The 2020 WNBA season took on new meaning after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the subsequent protests for racial justice across the country. The players decided to devote their season to the cause of Black women who are the victims of police brutality, and they used their platform to educate people on social justice issues.
As the head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks, Derek Fisher had a front row seat to the movement led by his players — specifically Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the WNBPA, and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, a member of the league’s social justice council. Their leadership and service particularly resonates with Fisher at this time of year on Veterans Day, as he honors veterans such as his father John, who was in the Air Force.
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Veterans Day honors all of those who have served our country in war or peace — I would love to personally thank all our US veterans for their sacrifice. We are so indebted to your service. This Veterans Day I’m honoring John Fisher, Sergeant United States Air Force, Vietnam War Veteran (1968-1972) 6200 Security Police Squadron, Clark Air Force Base Philippines (1968-1970) 314th Security Police Squadron Little Rock Air Force Base(1970-1972) Security Police Investigator(1970-1972). Join me in drawing a V on your hand with the veteran you want to honor in @USAA #HonorThroughAction V Challenge #USAAPartner #VeteransDay #SalutetoService
Fisher took some time to talk with Silver Screen & Roll about that experience in the WNBA bubble, a couple other Sparks and Lakers topics, and the #HonorThroughAction challenge that celebrates veterans.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
SB Nation: Regarding Veterans Day and the initiative you guys are doing with the USAA, the #HonorThroughAction Challenge, I was curious, what does it mean to you in particular to be the son of a veteran? And how do you try to honor that service in your day to day life?
Derek Fisher: It means a lot, it means a lot. I think in particular on this Veterans Day, it’s just been a different kind of year, and I think we’ve all been reminded of why it is so important to do things now and and not wait. And so I’ve usually been a more private celebratory person when it comes to my family and and certain personal moments and experiences. But this year, just having the opportunity to partner with USAA and kind of participate in the #HonorThroughAction challenge has been good.
Veterans Day has a great deal of meaning for me and for us as a family, just learning more about it, I mean we have 18 million living US military veterans and I know there’s sometimes confusion with Veterans Day and Memorial Day and what we’re celebrating and not, and I wanted to play a part in that distinction this year honoring my dad, so this challenge has been great and fun.
It’s just a cool way to show support for veterans, and then there are other cool ways for us to also volunteer and do things to support veterans as well throughout the year. It’s a good reminder of that as well, let’s keep stepping up and do as much as we possibly can for our veterans while they’re here especially. Let’s not wait until they’re gone.
SBN: It seems like this WNBA season you were just a part of, actually, was built on the same sorts of principles of service and action, even in a different way. What did you learn from your players about service and leadership?
DF: Oh man, what our players were able to do, and it’s no judgment to other players in other sports and what they were able to accomplish, but what our ladies were able to do is just remarkable. And I think re-enforcing this idea that, you know, even if things are not ideal or perfect or where you want them to be or the way you feel strongly that they should be, that you still have to show up and put your time in, make the effort, commit to your teammates, commit to those other people around that need you to be there in order for them to be successful. The staff of the league, the referees, like there are a lot of people that make these sports go, and they needed the players to show up in order for them to have jobs and opportunities. So just learning from my players again that you can’t take that for granted, that we have an opportunity to positively impact others. And it was a joy. You know, we didn’t win the championship on the court, but the 2020 team will be for sure one of my most memorable teams as a coach.
SBN: On the subject of the Sparks, what’s your sense of how similar next year’s roster is gonna look to this year’s?
DF: Man, yeah that is the biggest question we have this offseason is how do we balance with so many free agents, and not just free agents, but players that have helped to build the arc of this franchise. How do we build our roster in a way that financially can fit together to keep a level of competitiveness and who we are because we want to have the opportunity to win championships every year. So we want to put a roster together that can compete for a title, but we have to do it in a way that financially allows us to not just have that chance this year, but also have that chance next year, and the year after, etc.
There are some question marks around how to do that, but you know, when you’re talking about Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray (Editor’s note: All three players are unrestricted free agents this offseason), the type of players that we have that are free agents, these discussions are not about the talent. It’s really how do we do it in a way that speaks to who they are and the value that they bring to our team, but again, also gives us a chance to compete year in and year out, and it’s not gonna be easy. We know we got a lot of work to do over the next six weeks to make sure we’re prepared to make the right decisions.
SBN: The Sparks had been the last L.A. team to win a title, but the Lakers obviously changed that this year. What sort of connection do you still feel with the Lakers, and what did it mean to you to see the team win, especially this year?
DF: I think to see them break through this year, just considering what kind of year it has been, you know, starting this year with the loss of Kobe, which I think there will be some form of a cloud over us forever, I think the Lakers being able to find a way to win a title throughout everything this year, it was needed. I think our city really needed to feel that positive turn, you know, in a year has been so difficult. And I think it all kinda gives the city and the communities and the young people most importantly, right, like this hope that great things can still happen in life, even after that.
I’m really happy for the organization for what they were able to accomplish in this year in particular, and Jeanie (Buss) as a leadership figure in helping to turn the organization around and get it going in this championship direction, and then be able to see that come to light. I think it says a lot about her leadership as a woman, running because one of the marquee franchises in all of sports. So there’s just a lot of positives to it, and hopefully they’ll have the chance again to compete next year for it.
SBN: Having been on both teams now, do you have any thoughts about the relationship between the two franchises? I know there’s not the same ownership anymore, would you like to see that relationship between the Sparks and Lakers evolve going forward?
DF: Ideally, I think we can have a relationship for sure. And I think there is a relationship. I think we just all need to continue to figure out how does that relationship benefit the constituency of whoever we feel like deserves to benefit. For example, if supporting our women and our players and making sure they have the opportunity to work with the best, learn with the best, train in quality facilities, you know, have a level of of interest from sponsors and partners and corporate partners, etc., we’re gonna need some support in those areas. So I think partnership with the Lakers can mean many different things, and whatever it does ultimately look like, the goal of it is to just try and help put our players in the best position possible to be successful, and that takes everybody. The Lakers are the sports team in L.A., and they make a lot of things happen, but they they don’t know us anything. They don’t have a responsibility to us.
But I do believe that we do have an opportunity here in L.A. with all of our sports teams, Angel City has now come on board in the National Women’s Soccer League, and then the alliance in terms of all of our sports teams in L.A. making the commitment to impact the community. So I think it all goes together, right? As sports franchises, how do we have the most impact in in our city and in our communities? I think it’s really important in L.A. to make sure that young girls in L.A. feel the same level of opportunities and platforms for them that young boys growing up in L.A. have to look at and to model after. So hopefully we can all look up in five years, 10 years, 20 years, and feel like we stood on the right side of supporting women in sports and in business, and whatever industries the right way.
If you’re interested in participating in the challenge, draw the letter V on your hand, add the initials of a veteran in your life, take a picture and tag it on social media with #HonorThroughAction. You can also learn more about efforts to support veterans through USAA here.