Despite one of the most talented starting lineups in NBA history, the Los Angeles Lakers started this preseason with an 0-8 record. The general consensus is that once Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard recover from nagging injuries and start syncing with Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, everything will be relatively fine in Laker land. That by the time spring rolls around, the veterans will have mostly figured it out, and LA’s 18th championship banner will come ever more into focus for the bleary-eyed unbelievers.
There’s also a contingent that holds out hope around this same time next spring, former Laker Derek Fisher will make his long awaited return after being cast out of the promised land last March. No matter how old Fisher gets (he’s 38 now), some of these fans believe he will never run out of the same .04 magic that propelled the Lakers to the 2004 NBA Finals.
But it won’t be Fisher’s on-court prowess that will ultimately cause Los Angeles to resign him. If that happens, it will be because one of his best friends remains Kobe Bryant, and he commands a respect from Bryant few other teammates ever have before.
Because before all those champagne-soaked June nights, before the cable show cameos and the millions of Twitter followers, Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant were just two NBA rookies hungry for more court time. Before passing the tests which have made them household names, they first tested each other.
It happened early in the 1996-97 season, at a practice in Milwaukee, Fisher recalled in his autobiography “Character Driven.” The duo played two-on-two with fellow Laker rookies Corie Blount and Travis Knight, then went one-on-one after Blount and Knight left.
It quickly got physical. Bryant, then 18 years old, kept using his off hand to hook Fisher and part a path to the basket, Fisher wrote.
“I told him he was fouling me and he didn’t say a thing, just looked at me with that Kobe glare.”
“I was not going to back down, so the next time he tried to hook me, I fouled him – hard and with a push. He didn’t say anything, just took the ball out again. I fouled him again. Things went from heated to boiling.”
“We got in each other’s face about who was pushing whom. Finally we were chest-to-chest jawing at each other, and even though Kobe is six inches taller than me, I was not going to back down. Besides, I weighed nearly as much as the skinny little dude. I’d had enough and I said, ‘You hook me like that one more time, and we’re going to go? Understand me?'”
“Kobe spat back, ‘Why wait? Let’s go at it right now.’
“Fortunately, it didn’t come to our punching each other. We let it drop, and I think we both looked at each other a little bit differently after that. We had tested each other and we’d both passed and earned each other’s respect.”
Respect, indeed. Bryant, of course, would star in the Lakers’ five championships over the next 13 seasons. Yet, his three worst seasons in that span came during the only years – 2004-2007 – Fisher played elsewhere. Which is why in 2010 Bryant didn’t hesitate to call his teammate from Little Rock the “heart and soul” of the Lakers’ most recent title team.
“We spent long nights together as rookies, battling each other, playing full-court one-on-one games,” he told Sports Illustrated. “We’ve been through it, so he can come to me and say, ‘Kobe, you’re [bleeping] up.’ We owe that to each other.'”
By the way, I got a chance to talk to Fisher earlier in October for an Arkansas Life magazine profile article. I asked him who won the game mentioned above.
“I don’t actually recall if we finished the game if there ever if there ever was a score –to be honest – to say that we both finished,” he said. “I scored my share of points, he scored his share of points. We would generally get closer to knocking each other out before finishing a game. So we’ve had our moments where one got the better of the other.”