The Lakers’ remarkable turnabout this season materialized for a variety of reasons. Two important ones were the sudden emergence of youthful center Andrew Bynum and, when Bynum injured a knee, the acquisition of veteran center Pau Gasol.These developments, coupled with Kobe Bryant’s MVP play, did much to change the Lakers from a first round playoff loser the last two years to an NBA Finals participant. The Lakers will begin the championship round Thursday, June 5 in Boston.But the the Lakers’ transformation began with the arrival of Derek Fisher to play point guard and provide stability. And what a story this is.Fisher, who began his pro career with the Lakers, was with the Utah Jazz last season on a $20 million, multi-year contract. When his 10-month-old daughter Tatum was diagnosed with a rare eye cancer, he flew to New York to consult with doctors and be with her during treatments. Even when the Jazz were in the playoffs.According to doctors the easiest decision would have been to remove the eye, but Fisher wouldn’t accept that.Fisher arrived in Salt Lake City at halftime of one playoff game, then played a sifnificant role in a victory. But he knew the arrangement had to be temporary.So, after the season, Fisher asked to be released from his contract so he could live in a city with better facilities for the treatment.The Jazz didn’t have to grant his wish but did — a wonderful gesture by owner Larry Miller. Had it been me, I would have granted it too, but with a stipulation. I would have told Fisher he was free to go but couldn’t sign with a Western Conference team. That would likely have forced him to play in New York rather than Los Angeles.Either Miller is a very nice man or an owner who didn’t understand how valuable Fisher would be to the Lakers. Fisher is a solid citizen and smart player who could point Bryant in the right direction.Bryant kept asking to be traded. He now says he was dead serious about that, but once the season began he was more of a team player than in recent years. Fisher was a huge improvement over Smush Parker, who he replaced, and the Lakers were on their way. The Lakers grew together as the season progressed and finished strong. Several key wins in the last few days of the 82-game regular season gave them the best record in the West and vital home court advantage in every conference playoff round. Without that advantage they might not have prevailed.I now go back to 1996 in Honolulu. It was a very important Laker training camp and I was there with three other writers who covered the team on a daily basis.It was especially important because General Manager Jerry West had remarkably brought in Bryant with a draft day trade and Shaquille O’Neal, who was signed as a free agent. With two such heralded newcomers on the team, I knew the assignment to cover that camp would be a highlight of my career.It turned out to be everything I expected and more. Kobe and Shaq were willing interview subjects, both wanting to make a favorable impression on new teammates and fans.And then there was this rookie named Derek Fisher. He had been the Lakers’ first round draft choice but with a pick near the end of the round, 24th overall. He hadn’t been a marquee college player, coming from little Arkansas Little Rock.But there were things about him that attracted the attention of the coaching staff and journalists. He had a quiet confidence. When we conducted interviews or chatted informally he seemed genuinely interested in getting to know us.In the scrimmages he seemed like a heady player, but frankly he wasn’t a very good shooter. He had barely exceeded 40 percent in college and it’s tougher in the NBA.But he made the team and worked hard on his shooting. A lot of workouts on his own, including summers.He played on three Laker championship teams. Ultimately he had a chance to make big money elsewhere and left for Golden State.Then he was traded to Utah. But Laker fans were happy to see him return and gave him large ovations all season.Today he has a lot of clutch shots on his resume. Tatum reportedly is doing well. And, by the way, Derek became president of the NBA Players Association, a man respected by both teammates and opponents.
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