Fisher, Blake and Redick: The rise of the character guys?

Fisher, Blake and Redick: The rise of the character guys?


Fisher, Blake and Redick: The rise of the character guys?

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I’m not sure he’s so inclined, but JJ Redick should think about dropping Derek Fisher a thank you note. In fact, all of basketball should probably do it.

Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy is raving privately that Redick is the one guy on his roster who truly cares about the game, that ownership should do everything possible to keep the free agent.

Redick’s work ethic and big-game delivery have also deeply impressed the Boston Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks. Any one of the three teams could wind up giving mid-level exception money to Redick, better than $30 mil over five years.

Meanwhile, journeyman point guard Steve Blake has turned down more money to accept a $16 million, four-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers.

You could argue that guys like Redick and Blake stand to benefit because the smart teams are realizing that they can buy all the “spent-my-whole-life-on-scholarship” talent they want, but they have to have a hard-nosed leader in the mix.

Fisher, who is absolutely driven to find greatness despite deficiencies in raw talent, has opened eyes with his clutch performances to help Phil Jackson’s Lakers win the past two titles.

Fisher obviously has slowed a bit over the years. He’s not the greatest finisher and some nights during the regular season he obviously struggles against quick young guards.

He was one of Jerry West’s draft picks, a former late first round selection out of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. I find that interesting because West once told me that talent scouts can see what a player can do on the floor athletically. The hard part, West said, was to read a player’s heart. Who can bring that immense human element to the outcome?

Fisher had some quickness and used to be a pretty good ball-pressure defender. Even in his advancing years he still has his moments. As far as pressuring the young guys, he says he has learned where to cut corners and how to pick his spots.

He has worked unbelievably hard to survive and thrive. There’s no question that such effort has inspired his coaches and teammates, a rarity in the often-cynical world of pro hoops.

“It’s character,” Phil Jackson observed when asked about Fisher during the Lakers’ ’09 title run. “We’ve always said the character has got to be in players if they’re going to be great players. You can’t just draft it. 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.”

For the past three seasons Jackson has stood by Fisher, who will turn 36 in August, as critics among the Lakers fan base fumed that the team needed an upgrade at the point.

Jackson ignored the noise and displayed the resolve he used a decade earlier with the Chicago Bulls, when he revived Ron Harper’s career to work alongside Michael Jordan.

As a role player and ball-pressure guard, Harper helped ease some of the tremendous pressure on Jordan. Jordan told me a couple of years ago that Fisher reminded him of Harper.

Jordan said that Fisher helps take the huge pressure off Lakers star Kobe Bryant.

“They’re very similar,” Jordan explained. “The way Fisher takes pressure off from Kobe Bryant, whether from a defensive standpoint or being able to knock down a shot, there are a lot of similarities in the way they play.”

Bryant himself has made very clear his huge debt to Fisher, and the star has been the first to acknowledge that what Fisher has done is so rare that very few can duplicate it.

In Jordan and Bryant, Jackson has coached the most demanding superstars in the sport’s history. The coach knows that you have to surround the great ones with equally driven role players who can handle the pressure of the highest expectations.

Fisher may just be the game’s ultimate role player. His performance in the 2010 playoffs was so impressive that it may jolt awake executives and coaches who have overlooked the critical human element in the mix.

Basketball’s an entertainment business, so it’s a lot like Hollywood. It goes Lady Gaga over the latest trends.

The NBA changed its rules over the past five years to stop any sort of hand-checking or legit defense on the perimeter, thus removing the natural predators for talented offensive players.

So today, lightning quick guards such as Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and soon John Wall are coming to dominate the league (as well as owner’s checkbooks).

As Rod Thorn told me after the NBA made the changes, it’s smart for the league to unleash its offensive talent. It’s hard to disagree, although purists hate to see the death of defense.

Question is, has this juiced up game endangered guys like Fisher, or is it opening a window for them? The answer to that, of course, depends on the perception of the executives making the decisions.

Certainly Fisher has given them something to think about.

It’s also a factor that Jackson and Boston coach Doc Rivers have shown how to get more out of older, wiser, smarter players.

Let’s face it. The character guys have character because they have had to fight every nanosecond they’re on the floor for a shred of respect.

They are survivors, the glue of the game.

But for years the NBA hasn’t even bothered to pay them lip service.

It will be nice if the league wakes up and becomes less dismissive about a Fisher or a Harper. It’ll be even better if the exceptional character players can find a greater role in the sport, that’s if the NBA can find, or encourage, more like Fisher.

If you love the game, you’ve got to be absolutely pleased with that prospect. It means that promising veterans like Redick and Blake will get a chance to show that what they have to offer can be vital.

Unfortunately, for Fisher himself, the rewards are less certain because of his age. The Lakers appear to be hedging at re-signing him to a two-year contract at $5 mil per season, his salary last year. If the Lakers, who are well over the league’s salary cap, hesitate, other teams have expressed interest despite Fisher’s age because he trains so hard to play at a high level and has backed up his leadership with displays of heart that have been nothing short of epic.

Some Lakers fans are concerned that the addition of Blake is a sign that the team will pass on its unsung hero. Others, however, are hoping that the team simply wants more of a great thing, that it sees Fisher and Blake as quite similar options who will provide important consistency that Los Angeles didn’t get from talented-but-erratic young backup Jordan Farmar.

Personally, I can’t imagine that Kobe Bryant would agree to step on the floor next season if Derek Fisher isn’t right there beside him.

Whatever happens for Fish, this much is clear. The thank-you notes should be in the mail, from anyone who cares about the game.

He’s reminded us of all of what we value, that our best talent formulas are only so good. At some point, teams and fans have to turn their prospects over to the biggest hearts.

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