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Lakers' Derek Fisher is up to the challenge as union president

The guard is where he belongs as the calm face and reasoned voice of negotiations between NBA owners and players, Bill Plaschke writes.

September 16, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • NBA players union President Derek Fisher is joined by union executive director Billy Hunter and vice president Maurice Evans, as well as other NBA players, during a news conference Thursday in Las Vegas.
NBA players union President Derek Fisher is joined by union executive director… (Julie Jacobson / Associated…)

He sounded like a coach. He sounded like a statesman. But more than anything, Derek Fisher sounded like he was dribbling the ball up the court against the Boston Celtics in the 2010 Finals, daring anybody to step in his path.

"There have been moments when it's been draining," he said, his voice rising. "But it's not draining me of my overall energy and passion for playing this game I love to play."

Fisher may currently have the worst sports job in America, but it's exactly where he belongs, the Lakers' soul now serving as the locked-out NBA union's spine. Fisher is more than the union president, he is the calm face and reasoned voice of negotiations that are starting to feel like Dirk Nowitzki against Pau Gasol.

Yeah, it looks bad, the owners apparently set on canceling the season for the sake of changing the game. And, yeah, Fisher is in the worst place at the worst time, a symbol for rich guys who don't feel they should be financially penalized for this change.

Yet in a phone call Friday afternoon after a player rally in Las Vegas, Fisher said he was up for it, another hurdle, another moment, dare we say another zero-point-four?

"My experience with the Lakers plays a part in my ability to fill a leadership role, absolutely," he said. "There are many similarities between making executive decisions and leadership roles in athletics."

Included in those similarities, apparently, is an assist from a longtime pal. You know Kobe Bryant always seemed to be paying close attention to Fisher's fiery sideline talks in recent Laker postseasons? Well, the same thing is happening now, with Bryant apparently occupying a space in Fisher's kitchen cabinet.

"I talk to him regularly," said Fisher.

And, don't tell me, Bryant wants you to grind your teeth and bite your tie and bully the owners into submission?

"That would be a fair assessment," said Fisher.

If only it were that easy. This is not an NFL-type lockout where the only issue was the number of slices to be shared from an enormous pie. In the NBA, the owners want to bake an entirely new pie, and are willing to spend an entire season behind locked doors while it cooks.

If the players want back inside, they are going to have to sacrifice plenty. If the players stay united, they are also going to sacrifice plenty. This is Fisher's biggest challenge since he refereed Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, except neither of those guys ever picked up their ball and went home.

"I have the pressure of 1,000 families relying on this agreement getting done, an agreement that could set the foundation of the NBA for the next six to 10 years," Fisher said. "I knew it would be tough, and it is."

He's already taking strong steps, gathering players in Las Vegas for a show of support, sending out an email to players that called for unity while questioning the owners' unity.

"As players, we view what we bring to the brand of NBA basketball as the league's most valuable and important asset, one that helps generate millions of dollars," he said. "We just want to share in a fair part of the game as it grows; we're not asking for anything in addition, no raises arbitrarily, just a fair share for the players."

The owners, of course, are pushing for a hard salary cap that would greatly reduce those salaries while leading to the sort of competitive balance that the owners feel would save several dying teams and improve the strength of the league. Anybody who has had to sit through countless bad basketball games at Staples Center between the Lakers and some overmatched anonymous opponent would agree with that concept. But then you listen to Fisher and, as usual, he also makes sense.

"I don't believe the model is broken, and our players don't, either," he said. "We respect the fact that team owners don't want to feel as though they paid a contract and the player does not 'perform' up to that level. But our position is simply that they have ability to manage assets in ways to run a successful business, and that shouldn't be something that becomes the employees' responsibility."

You're happy that Fisher is in a position to make the sort of national impact he's made on Figueroa Street for years. It's cool that the rest of the sports world will now see the strength that Laker fans have long known. But you also wonder how much these negotiations will drain the legs from an aging player who doesn't have many steps left.

Fisher, of course, bristled, saying, "I've made time to play basketball, that's my job, I've stayed in great shape, at my house, in high school gyms, private gyms, health clubs, wherever I can get work in, I do it."

When asked about new Lakers Coach Mike Brown, he was equally as emphatic, saying, "I'm fine with Mike, I admire his passion for teaching the game, his love for getting the best out of himself and others; he'll be a great addition to our group, and our players will be open to whatever it takes to win."

By "our players," I'm guessing he means Bryant, which is probably the only optimistic part of this story. I mean, c'mon Fish, can you tell us there is even going to be a season for Mike Brown to coach?

"It's a question I wish I had an answer for," said the Laker with all the answers, and you know we're in trouble now.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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