SALT LAKE CITY — Carlos Boozer was civil but aloof, never allowing a peek beyond the veneer. Deron Williams was occasionally approachable, but more often the petulant star. Karl Malone could be grumpy after great games, yet gregarious after 20-point losses. John Stockton was a legend that simply didn’t like talking about it.
But no player in Jazz history was more inscrutable than Derek Fisher.
Currently the leading candidate to become the next coach of the New York Knicks, he is also someone I watch from the corner of my eye. Knicks president Phil Jackson was fined $25,000 this week for violating the NBA’s anti-tampering rules by expressing interest in hiring Fisher. That wasn’t Fisher’s fault.
Still, it’s always something with Fish. Strange things happen, yet he comes out OK. Pieced together over time, though, he looks mercenary at worst and opportunistic at best.
He is either the greatest con man since Charles Ponzi or the purest soul in league history.
In February 2013, the former Jazz guard signed as a free agent with Oklahoma City. He had asked Dallas to release him so he could rehab his knee closer to his family in Los Angeles. It wasn’t the most convenient thing, but the Mavericks complied. Sixty-five days later, he signed with the Thunder.
Dallas owner Mark Cuban wasn’t happy about Fisher’s apparent disingenuousness, telling the Dallas Morning News, “His kids are older now. It’s easier to fly in and out of Oklahoma City than it is in Dallas. I understand that.”
What he really understood was that Fisher wanted to play for a contender and get his sixth championship ring. The veteran guard left a team that was 10th in the conference for one that was second. He cited family concerns as his motivating force, yet made an obvious basketball decision.
Critics also believe Fisher used the system to further his career as a player association figure. He led the union during the 2011 lockout, but needed to sign with a team to keep his position. Joining the Mavericks took care of that.
Later, the union executive committee voted 8-0 to have Fisher step down as president, but he refused. Chris Paul was elected president in 2013.
Former union executive director Billy Hunter, who was ousted by Fisher, sued him for breach of contract and defamation, but the case was dismissed.
Fisher’s game-winning shot for the Lakers in 2004 ranks the 18th-greatest moment in playoff history by NBA.com. He holds the league record for postseason appearances. Yet he is also the only player on record to have played more than 30 minutes in a game without a rebound, point or assist.
Light and shadows, through a glass darkly.
This wouldn’t have been of local interest if not for Fisher’s history in Utah. He arrived in Salt Lake in 2006 after asking Golden State for a trade. After one season, he asked the Jazz to release him from his contract so he could seek the best medical treatments for his daughter, who had eye cancer.
Even though Salt Lake is home to one of the world’s best cancer facilities (Huntsman Cancer Institute), I believed his story. His daughter had been seeing specialists in New York, so I assumed Fisher would end up playing somewhere in the East.
Instead he signed with the Lakers.
I also bought his story because his departure cleared salary space for the Jazz, and the new deal paid Fisher less than he was making in Utah. Yet as time progressed, incidents kept occurring.
That spring he had returned to Salt Lake from New York after spending the day alongside his daughter during her eye surgery. He walked into EnergySolutions Arena to a standing ovation during a playoff game.
Though he said his family encouraged him to return, I wondered why he came at all, since Jerry Sloan had told him to take whatever time he needed.
As player association president, he accused league owners of being greedy and dishonest during the lockout season — the same owners that let him out of contractual obligations to attend to his family.
All of this is mitigated by the Fisher persona: dignified, devoted, soft-spoken and introspective. When he was booed upon his return to Utah, he avoided criticizing fans.
I won’t say Fisher is a fake, a` la Lance Armstrong. As far as I know he hasn’t taken performance-enhancing drugs. But his moves have certainly enhanced his resume, at the expense of some teams. Now he stands to become a head coach, without a day of experience.
I stopped taking everything he says at face value when he left Dallas. All I really know about the 39-year-old Fisher is he'll never be an All-Star, but his career as a politician has already taken flight.
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