The Los Angeles Sparks announced the hiring of 5x NBA champion Derek Fisher as the organization’s new head coach this month. Fisher experienced years of success with the Los Angeles Lakers organization as a player. Before joining the Sparks, Fisher was with Spectrum SportsNet in LA as an analyst for the Lakers and had previously been the head coach of the New York Knicks (2014-2016).
I sat down with Fisher as he embarks on his new role as the Sparks head coach:
“My immediate thoughts were just a level of excitement and gratitude for having an opportunity to be the head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks. I’ve been a believer,supporter, a fan of the women’s game and the WNBA for many many years. To now have an opportunity to be a part of the WNBA on a daily basis… I’m just really looking forward to it.”
How did this hiring process unfold for you?
“It was almost destined – even though we never had a conversation about it until the last few weeks. The conversation that began in the last few weeks was built around the history of me and Penny staying in touch. Whether it was us catching up every few years, or me at a Sparks game, or when she asked me to come and speak at a Sparks practice many years ago… I think these touch points led to an ability to openly communicate in the last month. For me, although it happened recently and quickly, I feel like it was built on this relationship that we had established over the years. Once she realized that she was going to need a new head coach, everything took off from there.”
Penny Toler mentioned that there was a ‘a list of one’ in this hiring process, how did that effect your decision with this opportunity?
“There was a tremendous amount of respect and seriousness that the process had to take place in, because I realized that Penny was very open and direct from the beginning that if this was something I could bring myself to do, that we could figure the rest out. From the beginning I wanted to make sure that I respected her time, the organization’s time, and go through the process. That this was an amazing opportunity to coach basketball again and start going through my process and the steps that I needed to so I could reach a decision that I felt comfortable with.”
You had an immensely successful career as a player in the NBA… how will those experiences shape your coaching perspective with this team?
“My hope is that having experienced success at a really high level and having an appreciation for how difficult it is to attain championship level success will help maintain a team that can stay at that level beyond just one night, month or season. My stories and experiences of success and failure, really allowing our players to see the inside of how our teams became what they became. Although the game may be played a little bit different in terms of the evolution of basketball, there are some the things that every championship team can relate to– sacrifice, commitment, discipline and attention. That’s what separates the great ones. My hope is that I can connect with our group and help them understand there’s certain things that great teams have to do and have to be in order to win, but at the same time be open to what they also experienced in their championship success. We’ll have to work together to paint a picture of what it will take to win a new championship. I’m looking forward to that. It’s gonna be fun. It’s gonna be challenging but I’m looking forward to it.”
Why was now the right time for you to step back on the sidelines in a coaching role? What about this role stood out to you?
“As I’ve been observing basketball since I’ve been out of it, watching other coaches get hired and fired, the process of it, and even some of the communications I’ve had myself about potential opportunities, there are key things that I started to realize that you need to look for in accepting a job as a coach. One – a strong ownership group with a commitment to winning, and winning now. That’s an important thing to have in place, and the Sparks ownership checked that box. Then – a front office and general manager, president, etc. that also has a strong commitment to winning now, but also has a history of success and knowing what it takes to put together championship rosters. That’s an important thing you want to have in place as a head coach and the Sparks also checked that box. Then the third box– the roster. What does it look like? Is the roster talented? Is the roster capable of winning now? Is it the type of roster where you’re going to be a couple years away? Understanding all those things can help you ask the right questions. I felt really comfortable and confident in those key areas with the Sparks organization… I felt good about it right at the beginning.
This roster is pretty stacked all-around – what are some of the immediate things that stand out to you when looking at the names on the roster and any film you’ve watched?
“Ohhh yeah. I’ve watched a lot of film. Last season’s roster, and the roster of the last two seasons, talent is not a question. There’s enough there to have a chance to compete with the best teams in the WNBA. Obviously the Seattle Storm are the most recent champions. That’s where everyone is going to have to go to win the championship next season. The Mystics were right there, the Phoenix Mercury played Seattle to game 5 and they’re right there, the Atlanta Dream is also really talented and Nicki Collen has done an amazing job with that group, so it’s going to be tough. I do think our roster has an opportunity now. Our needs are really to re-establish ourselves as a group. We need to focus on how we blend our strengths and weaknesses together that allows for each member of our team to feel valued, appreciated, and able to go out and play their best individually, but also manage how each skill fit into our team concept, dynamic and what the team goals are. That’s a hard thing to do, but this group has shown the ability to do so. I think if we can get in touch with that, then that makes the things that we decide to do as far as x’s and o’s a little bit easier to implement because we’re all committed to one goal.”
