Derek Fisher’s career as a leader began with his Arkansas roots.
“I do recall the uncertainty of the situation requiring me to look at what else may be possible,” Fisher says. “But I don’t think those thoughts ever went to a place where I formally thought I would transfer from the university.” All the same, Fisher’s friend Reggie Merritt, a former Razorback, recalls him sharing that spring that he considered trying to transfer to the University of Arkansas.
Fisher doesn’t deny this: “Reggie’s memory may be better than mine,” he says.
In the end, Fisher and his teammates bought into Sanderson’s plan, stuck with UALR, and Fisher has been defending the decision ever since. In Fayetteville, he would have had to battle in practice with the likes of Corey Beck, Al Dillard and Kareem Reid. But at home, the job was all his, and he still felt like he could “prove from Little Rock had I had the opportunity to play at the SEC level or ‘big college’ level that I could have been as or more impactful as those guys were,” he says. “And I had a lot of respect for what those guys accomplished in their years at Fayetteville, no question about it, but not really more so of how I would fit in but as motivation to work as hard as I possibly could to put UALR on the map.”
He made the most of his final two seasons, becoming Sun Belt Player of the Year as a senior and taking UALR to the cusp of the NCAA Tournament.
Fisher and his mother have kept their ties to the school. Annette Fisher is a regular at Trojan events and participates in a variety of program fundraisers. In 2005, Derek Fisher donated $700,000 to UALR. Some of it went toward the construction of a Trojans practice court which has been named after him.
As Fisher has become more busy, opportunities to visit UALR’s Jack Stephens Center have waned. For starters, he’s played in eight of the last 13 NBA Finals, a more Playoff-intensive stretch than the only NBA Arkansan who owns more Championship rings than he does: Scottie Pippen. Fisher’s 229 Playoff games are the third-most in NBA history.
Fisher has become more deeply anchored to the Los Angeles area since he married Candace, an L.A. native, in 2004. The couple, who each brought in a child from a previous relationship, had twins named Tatum and Drew in 2006. In 2007, during Fisher’s first season with the Utah Jazz, Tatum was diagnosed with retinoblastoma. She’d lost 90 percent of the vision in her left eye. For treatment, a pediatrician recommended eye removal.
It was then that Fisher and Candace went into protector mode overdrive. They recruited a family friend who worked as a medical librarian to quickly assimilate information on the cancer and find the nation’s top specialists. They eventually found a doctor at New York’s Sloan Memorial Hospital who performed a cutting edge operation where medication was injected directly into Tatum’s eye.
The eye was saved, but follow up treatments were needed for a few more years. There weren’t pediatric oncologists and facilities specializing in retinoblastoma in Salt Lake City, so Fisher decided to ask the franchise to let him go so that his family could move somewhere better for Tatum. The Jazz agreed, and the remaining three years—worth roughly $20 million—on Fisher’s contract were forfeited. He also left behind a team with an enticing combination of youth (including Fayetteville, AR, native Ronnie Brewer), savvy, size and athleticism, as well as a Hall of Fame coach in Jerry Sloan. “If it weren’t for Tatum’s cancer, I could easily and happily have ended my career in Utah,” Fisher wrote in his autobiography.
Los Angeles was at the top of the Fishers’ list of possible destinations, and, fortunately, the Lakers had a spot for him. In summer of 2007, he resigned with the team that originally picked him with the 24th pick of the 1996 NBA Draft.
Fisher played a large role in raising worldwide awareness of the disease by discussing it in a post-game interview on TNT during the 2007 Playoffs. In more recent years, he and Candace have contributed to retinoblastoma research fundraisers and awareness-building campaigns. “We speak with some families who are newly exposed or who have just had children that were just recently diagnosed” at Sloan Memorial Hospital and the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, Fisher says, adding Tatum is doing great these days.
In November 2006, Fisher was elected president of the National Basketball Players Association, a labor union representing about 450 NBA players. During last year’s 149-day lockout, Fisher served as part of the union’s public face while it negotiated with team owners on division of revenue and the structure of the salary cap and luxury tax.
He led with Billy Hunter, formerly a high-profile private attorney who became NBPA executive director in 1996. By January, the lockout had thawed, though Fisher and Hunter’s relationship, which had gotten progressively more tense in the previous months, was icing over. In April, Fisher accused Hunter of improper business practices including allegations hinting at nepotism. He called for independent reviews of the union’s finances and business practices. Hunter and the eight other executive committee members said Fisher didn’t have the right to unilaterally start external audits. All eight members asked Fisher to resign; he refused. The committee released a statement stating that Fisher “engaged in conduct detrimental to the union, including acting in contravention of the players’ best interests, during collective bargaining, declining to follow the NBPA Constitution, and failing to uphold the duties of the Union President.”
Fisher, in turn, called such allegations “defamatory.” For this article, Fisher declined comment on the situation: “It’s ongoing, until some things are cleared up at a deeper level I’m just refraining from touching on it publicly.”
What Fisher will gladly discuss is Arkansas. He said myriad responsibilities, from the lockout negotiations to the regular season, have kept him from central Arkansas in the last year: “It’s tough to logistically to get back as much as I would like to,” he says.
Still, he defends his loyalty to home. “Little Rock’s place in my heart, and how I feel about the city, that will never change. It’s just that I am physically not able to get there as much as I would like to at this time in my professional career,” he says, “but that doesn’t speak for the possibilities in the future.”
This article was originally published in Arkansas Life magazine. For more on Fisher, including a look at how he and Kobe Bryant almost fought during one of their first one-on-one games, visit thesportsseer.com.