Derek Fisher was never the best player, certainly not the tallest or quickest.
But whether on the court with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, or across the bargaining table from David Stern and Adam Silver, he never feared taking the shot, speaking his mind, or doing whatever else was expected of a leader.
So he has every attribute the New York Knicks need — except experience as a coach, the job they hired him to do. "But I am experienced," Fisher said Tuesday. "Basketball is a game that I am experienced in playing, understanding, leading in, guiding in, helping another group of people achieve the greatest gift in the world as a professional athlete, and that's being a champion. That I have experience in, and that's the experience that I plan on sharing with these players, sharing with this organization."
That's what made Phil Jackson turn to one of his most trustworthy former players for his first coaching hire. Just days after finishing his 18th season, the 39-year-old Fisher was tabbed to replace Mike Woodson, whom Jackson fired in his first major move as team president.
Fisher won five championships playing for Jackson with the Los Angeles Lakers and was known for his knack for hitting clutch postseason shots while playing an NBA-record 259 playoff games. But some of his most important work came in the locker room, just as it will now.
"He made some incredible shots in the playoffs, always stepped into the vacuum of leadership, but more than anything else it was the ability of Derek to speak the truth from what the sense of the group was," Jackson said during a press conference at the Knicks' training center in Greenburgh, New York.
The Knicks went 37-45 and missed the playoffs, just a year after winning the Atlantic Division and advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals. Jackson, who declined an original offer to coach the team, was instead hired to run the front office in March and fired Woodson the week after the season ended.
He was seeking someone familiar with the triangle offense and someone with little or no coaching experience that he could teach. The Knicks had nearly closed a deal to hire Steve Kerr, who instead left the TNT broadcast table to take the Golden State Warriors' coaching job.
Jackson then turned his attention to Fisher, even getting fined $25,000 last week when he was too open about his interest in the point guard who was still under contract with the Thunder. Terms of Fisher's deal were not released, but a person with knowledge of the details said it was worth $25 million over five years — the same length of Jackson's contract and about the same deal Kerr signed with the Warriors.
Fisher won three straight titles from 2000-02 on the Lakers teams led by O'Neal and Bryant, and helped them win again in 2009 and '10. He is respected among players around the league and was the president of the Players Association during the 2011 lockout.
The 6-foot-1 Fisher was still a key contributor for the Thunder this season, helping them reach the Western Conference finals. Fisher, who is tied for third on the career list for 3-pointers in the NBA Finals, said thinking like a coach helped him play so long despite never being the most athletic or talented player.
And now, like Jason Kidd in Brooklyn, he is prepared to make the leap right from the court to the bench without any coaching experience on any level. They Knicks won titles in 1970 and 1973, when Jackson was a player in the organization, but have had little postseason success in this century. Fisher, dressed sharply in a brown suit and purple shirt, believes he and Jackson can bring winning back to New York.
"We know without a doubt that we can re-establish what that means, what that is," Fisher said. Fisher said he likes the triangle but would run what was best for the team. Jackson said he would always be available to help.
The Knicks hope the duo can reach a group that admittedly tuned Woodson out at times. And perhaps can help persuade Carmelo Anthony, who can become a free agent in July, to remain in New York. Fisher, a former first-round pick from Arkansas Little-Rock, will certainly give New York a credibility that only champions can bring.
"That's why I'm here," Fisher said. "That's why I took advantage of this opportunity, to be a part of that process."
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