. That's primarily my focus right now, and then for me personally, there are a number of things that I can choose to reflect on when this is long done and I can step away from things for a minute."
Fisher has spoken with Bryant, who's offered encouragement but no dialogue, Fisher said, about this opportunity to pass him.
"We've just kind of stayed in touch and he's wished me well," Fisher said. "It's still weird, I think, for both of us to not be on the same team in this position, but that's more so from our friendship than our relationship as teammates in the past. But no ribbing from me, for sure, and like I've said before, I don't necessarily gain pleasure from seeing people I'm close to not reach certain goals they have for themselves and their teams. To me, it's kind of sacred ground. I'm not going there. Some people will, but not me."
Fisher has played a modest role off the bench for the Thunder as Russell Westbrook's backup, but given his championship resume and penchant for hitting big shots this time of year, he's always one kickout pass away from sinking another postseason dagger -- from becoming a factor at winning time in the Finals. But when Thunder GM Sam Presti signed Fisher after he was traded to the Rockets and released, it wasn't simply about how Fisher would help this team, this season. Presti believes that Fisher's imprint -- teaching championship habits to Kevin Durant, Westbrook, James Harden, everyone down to the 13th man and the training staff -- will endure long after Fisher has moved on.
The Thunder have had veteran leaders serve this dual purpose in the past -- Kevin Ollie, Adrian Griffin, Joe Smith, Kurt Thomas -- but few basketball players alive have a winning fabric as richly textured as Fisher's. In reminiscing with Finals foe-turned-teammate Kendrick Perkins, Fisher has carefully tip-toed around his true feelings about those Celtics teams that he and Bryant battled -- catching himself before revealing too much of his opinions when he remembers, "Oh, Perk was on that team, so I better be careful ..."
"It seems so long ago," Fisher said.
It seems long ago, too, when Fisher was standing on sidewalks and marble floors, wearing a suit and tie and trying to explain the unexplainable. He was back in his element Thursday at the Thunder's practice facility, using a towel to wipe the sweat beads from his bulging biceps as he allowed himself a brief moment of reflection and glimpsed the future.
"I'm for sure enjoying my time here," Fisher said. "I know for sure that I want to play beyond this year, but from there I haven't put a lot of pressure on myself thinking about where that is and how that's going to happen. And that's generally been my pattern for years, whether I've been a free agent or not. Next year is so far away until we figure out a way to get that trophy. Once you win it, of course, the first question out of somebody here is going to be, 'Can you guys do it again?' and, 'What's going to happen?' And so that part comes after the job is done. And right now, we still have a big job ahead of us."
That job shifts to Miami with the Finals tied 1-1, shifts to another pulsating, revenue-generating arena that would've been dead quiet this weekend if the labor talks hadn't been resuscitated on Thanksgiving weekend -- Black Friday giving way to the glimmering hope of a season.
When that job is done -- win or lose -- only then will Fisher allow himself to fully reflect. But once again, there may not be much time for that. Not only will Fisher, 37, be thrust into the brave new world of post-lockout free agency starting on July 1, but there is unfinished business -- unfinished, nasty business -- with the players' association.
During those post-lockout weeks when Fisher retreated from the union, it wasn't simply for the pursuit of a mental break or the need to shift from negotiating to playing the game he'd fought to preserve. Deeply concerned about how the players' business was being handled, and feeling a personal responsibility to advocate, Fisher set into motion a process that would splinter the union and expose the extent of his irreparable rift with Hunter.
He hired lawyers, demanded a review of the union's finances and business practices and took direct aim at Hunter's credibility and leadership of the players. Hunter's supporters on the players' executive committee encircled the executive director, and instead of approving Fisher's audit, they voted that he submit his resignation as president. Fisher refused. Weeks later, the committee -- minus Fisher, who remains in power but not in communication with his fellow committee members -- has proceeded with its own business review, which thus far, according to a union source, has "turned up nothing." Meanwhile, the NBPA is the target of a federal investigation being conducted by the U.S. Attorney's office. Hunter continues to act as the union's lead negotiator, and has been in conversations recently with NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver about resolving the so-called "B-list" issues -- the fine print -- in the collective bargaining agreement.
A handful of players, including Bryant, have spoken out in support of Fisher. But by and large, the union membership's reaction has ranged from silence to ambivalence. His relationship with some members of the executive committee has been permanently damaged -- the distrust between Fisher and Hunter spilling over to Fisher's fellow players.
"I think it's normal, whether it's basketball players or just people in general, not to comment much on things that maybe they don't fully understand," Fisher said. "And so you have to respect the fact that a lot of guys just are not in the place to fully understand all the details that have taken place. At the right time, I and we will be able to deal with that in what we feel is the best way for the players as a whole. But now we're trying to put a cap on what has fortunately been a great season and we'll get back to that part over the summer."
It'll be yet another challenge for Derek Fisher; another time when he'll have to trade his practice jersey and sweat towel for a suit and tie. Another chapter in a truly remarkable calendar year for a champion and a president who is hoping to retain both titles.
"All in all, for me," Fisher said, "these are good problems to have."