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Vince Thomas

Derek Fisher is gunning for his fourth championship ring alongside Kobe Bryant in L.A.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Fisher stands tall as biggest role player in Lakers' history

Posted Jun 15 2010 3:59PM

You don't know about Kurt Rambis just because you keep seeing clips of Kevin McHale clotheslining him in Lakers-Celtics rivalry montages. Other than his recent coaching stints, you know about Rambis because he was the bespectacled workhorse on four Lakers championship squads.

Rambis never averaged over eight points or rebounds for the Lakers, never averaged over 30 minutes, but all his reckless hustling had an impact. It obviously wasn't just Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy winning championships. Rambis, Michael Cooper, Byron Scott, Bob McAdoo -- these dudes helped make L.A. the dynasty of the '80s.

Fast forward to the '00s and you see guys like "Big Shot" Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Brian Shaw, Ron Harper and Lamar Odom reinforcing the stars (Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and, now, Pau Gasol). And, of course, Derek Fisher.

So when we had Rambis, one of the Lakers' all-time great role players, on the Hang Time podcast this week, I wanted to get his thoughts on a notion that gained a little traction recently. Fish had a career-defining performance in the Lakers' Game 3 win in Boston, where Fish -- as has been his M.O. throughout his career -- dropped 11 huge, clutch, champion-points during L.A.'s decisive fourth-quarter run. It was such a heavy, emotive performance that it had Fish on the verge of tears after the game. Toward the end of the game, you started seeing a few tweets wondering if Fish might get his jersey hanging in the Staples Center rafters some day.

Rambis, with all due respect to Fish, flatly said no. The Lakers, he said, are very exclusive and judicious with the jerseys they retire. And Fish, it goes without saying, isn't on the level of Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich, Magic, Kareem, Worthy or Jerry West levels.

I agree with Rambis. Fish probably shouldn't get his jersey retired. But I think his is an interesting case because, when he finally hangs it up, Fish might be considered the greatest role-player in the Lakers' history.

Scott had some relatively prolific, borderline-star years. Coop was arguably the greatest, most versatile defender of his era -- even won DPOY in 1987 -- and won five rings. "Big Shot" Rob is a legend for his clutch habits for the Lakers' new millennium, three-peat dynasty.

Fish is different. No role-player in recent Lakers history has played the same leadership role we've seen from Fish for these last three championship runs. For the past three seasons, if Kobe has been Leader 1A, then Fish has been Leader 1B. If Phil Jackson didn't have Fish -- likely a future championship coach or Senator or whatever he wants to be -- to shoulder a significantly large portion of the vocal and emotional leadership role, then the squad would have disintegrated under Kobe's often impatient, extra-exacting, irritable stewardship.

It's not just Fish's four -- maybe five-- rings (more than Horry and Scott, maybe even with Coop by week's end). It's not just shots like his 2004 game-winner with 0.4 seconds against the Spurs or last postseason's late-game trey that sent Game 4 of the Finals into overtime before L.A. took a 3-1 lead. Fish is also the only player-voice, say his teammates, that Kobe actually listens to. This is a role of extreme importance and impact, a role Horry and Coop and Rambis and other Lakers role players cannot claim.

Game 6 and, potentially, Game 7 will be career and legacy defining games for players like Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, coaches Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers and, of course Kobe Bryant. But Fish has a lot at stake, personally, too.

If we witness another one of his typical games and he ends his 11-year Laker career with five rings -- two as Kobe's main partner -- I wouldn't scoff at the Laker organization considering his No. 2 for retirement. We are watching the greatest role player in this storied franchise's history.

Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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