Most people, when they hear the news about Derek Fisher becoming the head coach of the New York Knicks, think of the veteran NBA point guard, the longtime Los Angeles Lakers role player who entered the league with Kobe Bryant in the 1996 Draft but was an adult, and ageless, from start to finish in his 18-year career.
Me, I found myself thinking of a different Fisher as multiple outlets reported his hiring as Knicks coach by Phil Jackson, New York’s ballyhooed new basketball boss, and Fisher’s old Lakers coach.
I thought of Fisher, the union president who helped navigate the National Basketball Players Association through the divisive 2011 labor lockout.
That’s where Fisher might have an edge over other former players who were hired with no prior coaching experience.
What Fisher had to do as union prez sure seemed a lot like coaching to me, at least in the skill set required.
Weighing the demands of various constituencies, each with its own agenda? Check.
Keeping the guys who dislike you away from the guys, as MLB’s Billy Martin used to say, who haven’t quite made up their minds? Check.
Staying true to your own vision, knowing when to bend and when to stiffen? Check.
Dealing with the media and looking good in a suit? Check and double-check.
We never saw Jason Kidd, Steve Kerr, Mark Jackson or other recent NBA coaching neophytes – no assistant’s apprenticeship or D League prep work required — handle chores as complex and urgent as Fisher did during the lockout. He coped with the owners on one side, his peers in the players union on another, the NBA brass – commissioner David Stern and deputy Adam Silver – on yet another side and NBPA executive director Billy Hunter (with his own undisclosed agendas at the time, as it turned out) on another side still.
Fisher, 39, would navigate it all and generally find the right tone by the end of that day’s negotiating session. Sometimes conciliatory and optimistic, sometimes steely and primed for battle.
Granted, it’s only a sliver of what might be required of Fisher as a head coach. Coping with LeBron James or Kevin Durant, breaking down video to solve the game’s best pick-and-roll practitioners, attacking Tom Thibodeau’s or Frank Vogel‘s defense, pushing buttons to get Carmelo Anthony‘s very best, avoiding an aneurysm while dealing with J.R. Smith – Fisher faces some mighty challenges in his new job, union resume or not.
He’ll also have to deal with the Knicks’ internal dynamic of being Jackson’s “guy,” of being second whenever there is credit to be ladled out – Jackson is the big brain of the operation, we’ve all been told – but first when it’s time to blame (darn rookie coach).
But Fisher stood strong when things swirled about him over the second half of 2011, getting invaluable experience in all those hotel ballrooms, dealing with egos every bit as sizable as those he’ll encounter in the Knicks locker room. And executive suite.
The man has no slot in the back of his shirts and suit coats where Jackson will be able to slip a hand and run him, puppet-like. The Knicks aren’t just hiring a surrogate, they’re hiring a legit first-time coach, a potentially inspired choice