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Outrageous Fortune There's just no accounting for the charmed life of the Lakers' Rick Fox--unless you believe in old-fashioned hard work

June 11, 2001
June 11, 2001

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June 11, 2001

Outrageous Fortune There's just no accounting for the charmed life of the Lakers' Rick Fox--unless you believe in old-fashioned hard work

The kind of luck Rick Fox has, you've got to wonder. Here's a
guy raised in the Bahamas who was groomed to take over the
family ice business, and now he starts at small forward for a
Los Angeles Lakers team that's likely to repeat, is married to a
triple-threat diva, does a little acting in the off-season,
watches the boats sail by from his deck in Marina Del Rey, plays
with his five kids. Plus, he's good-looking, which right there
moves him ahead of Ringo Starr in mankind's sweepstakes
department.

This is an article from the June 11, 2001 issue Original Layout

Nobody's that lucky, even at a time in our history when people
are constantly testing their luck, when it's O.K. for ambition to
be satisfied with a winning lottery ticket. Remember when life
was a cabaret? Now it's a raffle. Still, the idea that a man can
succeed across so many fronts on luck alone is almost offensive.
It's one thing to meet former Miss America/platinum-selling
singer/movie star Vanessa Williams at a party and woo her during
the lockout season--quite a thing, actually--but to have this NBA
gig on top of that is ridiculous. The 31-year-old Fox plays
alongside Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, merely the best
players in the game, and entered the Finals against the
Philadelphia 76ers this week with a shot at the unprecedented: a
perfect postseason. Odds must be acknowledged, the house edge
protected. Which makes you think, something besides luck is going
on.

Fox works at it--that's his little secret. While he insists his
existence is charmed ("Look around," he said last week on his
deck. "You don't orchestrate this"), it's not entirely the result
of chance. Just to single out the most immediate aspect of his
good fortune, which is starting for the best team in the NBA,
well, he made his own luck there, sacrificing money and then
shedding pounds, quietly turning his increasing irrelevance into
well-rewarded indispensability.

When you watch him hitting a three-pointer or slashing to the
basket for a dunk or shutting down a high-scoring opponent, it's
hard to remember that the 6'7" Fox was on his way out of L.A. a
year ago. Nobody said as much, but the notion sure was hanging in
the air. He had been a backup to Glen Rice, scoring 6.5 points a
game on career-low 41.4% shooting, his numbers declining for his
third straight year as a Laker. Come playoff time, Fox's role had
been so diminished that the only way he felt he could contribute
was to goon it up in a series of uncharacteristic unpleasantries
with Scottie Pippen.

Fox was, as he puts it now, "expendable." This was a
disheartening reality for somebody used to easy success, learning
the game at 14 as a kind of exchange student in Warsaw, Ind., and
becoming a vital part of such storied programs as North Carolina,
the Boston Celtics and the Lakers. His life wouldn't seem so
lucky if he'd been cashed out at the beginning of a great run.

"I'd been on teams with great histories, but none that had won,"
Fox says. "In Warsaw I was declared ineligible my senior year. At
North Carolina my last game was a loss to Kansas in the Final
Four. In Boston I was hanging out with Red Auerbach, Larry Bird
and Kevin McHale. The only thing was, they all were at the end of
the line. So last year I'm on a championship team and I'm running
into the stands to hug my dad--we're crying like babies--to tell
him he can finally be proud of me. Those 10 years, losing in the
Final Four, suffering through a 15-win season in Boston, where
we'd get booed on the street, they all washed away."

There was a good possibility that one ring with the Lakers was
all the jewelry he was going to get. Last summer coach Phil
Jackson suggested to Fox that he lose at least 15 pounds and
become the athletic player he'd been when he'd averaged a
career-best 15.4 points in 1996-97, his final year in Boston.
Fox, who had bulked up to try to earn playing time as a banger
for L.A., took Jackson's suggestion as an ultimatum. He lost 25
pounds, dropping to 228. "If I hadn't," Fox believes, "I wouldn't
have been back."

If he hadn't, the Lakers might not be winning, although that took
a little patience. When Rice was traded before the season, Fox
became a starter by default--"Enough people weren't in shape, Phil
had to play me," he says--but he was no great shakes in the
beginning, and neither were the Lakers. The team was more likely
to be scrutinized for the growing feud between Bryant and O'Neal
than for any spark of greatness. Still, Fox adjusted to his new
body, recalibrating his jump shot now that his feet were actually
leaving the floor, learning to take advantage of legs that were
suddenly quicker. His teammates noticed the changes, though they
were suspicious at first. "He slimmed down, all right," says
reserve guard Brian Shaw, "but I don't know if it was for the
basketball or because he just likes the way he looks. He's always
wearing sleeveless sweaters now."

The Laker he really had to impress was Bryant, who had become so
distrustful of his teammates that he believed the only way to win
was to score 40 every night. Fox could hardly blame Bryant for
not dishing the ball his way. (Shaq could blame him; Fox could
not.) "Kobe'd never seen me dunk in Boston," says Fox. "He was
like 15 then."

