- Derek Fisher, who played eight seasons with Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal, reflectes on private moments shared with the man he considers an older brother.
Late in the summer of 1996, I headed up to Loyola Marymount University to workout with Shaquille O'Neal for the first time. I'd just been drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, and the idea was for me to get to know Shaq a little bit since we were going to be playing together.
One of the coaches—it might have been our head coach at the time, Del Harris—took me up to the LMU gym. This was before the era of big practice facilities and Taj Mahal gyms that every NBA team pretty much has now. It was just a big, empty college gym. I started warming up and getting ready so that once Shaq got there, we could just go right into the workout. I didn't want to keep him waiting. Not long after, Shaq walked in and said, "Hey, what's up. Let's get this workout in," and we got started.
To be clear: This wasn't a workout where we were competing against each other. That wouldn't happen until training camp arrived that fall in Hawaii, and I made the mistake of driving to the hole against Shaq in our first practice. He damn near swatted the ball back to half court, and in a water break afterward, Coach Harris said, "Now might be a good time to work on your floater." This was us working together, a guard and a big man, doing drills in the post, that sort of thing.
A few things stuck out to me about Shaq that day. First, I'd never seen or played with a guy who had that type of size, ever. To that point, the biggest guy I'd played with was Corliss Williamson, who was 6'7". The other thing that I realized was that Shaq had no idea who I was. I don't mean that he hadn't heard of me or something like that. I mean that after a few minutes, it was completely obvious to me that Shaq didn't realize we were going to be teammates for the upcoming season. It was only at the end of the workout that the coaches introduced me as a guy who was probably going to be on the team.
That always struck me as kind of funny looking back, because from that day forward until the day Shaq left the Lakers in 2004, I became his little brother, and the friendship we formed would change my life.
To me, Shaq was going to be a Hall of Famer before he even switched uniforms from the Orlando Magic to the Lakers. People forget what Shaq was like in his prime. Think of some of the big guys in the league that are doing crazy things like now—guys like LeBron James and Blake Griffin, who are around 6'9" and have that type of size, strength and athleticism. Shaq in his prime felt like he was damn near twice those guys' size. He was 7'1", big and powerful, but even though he was a kind of prototypical big man, he had perimeter player skill in terms of ball handling, dribbling, vision, passing.
He was so dominant so early in his career, I don't think it's a surprise he's entering the Hall of Fame, or that he's one of the greatest players to ever play the game.
We played together for the first eight years of my NBA career. It's funny to read that because it was less than half of the time I was in the league, but Shaq taught me so much during that time. When I got to L.A., I was just turning 22 years old, a naive Southern kid from Little Rock, Ark. He took me under his wing the way you would a younger sibling, and helped me start to learn about the NBA, business, show business, relationships—all these different things.
He was always willing to share knowledge he had. "Hey, here's an attorney that I work with," he'd tell me. "Here's a financial advisor that I trust." I learned from just watching him—how he operated his business relationships, how he branded himself, how he could find ways to be successful on the right team at the right time, how coachable he was when it came to being a team guy. He reminded me a lot of Magic Johnson, another player I really admired.
Of course, there was also how he played.
He wasn't a crazy, dominant, practice player. Practice for him was more about bringing the team along. In games, he would bring the team along, but it was also about putting on a performance. It was about showing that he was going to lead the team, and that everybody else should follow.
It was amazing how much better he made everybody else when he was in his prime and on top of his game. He literally made every player better. A big part of that was that we valued him as a big man, and understood the importance of keeping him happy. He understood that about the rest of the team, too. As a big, you're relying on other people to get you the basketball to help you be successful, so you want your teammates to succeed, too. I was always willing to make sure he had the ball, to make sure he got what he needed to get the best out of himself.
His best was unbelievable to witness up close. It was unlike anything I ever experienced.
It's almost impossible to pick out any individual performance as his greatest game. You could point to almost any of his playoff performances in 2001. It makes me laugh just thinking about how dominant he was that season. It seems like every night he had 40 points and 20-something rebounds.
One game, though, stands out to me for what it showed about Shaq, and who he was as a player. In the 2000 playoffs, before we won our first championship, we faced the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals. We lost one of the first two games in Los Angeles, so we'd lost home court advantage at that point. We won Game 3, but then Brian Shaw got suspended for Game 4, which was a real blow to our team.
That fourth game was going to play a huge role in how the series went.
In Game 4, Shaq—a career 53% free throw shooter—went 9-of-9 from the line, and we won, 103-91.
That performance told me something about Shaq. He had a deeper level of focus that people—especially on the outside looking in—didn't think he was capable of. They always thought that Shaq's dominance was all physical. I don't think that people appreciated the level of psychological dominance that he also played with in terms of paying attention to teammates and when they needed him to cuss them out, or pat them on the back, or dominate the game even more, or do a little bit less. Or to step up and win a game from the stripe the way he did that night in Portland.
We went on to win our first championship that year, and two more after that, but honestly, from that game on, I don't think there was ever a time where I felt like we weren't going to win. Being on his team always made you feel like you had the biggest piece of property on the block. Good luck trying to claim that you did, because you didn't. We had it.
Of course, what made winning with Shaq even more enjoyable was how much fun he had doing it. He just enjoyed life. He was always laughing, and smiling, and having a good time. Shaq was literally and figuratively carrying major weight and big burdens for our team, so for him, I think laughing and seeing others laugh with him was really important to who he was. It still is.
It was a big part of who he was as a leader, too. I can remember early mornings after back-to-backs when we'd get up for an early bus ride to the airport. You'd be dragging, tired, or maybe upset from the night before. Maybe you didn't play a lot, or you didn't play as well, or whatever. You'd just be sitting there on the bus, laying back, staring out the window, and you'd feel a tap on your shoulder.
You're thinking he's getting ready to ask you a question or say something serious. Then he starts talking, and he has a blueberry muffin shoved all the way up his top lip and across the front of his teeth. And he keeps telling you some story with a straight face, all while this blueberry muffin is hanging over the front of his mouth.
No matter how frustrated, or mad, or pissed off you were at whatever else was going on, it was just that little, quick moment of perspective and break from reality that kept our team loose at times when we had a lot of big-time pressure on us. To me, that was why we were able to win three in a row and go to four Finals in five years. We worked hard. We took it all very seriously. But having Shaq help all of us relax and enjoy things was always important.
After Shaq left the Lakers, he moved on to a few different teams, and then retired. We stayed in touch over the years and saw each other from time to time, but there's nothing like the camaraderie you build with someone you're with every day for eight years.
At the end of this past season, I had a chance to work with Shaq on the NBA on TNT. It was the first time since our days on the Lakers that we really had some time to hang out for a while, and just chill and talk. It was great. It really was like being with a sibling again. Because of all the history you have from your childhood, from growing up together, that chemistry is still there. We didn't skip a beat. Things were just automatically cool again, and it was great to share that time with him.
I'm so honored to have been part of Shaq's career, and to see him enter the Basketball Hall of Fame. Shaq's career confirms that guys who enjoy playing the game the right way—who share the basketball, make their teammates better and know it's not just about them—that they not only individually have great careers, but can have the championships that come along with it.
For a guy who always received such high individual praise for his dominance, people underestimate how great of a basketball teammate Shaq truly was, and how much better he made all of us. That's what his legacy is to me.
Congrats, Big Man.