- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

ORLANDO, FLA. (AP) - Derek Fisher did not come back to Los Angeles because he wanted to play for the Lakers again.

His return didn’t have anything to do with basketball at all.

And that, just as much as his history of making big shots, is the reason he’s so beloved by his teammates.

“He’s an incredible person, as well as a basketball player,” forward Lamar Odom said. “He puts being a good man first, and that’s important, especially for the chemistry in the locker room and things like that.”

Make no mistake, the stuff he does on the floor is crucial, too.

They Lakers weren’t forgetting it when Fisher was struggling earlier in the playoffs, and they certainly aren’t now, not after he added another chapter to his legacy of late-game heroics in the final minutes of Game 4 of the NBA finals.

Fisher nailed a tying 3-pointer with 4.6 seconds left in regulation, then made another that gave the Lakers the lead for good with 31 seconds remaining in overtime of a 99-91 victory that gave them a 3-1 lead over the Orlando Magic.

The 34-year-old guard had missed his first five 3-pointers of the game, and he’s missed far more than he’s made in this postseason. And while critics have seen a player who has looked washed up, the Lakers see one they always believe will come through for them.

“Fish is one of the best not only teammates I’ve ever had, but one of the greatest people I’ve ever known,” forward Luke Walton said. “He’s done this since I’ve been here _ hit big shots _ and he doesn’t listen to any of that stuff. We don’t listen to that stuff. He just hits big shots all the time.”

Before Thursday night, the listed was topped by the shot with 0.4 seconds left that stunned San Antonio in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals, when he caught an inbounds pass and quickly turned and flung it in. The Lakers made it back to the finals before losing to Detroit, denying them a fourth title in five years.

And it seemed that would be Fisher’s last big moment with the Lakers. He went off to Golden State and then was traded to Utah, where his memorable moment was more difficult than hitting a buzzer-beating shot.

Hours after he was in New York for an operation to treat his 10-month-old daughter’s cancer, he flew back to Salt Lake City, where the Jazz were playing the Warriors in a playoff game. With no time to warm up in a game that had already started, Fisher checked in in the second half, hit a huge 3-pointer and scored five points in overtime, and helped Utah pull out the victory as he was embraced by players from both teams.

He asked the Jazz to release him that summer so he could move his family to a bigger city where Tatum Fisher would have better treatment options, and he signed with the team that drafted him in 1996 from Arkansas-Little Rock.

The Lakers had another rookie guard on that team named Kobe Bryant, who hasn’t always embraced or been embraced by his teammates. But he saw things in Fisher when they practiced together that reminded him of himself, from Fisher’s determination in games that don’t count to his willingness to take the big shots in ones that mean everything.

“A lot of times we were the only two there, so we ended up playing full court 1-on-1 basketball and we were almost fighting, literally, just because we were both competitive,” Bryant said. “From that point forward I just gained so much respect for him because of his competitiveness and his ability to hit big shots.”

By this spring, it seemed Fisher couldn’t hit any shots. He had a 3-for-17 stretch over three games in the second round, all while struggling to defend Houston’s Aaron Brooks. He missed eight of nine attempts in a Game 2 loss to Denver in the conference finals, and yet when the Lakers needed a tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds of that game, Phil Jackson called the play for Fisher.

“It’s not just about talent, it’s about character, and he’s a person of high character, brings that to play, not only in just his gamesmanship but also his intestinal fortitude,” Jackson said Thursday night.

Jackson also knows Fisher has Bryant’s respect, saying Fisher will go elsewhere with the ball when Bryant is demanding it, if giving it to him isn’t the right decision.

Fisher said earlier in the finals that another title with the Lakers would be meaningful, but not necessary for him. He chose Los Angeles for family, not fortune, and Tatum Fisher is healthy now.

However he got there, the Lakers realize they are lucky to have him.

“The guys on this team are just unbelievable,” Fisher said. “They ride with me, good or bad, so I’ll just continue to want to really thank them or reward them by continuing to show the confidence that I need to show when I’m out there on the floor.”

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