There’s plenty of veteran leadership on this roster – how do you plan to work with leaders like Candace and Nneka on and off the court?
“Building just a level of trust in our relationship is important. Our communication will have to be high. Getting to know each other outside of just ‘coach’ and ‘player’ and really connecting as people… that’s going to be really important. I’m the new guy, they’ve worked together before, they’ve won championships before, so in a lot of ways they have a rapport, a relationship, a trust and a connection… I have to open myself up and make myself vulnerable and willing to fit into what they’ve already built and established, but then do it in a way that allows them to say ‘hey he’s part of us, he’s one of us, he wants to be here and help us…. Let’s let him in and work on this together.’ It starts for sure with those two and then hopefully we can get Chelsea Gray re-signed, and if Alana Beard is back with her veteran leadership as well, it’s gonna a special group that can go out on the court an do some special things.”
Do you have any specific people you’ve gone to for advice before/since you’ve accepted this position?
“What I’ve been trying to do before getting to that point is really connecting with our players internally. Really trying to connect with them and get to know them. A lot of them are going overseas as we reach the end of the year, so that’s been my number 1 priority. The second part has been looking at how to build out my staff and that’s where my conversations with other people will come from. I’ve definitely created a list of coaches, former coaches, and people that can help shed light on coaching and teaching. I’m always in a learner mindset in that there’s always more to learn and understand about doing what you want to do at the best possible level. I’ve been more focused on watching a ton of video on our teams and other teams to get familiar with personnel, and then also developing relationships and connections with our players so that the first time we’re in contact is not when they show up for training camp.”
A lot of these players have off-court careers that they balance along with their play on the Sparks, as a coach, how do you look to support these well-rounded athletes both on and off the court?
It’s a part of what also made this opportunity so special and unique. The space is there for these women to be more than just athletes. That’s something that I’ve always supported for men and women athletes. To try new things and think outside of the court. I think a lot of these women have been forced to think that way because of just how the league is structured at this point, and so these are great stories to tell. These women are far beyond just great basketball players. They are immersing themselves into business, corporate environments, and other industries and spaces that are going to help continue to prepare them for what life is like after basketball, which we all have to face. I’m a huge supporter of our players doing those things and I’ll also try to find appropriate ways to do so myself in a way that gives me a certain perspective to help and have conversations with our players about life and that’s it’s not always just about the game.”
LA is home to you, LA is where you’ve been a part of history, what are your goals with this team as they look to make history as well?
“It’s hard for me to put into words just how amazing this city has been to me, just as a young kid growing up in Little Rock watching the Lakers, watching Magic, my favorite team and my favorite player of all time. To now see myself 20+ years later, here in LA having had great success as a member of great teams, and just how this community has shown me so much love and respect, the first thing I want do is give that love and support back to LA in terms of building upon this great sports organization that also cares about the city. Hopefully we can win a lot of basketball games and bring a championship back, but the greater opportunity we also have is to impact the community in LA. To help be amazing ambassadors and examples for young girls in Los Angeles that are looking to become the best of who they want to be. In a lot of ways, I think that’s the greatest opportunity and gift we can give back to the city. To not just be champions on the court, but also somehow build into the community where people know the Sparks are making a difference. That’s something that’s going to be very important to me.”
You’ve been a longtime supporter of the women’s game, but it’s something that the masses continue to doubt… What’s your message to people doubting the women’s game?
“There’s so many things that go into why maybe the women’s game isn’t as ‘supported’ as the men’s game. A lot of people just haven’t given it a chance and haven’t been open to what the women’s game brings, and often times people compare what our experience should be like with one thing or person to another thing or person, as opposed to just appreciating what the game is. We can help people step away from comparing the women’s game to the men’s game, and just show love and appreciation for the women’s game itself. Just come to a game. Watch a game. Enjoy the game. There’s so many positive experiences in attending a women’s game and if people would just continue to give it a try and be open to it, we could see some more growth. It’s a team effort, I think things are heading in the right direction and I believe they’ll continue to do so.