by Nate Olson
There is a very good chance if Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal didn’t have Derek Fisher to mend fences, both players’ legacies wouldn’t have been the same.
I always told my friends around the county, “This kid from Little Rock [Fisher] is the glue holding this team together.”
A devout Lakers fan from the early years of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, I got acquainted with Fisher when I moved to Little Rock in 2001. My wife, Sheena, was on the Arkansas-Little Rock campus at the same time Fisher was starring on the hardwood for the Trojans.
I immediately identified him as one of the “good guys” and rooted for him. Fisher blossomed into one of the great role players of his time leading the Lakers guard court. But, his most important role on three championship teams was keeping the peace between O’Neal and Bryant.
O’Neal, slightly older than Bryant, burst on the scene in 1992 with the Orlando Magic and was a bona fide star when he came to the Lakers. I was standing outside the Lakers locker room after an exhibition game in Kansas City, Mo., in 1997. Bryant stood outside the door with a knit cap pulled low in almost anonymity as Bryant emerged with Shawn Kemp, then playing the with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Everyone in the hallway clamored for O’Neal, and his broad smile showed he enjoyed the endearment.
Bryant came on strong that 97-98 year averaging 15 points per game. As he became a bigger star, the rub began between the two. O’Neal always looked at him as the younger brother. The behemoth O’Neal equated his large stature and age with alpha male status. Bryant knew he was becoming the closest thing the NBA had seen to Michael Jordan, and he wanted top billing and the ball.
I sided with O’Neal. He was the veteran and an overwhelming force in the paint. He needed to be fed. His overall jovial demeanor, which was on display that night in KC, also just seemed to make him more likable. O’Neal was more like the outgoing Magic and Bryant more like the standoffish Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Then, there was Fisher. Unlike most of the Lakers, he liked both men. He was a go-between and peacemaker. Since he didn’t choose sides both players confided in him. He, along with Coach Phil Jackson, made the controlled chaos work. That’s why Fisher could be considered the MVP of that time period and one of my all-time favorite Lakers. He kept the peace enough to allow both players to coexist.
Fisher was one of the first people I thought of when news broke of the helicopter crash that killed Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others. Like you would expect, the Little Rock Parkview High school alum was thoughtful in his remembrance of his good friend and former teammate.
“It was a blessing to be able to watch someone on a daily basis strive to be the best at what they do, to be the best in the world at what they do,” Fisher told Good Morning America last week. “My heart just hurts for his family and for the fact he is no longer with us.”
As proud as he was of Bryant in his playing days, Fisher seems to be more impressed with Bryant’s life after basketball. The father of four daughters, he became a vocal supporter of women’s athletics and coached Gianna’s basketball team.
“With all humans there are different versions [of us] as we grow and evolve. To be with Kobe from his rookie year in 1996 to the Kobe in 2004 to the Kobe in 2010, his evolution as a husband and father and as a man that wanted to impact the community of basketball, to think about what he has committed to in terms of young girls and women in the sport of basketball,” Fisher told GMA.
Fisher can take solace that he and Bryant were always on good terms. That wasn’t the case with Byant’s parents and, of course, O’Neal. The pair of former teammates had apparently settled their differences in 2015 and O’Neal attended Bryant’s final game with the Lakers in which Bryant went off for 60 points in a win against the Utah Jazz.
Still, the loss of Bryant has left O’Neal despondent and determined to make life changes.
“Look, I’m all about being hard and all of that, but after yesterday, I’m going to have to delete my beef and my confrontation clause,” O’Neal said last week on “The Big Podcast with Shaq. I don’t want to do that anymore because you know, you never know.”
It’s a good bet than O’Neal and Fisher have spoken multiple times since the accident and will continue to. Fisher was a leader for the Lakers when he played and will continue to be during this difficult time for so many.