Dunk? Impossible to imagine, says Bryant. "He had too much junk
in his trunk."

After a while even Bryant noticed Fox was flying around like a
rookie. When Kobe came back from his sprained left ankle midway
through the season, he recognized the possibilities in the new
Rick Fox. "One game in early April, Kobe created four wide-open
scoring opportunities for me, going out of his way so I could
knock down four three-pointers," says Fox. "Until then as a team
we'd been fragile, self-indulgent and not getting any better.
After that, something clicked."

Fox believes Bryant had become so beaten down trying to do it all
himself that he had to rely on his teammates. The other
possibility is that it took that long for his teammates to gain
Bryant's confidence. Certainly, in the case of Fox, it was
comforting to know he could do something with the ball if it was
passed his way. "He's getting up," says Bryant. "He's dunking on
people, he's picking up the tempo."

During the playoffs, Fox has averaged 10.1 points on 45.3%
shooting, hit key threes, grabbed 5.1 rebounds per game and
emerged as the team's defensive stopper. (Just ask the Sacramento
Kings' Peja Stojakovic, stifled by Fox in the second round.)
Because he's camera friendly, he's become a team spokesman as
well, the postgame go-to guy. The other Lakers are happy to cede
that spotlight to him. "The females like him," says O'Neal, who
believes in having his team be full service.

So if Fox is instrumental in this L.A. run, it's not a matter of
luck. Then again, when you look at his career, it's not all that
fluky either. How he got started, that was strange. If the Grace
College team from Winona Lake, Ind., hadn't visited Nassau, and
his mother hadn't offered to house some players, he might never
have tried the sport. But since then, little has been left to
chance.

After the team left, Fox badgered his parents to let him join the
players back in their hoops hotbed. That was a tough sell, but
with guardians arranged through Grace College, Fox went stateside
at age 14. "I got too good, too fast," says Fox. Inquiring school
authorities wondered how the Bahamas figured in Warsaw Community
High's redistricting, and there was no senior year for him.

Still, he had shown enough for Dean Smith to sign him, and North
Carolina reached the Sweet 16 in each of his four years. The
Celtics took him with the 24th pick in the 1991 draft, but the
team's glory was fading. After six seasons of fairly steady
improvement as a player, he couldn't bear the losing any longer.
Then, just as he was about to sign elsewhere, Rick Pitino came on
board, exciting Fox about Boston's prospects and promising him a
six-year, $30 million contract. Soon, though, Pitino decided he
needed to make salary-cap room to sign free-agent center Travis
Knight. Fox was on his way to get a haircut for the press
conference announcing his new deal when he learned Pitino had
renounced his rights. Just like that, his $30 million vanished,
along with his Celtics career.

It was a bitter time, made all the worse because Fox realized he
had engineered his own disappointment. "I sold out," he says.
Winning, not money, would dictate his future decisions. In August
1997 he took a $1 million one-year deal from the Lakers, ignoring
an offer from the Cleveland Cavaliers of $20 million for four
years. Los Angeles had O'Neal, and there was talk about this Kobe
kid. Fox knew he wouldn't make as much, or even play as much.
"Big factor, small factor, so be it," he says.

He was tested again the next season when teams came calling. He
signed another one-year Lakers contract, for a similarly minimal
$1.75 million. O'Neal, for one, noticed the sacrifice. He's
always hearing from players who insist they want to play for the
Lakers but then won't adjust their salary demands to make it
happen. "There's a small number of guys who say they want to win
and really mean it," Shaq says. "Rick is one of those few."

In September 1999, Fox married Williams, with whom he has one
child, one-year-old Sasha. (One of their children is Fox's from a
previous relationship; the other three are Williams's from her
first marriage.) The month before, the Lakers had wrapped him up
with a six-year deal worth $25 million, which, presumably, will
keep him distracted from his acting career awhile longer. He has
already taken a few roles in off-seasons, appearing in six movies
and doing six episodes of the HBO prison series Oz. Like his
basketball career, the acting has involved as much work as luck.
"I get competitive when I read for parts," he says. It was
probably no accident he beat out a hundred other basketball
players for his first sizable role, in the 1996 Whoopi Goldberg
movie Eddie.

At the moment, while waiting for the Lakers' greatness to be
confirmed once more, Fox would seem to be enjoying the kind of
run that mocks statistical analysis, not to mention common sense.
Nobody is this lucky, this many ways, for this long. Then again,
nobody works harder at his luck than Rick Fox.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Light-footed Losing 25 pounds in the off-season has helped Fox go full speed in the playoffs.COLOR PHOTO: DIANE L. COHEN/SIPA In the stars Fox followed up his wedding to Williams before the 1999-2000 season by winning the first title of his basketball career.
"There's a small number of guys who say they want to win and
really mean it," O'Neal says. "Rick is one of those few."