- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Derek Fisher loves playing for the Los Angeles Lakers and can’t imagine himself in another uniform.

It could happen as early as next fall.

That’s the last thing Fisher wants to think about right now while the Lakers are playing Detroit in the NBA Finals, but the sharpshooting guard acknowledged it’s been on his mind to some degree for months.

Fisher, like several better-known teammates including Kobe Bryant, has the right to opt out of his contract this summer and become a free agent.

“I’ve thought about it a great deal,” Fisher said this week. “I think a lot of it depends on how we finish up as a team, what happens with the other players. We just have to focus in on finishing up this season and deal with that later.”

The Lakers might not be in the NBA Finals if not for Fisher, whose 18-foot jumper as time expired gave them a 74-73 victory over San Antonio in Game5 of the Western Conference semifinals.

Had the Lakers lost, the Spurs would have had a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series. Instead, the Lakers had the 3-2 lead and won Game6 to move on.

The 6-foot-1 Fisher had to catch and shoot the ball in four-tenths of a second, and in managing the feat made one of the most memorable shots in franchise history.

“Not yet,” he said with a smile when asked if the meaning of the shot he made nearly four weeks ago had sunk in.

“Until we figure out a way to win this series, all of that doesn’t sink in all the way,” he said.

All Fisher has to do is look into the Staples Center stands, since it’s easy to spot T-shirts with 0.4 emblazoned across the front in memory of the shot.

Fisher was a first-round draft pick of the Lakers in 1996 — the same year Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal joined the team.

Never a star but usually a significant role player, Fisher went from starter to substitute when the Lakers added future Hall of Famer Gary Payton last summer in an effort to improve themselves after their streak of three championships came to an end.

Ever the team player, Fisher said he was fine with the move.

But it hasn’t been easy.

“It wasn’t tough, being demoted in a sense,” he said. “I still envisioned myself coming off the bench and playing starter-type minutes. The toughest part was looking at the box score and seeing I had played 16 minutes in some games.”

That’s about as outspoken as the 29-year-old Fisher will get.

Payton, meanwhile, has complained about playing time and his role in the offense on a consistent basis all year, and didn’t speak with reporters Sunday night after Game1 of the finals, when he shot 1-for-4 for three points in 31 minutes of a loss to the Pistons.

Fisher shot 1-for-9 for two points in 20 minutes and, as usual, politely answered every question afterward as well as the following day, when Payton boycotted again and was fined $5,000.

“Fish is a wonderful teammate,” Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons said. “He’s one of the true workers on this team, understands what needs to be done. He’s just good people, as solid as the day is long. He works hard at his craft.”

Cleamons realizes going to the bench wasn’t easy.

“He understands what his role is,” Cleamons said. “I don’t think it bothers him to the point where he sits around and worries about it. He understands.”

Yes, Fisher understands. But he’s human, too.

“I definitely want to be a starter,” he said. “I could be a starter here depending on what happens.”

Payton, who turns 36 next month, is also eligible for free agency, and it appears more likely every day that he’ll move on.

“I know I still want to win,” Fisher said. “I’ve thought about it all year long because I have the option.

“I’m a Laker, plain and simple. It would definitely be hard to see myself playing somewhere else.”

One of the best-liked Lakers, Fisher would be missed for a variety of reasons.

“Derek is a great dude, super classy,” rookie Brian Cook said. “He just keeps everything together here. We call him the head of the bench mob. He’s been super helpful, from advice on the court, how to stick around in the business.

“Off the court, you can go to Fish with anything. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

Detroit’s Elden Campbell, who played with the Lakers from 1991 to ‘99, still has a great fondness for his former teammate.

“I love Fish, he’s been through it all here,” Campbell said. “He persevered, he’s a champion. It got too hot in the kitchen for me, but he stuck it out. It’s good to see him doing well.”

Like Fisher, Detroit’s Corliss Williamson grew up in Little Rock, Ark.

“We’ve been playing together and against each other since we were 10,” Williamson said. “Derek’s always been a guy who’s going to stay after practice, work hard. I didn’t work as hard as he did.

“Watching him develop has been a lot of fun. He wasn’t blessed with all the athletic ability other people had. That’s a person who made himself a player. He earned his way into this league and he’s going to be here awhile.”

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