By Arash Markazi
June 02, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- Far too often in sports we're so immersed in the numbers that we really can't see what is going on in front of our eyes. We're so tuned in on percentages that we can't hear what's going on around us, so consumed with pluses and minuses and shooting charts that we can't feel the true presence of a player statistics tell us is a "liability."

Pick up a stat sheet after a Lakers playoff game and it would be easy to single out Derek Fisher for criticism. In the twilight of a 13-year career, Fisher is clearly a player who has lost a step on defense and his touch on offense (35.6 percent from the field and 23.5 percent from three-point range in the playoffs).

Yet, the numbers don't tell the story of his true significance to his team. They never have.

Rarely has a player's birthplace also served to describe his role on the team the way it has Fisher's. The 6-foot-1 point guard, born and raised in Little Rock, Ark., may be the smallest and oldest (34) player on the Lakers' roster, but he has undoubtedly been the team's steadying force since returning last season to the organization that drafted him in 1996.

It is not entirely coincidence that the Lakers' return to NBA Finals last season after three lean years came with the return of Fisher, who left Los Angeles following the 2004 Finals and played two seasons in Golden State and one in Utah. Sure, there were bigger parts in motion, namely the midseason acquisition of Pau Gasol, but Fisher's presence in the Lakers' backcourt was a key piece to their Western Conference title puzzle.

"Fisher's the rock of this team," Lakers forward Luke Walton said. "Basketball has a lot of emotions and ups and downs, and there is a lot that happens on and off the court that the average fan doesn't see, but ever since they brought Fish back, he instantly made us a better team. Just his presence made us better. Just having him on the team and on the court is a bonus."

Fisher's statistical impact in the regular season and postseason this year has been the lowest in five years, but his effect on the team's growth and maturation has never been greater.

It was Fisher who gathered the Lakers when they were down by seven points in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the Nuggets in Denver and implored his teammates to fulfill their potential. "This is a moment in time when you can define yourself," Fisher told them. "This is a moment when you can step into that destiny." It's a speech teammates cite as a turning point in their postseason, as the Lakers rallied to win 103-97 to take a 2-1 series lead.

In the previous round, it was Fisher who uncharacteristically laid out Luis Scola with a forearm shiver -- earning his first career suspension -- in an effort to dispel the notion that the Lakers were "soft" against the Rockets.

And it is Fisher who constantly works with backup point guards Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown after practice, going over situations that they will face on the court.

"Derek is a leader, he's a spokesperson to the team," coach Phil Jackson said. "He knows what's important to us and what the focus should be. A lot of things that a coach can't say all the time with emotions and expressions, he does. He gives a real essence to the game and he has a great way of presenting it to his teammates. He ignites our team."

As much as this current Lakers team hangs on Fisher's every word like a preacher giving a sermon, he confesses he was a different person the last time the Lakers held up the Larry O'Brien trophy, in 2002. Back then, Fisher was a 27-year-old bachelor with no kids, coming off three straight championship seasons. Now he's a 34-year-old husband and a father to four children, including one, Tatum, who battled cancer in her left eye before her first birthday.

Tatum's condition brought Fisher and his family back to Los Angeles. He requested and was granted a release from his three-year, $22 million contract with Utah so he could sign a three-year, $14 million deal in Los Angeles to get the best treatment for Tatum, who has recovered and is doing well.

In his only season in Utah, Fisher played in every game and served as a mentor for Deron Williams as the Jazz made it to the conference finals for the first time in nearly a decade. They haven't made it back since, getting eliminated the last two years by Fisher and the Lakers.

"It's no coincidence that he's made every team he's been on better," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said. "He's our captain. His leadership qualities are incredible. He's been a champion before and he knows how to win. Derek is a man we look up to on and off the court."

When Fisher looks up at the championship trophies visible from the Lakers' practice court, he is reminded how elusive winning one can be. While those three earlier titles seemingly came so easy, the ultimate prize has eluded Fisher time after time as he's gotten older.

"It seems like an eternity ago," Fisher said of his last championship. "I've lived a lifetime since then and what I've been through since 2004, to not win it last year, I can't really explain the pain and frustration that comes with that and not knowing if it's ever going to happen again. I can't allow it to pass me by again."

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