Courtesy: Ferris Williams, Sync magazine
There aren’t many blank spots on former NBA player Derek Fisher’s resume: five world titles, an AAU National Championship, a high school state championship, six years as National Basketball Players Association President, now New York Knicks head basketball coach. On every big stage the Little Rock native played, he left his mark.
Yet there’s the stage he never played on.
It doesn’t matter how many big-time events Fisher was a part of in his 18-year pro career. Nothing will erase the memory of how close he got as a college senior to making his sport’s most dramatic competition: the NCAA Tournament. His University of Arkansas at Little Rock Trojans were up 56-55 in the 1996 Sun Belt Conference Championship game with four seconds left.
The University of New Orleans had the ball. Fisher closed out quickly on the opposing guard with the ball, but he spun past Fisher’s outstretched arms and drove to the basket, lofting a teardrop shot that resulted in an upset win.
Despite a 23-6 record, UALR would be left out on the doorstep on Selection Sunday. Fisher’s final shot at the Big Dance was gone.
It could have been much, much different.
What if instead of leading UALR, Fish had helped steer the Razorbacks? “I think he could have played at Arkansas, but coming out of high school, he just wasn’t ready,” said Razorback All-American Corliss Williamson, also one of Fisher’s best friends. There’s a strong chance Fisher was ready for Arkansas halfway through his college career, though, and he was closer to making that jump than many people realize.
As a Hog, Fisher likely would have helped stabilize the state’s flagship program during one of its most tumultuous periods and provided guard depth in a season in which it was sorely needed. In the 1995-96 season, for instance, the Hogs at times started four freshmen, including guards Pat Bradley and Kareem Reid. That team ended up making Arkansas’ fourth consecutive Sweet Sixteen, but how much further could it have gone with a seasoned leader like Fisher?
All aboard the speculator, folks. Alternate history isn’t just for Civil War and JFK buffs any more…
FOCUSED ON THE FUTURE
Before delving into conjecture, let’s look at the facts: Fisher grew up in Arkansas basketball’s 40 Minutes of Hell heyday of the early 1990s and, like so many other young ballers in Little Rock, would have loved to join in on the fun. As a Parkview High School student, he looked up to the Hogs’ All-American point guard Lee Mayberry.
Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson knew about Fisher. He and his assistants had seen him play plenty of times in the summer circuit while scouting Arkansas Wings teammates like Corliss Williamson and Reggie Merritt. Fisher, never the most talented or most athletic player on his AAU or Parkview teams, didn’t yet shine like he would a few years down the line.
Instead, he was grinder. “He has one of the best work ethics I’d ever seen, at that age or even now,” Williamson said. “You know how a lot of us are as teenagers,” he added. “We want to hang out and do different things, whereas Derek was more focused. He was always trying to go out and lift weights or get up extra shots.”
Still, Richardson didn’t offer him a scholarship. He said the six-foot, 173-pound Fisher was then more of a shooter than pure point guard and wasn’t yet a player who could compete for playing time in a deep backcourt. In hindsight, though, Richardson said he considers his decision not to pursue Fisher as one of the biggest mistakes of his life.
Fisher, who grew up west of Boyle Park, landed near home at UALR. It wasn’t easy. The Trojans’ head coach Jim Platt doubted he was worth a scholarship, according to Fisher’s autobiography Character Driven. But a couple of assistant coaches (he had played for one on the Wings) convinced Platt otherwise.
Fisher earned the starting job a few games in, and as his stock rose over the next couple of seasons, so did that of the team he’d so wanted to join in Fayetteville. From 1992 to 1994, the Hogs made the leap from national contender to national champion. Fisher often visited Fayetteville to see his Razorback friends, hang out and go to dinner, recalls one such friend Reggie Merritt. In the summers, they played pickup together in Little Rock.
Fisher was familiar with Arkansas’ program and its players. That’s a main reason he briefly considered transferring there, said Merritt, recalling a conversation he had with Fisher in the spring of 1994.
Over the preceding seasons, Fisher and his teammates had gotten progressively more fed up with the attitude of Coach Platt. By January, they were ready to go public with their grievances, according to Character Driven. They chose the even-keeled Fisher as unofficial team spokesman: “It was really something that came from my teammates,” Fisher said in a telephone interview in early October. “It wasn’t something I assumed would be my responsibility.”
It became his charge when he and other Trojans boycotted a practice by taking a trip to the mall instead. An ad hoc summit was called. Assistant coach Dennis White visited him at his apartment along with UALR’s former athletic director, Mike Hamrick.
Teammates wanted Fisher to request a meeting with the entire staff, minus Platt, to air concerns — that in preceding months he’d become too negative, too sarcastic, crossing the line between barbed motivation and verbal abuse. They had Fisher voice an ultimatum: Either fire Platt, or we won’t play in an upcoming rivalry game against Arkansas State. “Once I was asked by my teammates to fill that role, at that point I embraced it 100 percent and really immediately took on that leadership and protector mentality of looking out for what’s best for my teammates, even more than for myself,” Fisher said.
