Fisher Shows That Character Counts

By Steve Dilbeck
Updated: July 5, 2007

LOS ANGELES — There are times, very rare ones, when you meet someone and immediately recognize them as a person of quality.

Someone grounded and sincere. Someone without pretense. Who you can almost instantly sense is a good person.

The first time I met Derek Fisher in 1996, he was almost an afterthought on the Lakers. The big acquisitions that year were these guys named Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, not this smallish point guard from a little college few had heard of.

But Fisher looked you right in the eye when you spoke, listened intently, gave thoughtful answers. He was pleasant and bright and excited.

He seemed to be a real person, and the more you knew him, the more certain of it you became.

Someone you hoped your sons might grow up to emulate, someone you privately wished you were a little more like.

And though there has never been reason since to doubt Fisher as a person of character, it was never more evident than this week.

Monday he did something almost unprecedented. He walked away from a guaranteed $20.6million.

He wants to spend more time in one of the handful of NBA cities that offer the appropriate medical care for his 1-year-old daughter, who has a rare form of eye cancer.

So he asked the Utah Jazz to release him from the final three years of his contract, and to owner Larry Miller’s great credit, he did.

“Life for me has always outweighed the game of basketball,” Fisher said.

Not that there ever had been any doubt. Not with Fisher.

This is not to make him out as some saint, as someone who has not made his share of mistakes in life.

But this is a good person doing the right thing, the timing of which could prove extraordinary for the Lakers.

It is the Lakers who could almost paradoxically benefit from Fisher’s selflessness.

The Lakers are in almost desperate need for a veteran point guard. And now unexpectedly, Fisher is a free agent. A point guard familiar with the triangle. Who won three championships with Phil Jackson.

Fisher is soon to be 33 but appears to have lost little (last season, he averaged 10.1 points and 3.3 assists in 27.9 minutes). And as an extra bonus, is a good friend of the troubled Bryant.

It should prove irresistible, a natural fit for the Lakers, who have only three young point guards on their roster.

Their major decision is whether to grant Fisher their full mid-level exception ($5.5 million), and if so, at how many years. He reportedly is seeking the full six years.

That’s a lot of years for a player who turns 33 next month, so nothing is guaranteed.

Fisher knew that, of course, when he made his request of the Jazz.

“I know it’s hard for people to imagine at this point what I’m giving up,” Fisher said, “and what my family and I are giving up in terms of what we’ve established in my career and this contract that I worked my entire life to secure. It’s the risk that we have to take at this point.

“There are just some decisions in life that you make, and they’re just the right decision to make, and you can’t worry about or be overly concerned with what’s to come when you’re just doing it for the right reasons.”

It’s not like the NBA hasn’t already made Fisher wealthy the little guard from the University of Arkansas-Little Rock has earned over $33 million during his 11-year career.

Yet how many people could ever walk away from almost $21 million? How many have walked away from any significant amount?

But his young daughter, Tatum, has a rare retinal cancer in her left eye that requires unusual medical care. Her twin brother does not have the retinoblastoma that annually impacts 200 to 300 children in the U.S., but is at risk and also needs treatment.

Salt Lake City does not offer the special care his twins have been receiving in New York.

Fisher’s first choice might be to sign with the Knicks, but they already have 17 players under contract and appear set at guard.

Miller admitted to the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper he had concern Fisher was trying to force his way out of Utah, but recognized that Fisher’s willingness to give up so many millions spoke to his conviction.

“I think the evidence of his willingness to walk away is just too compelling to think otherwise,” Miller said.

Miller battled tears Monday as he spoke.

Understand, it’s not like Fisher is fleeing an awful situation. The Jazz advanced to the Western Conference finals this past season. They are a team on the rise.

Fisher, who played eight years on the star-studded Lakers, calls the Jazz “the best team I’ve ever played on” and said next year they will be a title contender.

A championship contender. Almost $21 million. An organization that values and appreciations his leadership.

That’s a lot to walk away from, but an easy step for someone who has his priorities straight. Who values children over career. Who finds greater wealth from the twinkle in his child’s loving eye than a fat paycheck.

The Jazz could have been the bad guys here, only there are no bad guys. They could have refused his request or left him hanging trying to work a deal.

Instead, Jazz general manager Kevin O’Connor said at a news conference that releasing him from his contract was the “right thing for the right reasons.”

“We’re sitting here and everybody seems sad about this,” O’Connor said. “I think what we should be is grateful is there’s somebody that cares as much about their family as (Fisher) and somebody that owns the team and cares as much for the same reasons.”

The Jazz recognize in Fisher what we all have from the first moment we met him. That he is a person of great character, who has never had a greater moment.