It was a tense night May 13, 2004. The Los Angeles Lakers had come back from an 0-2 series deficit to tie the San Antonio Spurs at 2-2 in the Western Conference Semifinals a few nights before and both teams were looking to win a critical Game 5 to gain a one game edge in the best of 7 series.
Both teams were battle-tested champions at the height of their powers. The Lakers fielded a team of four sure-fire Hall of Famers in Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Gary Peyton, and Karl Malone. Although they had their struggles in the regular season, they appeared to be peaking at the right time in order to make a run at the NBA championship. The Spurs had won the NBA Championship in 2003 and won 17 straight games before dropping those two games that allowed the Lakers to even up the series. Tim Duncan was in the prime of his career, Manu Ginobili wasn't getting injured every four games, and Tony Parker was becoming a star point guard. With these two Western Conference beasts colliding, Game 5 was sure to be an epic fight.
The Lakers and Spurs did not disappoint.
The game was a see-saw affair. After a Devean George dunk capped a 17-4 made by the Lakers, the Spurs found themselves down by 16 midway through the fourth quarter. The Spurs did not give in. Sparked by Devin Brown, San Antonio clawed their way back into the game only down by 2 points with 7:21 remaining in the game.
If the fans thought the first 47 minutes and 49 seconds were awesome, the last 11 seconds of the game would blow their minds.
Kobe Bryant hits a jumper to give the Lakers the lead at 72-71 with 11 seconds remaining. The Spurs looked to their own superstar to get them back. Tim Duncan delivered. With 7-1 Shaquille O'Neal draped all over him, Tim Duncan hit an incredible fadeaway from 18 feet to take the lead back at 73-72 with 0.4 seconds left. The Lakers, looking particularly shocked and dejected, slunk back to their bench. Everyone in the building and across the United States saw 0.4 on the clock and saw formality. Everyone saw doom for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Everyone except Phil Jackson and Los Angeles Lakers.
Phil Jackson looked at the bench and he saw 4 hall of famers and one afterthought. That afterthought was Derek Fisher. Fisher, relegated to the bench after the Lakers acquired Gary Payton, saw his minutes cut and his on-court opportunities limited. However, in a locker room of massive egos and temper tantrums, Fisher was the calming force, becoming the glue that was attempting to hold it all together. Jackson decided with his shooting ability and knowing the Spurs will double any of the hall of famers if they touched the ball, the ball would go to the oft-forgotten point guard.
After two straight time outs called by the Spurs and Lakers, the moment was at hand. Payton would inbound from the sideline opposite of the Spurs bench. The other Lakers started in a stack at the free throw line. First, Shaq curls out of the stack, rounding behind the opposite elbow and towards the basket. Rasho Nesterovic cuts him off preventing an easy lob at the basket. Bryant, moves from the back of the stack towards Payton and peels off to the three point line. He is immediately followed by two Spurs, Devin Brown and Robert Horry. That's superstar treatment for you. Because Robert Horry went to double Bryant, the entire area from the paint to the sideline Payton was inbounding from was completely open. Enter Derek Fisher.
Fisher sprints to the open area and with Ginobili (unfazed by the misdirection) all over him, hits the impossible shot to win the game and put the Lakers in position to clinch the series at home. The Lakers are elated. The Spurs are stupefied. The Lakers go on to win the series and make it to the NBA Finals (where they would lose to the Bad Boys II). The shot is now legendary in a league with a bevy of legendary moments. And it could not have happened to a better guy.
Derek Fisher will not be a NBA Hall of Famer. He never played in an All-Star game, named to an All-Pro team, or win an MVP award. He just works hard, does whats asked of him, and helps others around him. Derek Fisher is the locker room leader who everyone respects not because he scores 30 points a night, but because of the worker and man he is. Derek Fisher represents the every role player who will never be a star, but is just as important to every team. Derek Fisher represents the workman who does the little things and keeps the team together when everything is coming apart at the seams.
Future NBA fans will look back on this era and look at highlights of the superstars because they did amazing things. No one is going to look at or even remember the great role players of this generation. Derek Fisher was going to be one of those forgotten glue guys. The way Fisher is though, he was going to be okay with that. He knew he maximized his opportunities and helped great teams to championships. But all of that changed in 0.4 seconds. In 0.4 seconds, he showed that even role players get their moment in the sun. In 0.4 seconds, he became a legend.