LEADING THE TROJANS
At the meeting, Fisher explained the team’s decision to boycott the ASU game unless Platt was immediately replaced. Hamrick explained contractual terms made this impossible, but did promise to investigate the complaints and evaluate the situation at season’s end, Fisher wrote in Character Driven.
The players decided to keep playing but, predictably, UALR sputtered, dropping nine of its last 14 games. At season’s end, Platt was let go. New coach Wimp Sanderson had work to do. “When I got there, it was chaos, kind of,” Sanderson recalled. “It was just a bad situation.” All of his players were quitting the program and looking into transfer possibilities. Indeed, shortly before Sanderson was hired, standout freshmen Malik Dixon and Muntrelle Dobbins had entered Hamrick’s office and requested transfers.
They eventually stayed, as did Fisher. I asked Fisher if he considered transferring to Arkansas, as Merritt had recalled: “Once I was at UALR I don’t think I had any questions about wanting to be there but I do recall the uncertainty of the situation requiring me to look at what else may be possible,” Fisher said. “But I don’t think those thoughts ever went to a place where I formally thought I would transfer from the university.” Fisher is careful not to slam the door on the possibility of a consideration, though: “Reggie’s memory may be better than mine.”
Trojan fans have no problem recalling the accomplishments of Fisher’s final two seasons on campus: Sun Belt Player of the Year honors as a senior and a career that left him second on UALR’s all-time lists for scoring, assists and steals. Yet the question remains: What if he’d packed his bags for the Ozarks after that sophomore year?
IF HE’D BEEN A HOG
Almost certainly, Razorback Fisher wouldn’t have put up as big of numbers playing in the SEC as he did in the Sun Belt. He likely would have sat that first year — 1994-95 — per NCAA transfer rules. Still, he would have scrimmaged with Williamson, Scotty Thurman, Corey Beck, Clint McDaniel and Al Dillard, keeping his game plenty sharp.
And he would have absorbed lessons from those veterans that would have proved immensely valuable in the following two seasons.
The 1995-96 team started off with so much promise, yet ended up with so many question marks. Yes, the ‘96 Hogs lost nine scholarship players from the year before, but were also prepared to welcome in the nation’s top recruiting class — including junior college players such as forward Sunday Adebayo, center Kareem Poole, point guard Marcus Saxon and shooting guard Jesse Pate. Saxon and Pate had formed the nation’s best JUCO backcourt at Chipola (Fla.) Junior College.
Academic issues prevented Saxon and Poole, however, from ever making it to campus. The team’s depth was further depleted when freshman guard Marlon Towns had to sit out the first couple months as an ACT score eligibility issue was cleared up. This meant almost the entire bulk of the point guard duties fell on the shoulders of 5-10, 165-pound Kareem Reid. “He’s got to be the man right off the bat,” Richardson told theArkansas Democrat-Gazette in October 1995.
Fisher, who’d put on significant muscle since Parkview, would have alleviated Reid’s burden while providing more size against opposing guards. Fisher’s role would have increased even more when the team’s leading scorer, Jesse Pate, was ruled ineligible to play in February 1996 because the NCAA said his transfer grades had not been certified properly.
Despite all the flux (Adebayo was also ruled ineligible), the team managed to finish 20-13 while leading the SEC in rebounds, three-pointers and assists. But Fisher would have helped do more than anchor the backcourt; he also would have provided much needed maturity, especially for the young guards. In the summer of 1996, Reid was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana in a dormitory room along with Marlon Towns. “I think [Fisher’s] leadership would have benefited our team,” said shooting guard Pat Bradley, “We were immature, but talented.”
The actual ‘95-‘96 team lost in the Sweet Sixteen to Massachusetts 79-63. Center Marcus Camby was UMass’ star, but the team’s engine belonged to its Puerto Rican backcourt of Carmelo Travieso and Edgar Padilla. Against UMass, Reid and Bradley had to log 37 minutes each. Fisher would have allowed them to stay much more fresh while likely chipping in 13-17 points of his own. It would have been a nailbiter, but it’s possible that these alternate history Hogs would have beaten UMass, then taken down an Allen Iverson-led Georgetown in the next round. They likely still would have lost to eventual national champions Kentucky in the Final Four, but making it that far would have been plenty impressive. Granted, Arkansas fans at the time wanted more, but in the last 16 years they have learned how rare Final Four berths are.
For Fisher’s part, he doesn’t dwell on all these what-ifs. He insists he’s a Trojan, through and through. I asked him during that pivotal spring of 1994 if he’d ever imagined how he would do playing with the likes of Corey Beck, Clint McDaniel and Kareem Reid. “Not really,” he said.
Instead, he was out to prove himself from Little Rock. “Had I had the opportunity to play at the SEC level or ‘big college’ level, I could have been as or more impactful as those guys were. And I had a lot of respect for what those guys accomplished in their years at Fayetteville — no question about it.”
But he was also driven to carve out a career that would also be worthy of much respect, “to work as hard as [he] possibly could to put UALR on the map.”
The above is an update of an article that originally ran in 2012 in Sync magazine