On December 5th, Derek Fisher was hired as the Head Coach of Los Angeles’ WNBA team, the Sparks. Fisher is the third male head coach to be hired in the WNBA in the last couple months, and five of the league’s 12 teams have male head coaches. For various reasons, Fisher’s hire with the Sparks was met with mixed reaction from the WNBA community.
Fisher is a well-known name at least in southern Californian sports because of his eight-year tenure with the Lakers, where he played an important role in the Lakers five NBA championship teams under coach Phil Jackson. Fisher was clearly a leader for the team. Jackson became an executive for the New York Knicks in March of 2014 and hired Fisher to be the team’s head coach within a month.
Fisher lasted about one and a half seasons in New York. The Knicks were unsuccessful overall with him as head coach. In his first season, their record was 17-65, a season in which best player Carmelo Anthony and second best player Amare Stoudemire suffered injuries. The team started Fisher’s second season 22-22 (a solid record for the conference) but suddenly the team suffered several injuries and had a bloody nine-game losing streak. Many analysts argued that Jackson was waiting for an excuse to fire Fisher and the losing streak was a perfect opportunity optically.
At the time there was a lot of scrutiny over who should be pinned with the most blame for the Knicks record. While Fisher was the Knicks head coach, a lot of attention was given to the power dynamics between Jackson and Fisher. It became well-accepted fact that Jackson required Fisher to run a certain kind of offense called the triangle offense, which was successful with Jackson’s 90’s Bulls and early 00’s Lakers but had become out of date for the way the NBA was played by 2014. Fisher would later say in many interviews that if he knew ahead of time that he needed to run Jackson’s offense then he would not have taken the job.
Questions Of Fisher’s Qualifications And The NBA-WNBA Double Standard
Fisher’s record with the Knicks was not the focus of most of the criticism for his hire with the Sparks. More attention was drawn to the fact that he was hired with the Knicks being his only experience as a professional coach and more specifically that he had no experience in women’s basketball.
Rachel Galligan is a former professional basketball player and currently, a women’s basketball commentator explained critically that the new Sparks head coach did not necessarily need to be a woman but that hiring someone with no experience in women’s basketball was a “bad look for the league.” She gave three examples of both men and women who had 16, 17 and 25 years in the WNBA before finally earning a head coach position. In comparison, Galligan writes, “Can you imagine a WNBA player landing an NBA head coaching position without ever being an assistant in the men’s game?”
The NBA saw a recent example of this double standard proving Galligan’s point. WNBA Hall Of Fame player Becky Hammond has been an assistant coach with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs since 2014. While she applied to the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks head coaching position this past summer, many NBA fans and analysts argued that she did not have the experience yet to be a head coach.
In response to these points, Fisher has explained on the “Around the Rim” podcast as well as in his first Sparks press conference that he has always been involved and invested in women’s basketball. As a player in Los Angeles, he was supportive in various ways for the Sparks and involved in team events. Fisher also has not so subtly argued that basketball is basketball after all, and ultimately that it shouldn’t matter which league he has coached in.
Questions On Fisher’s Motives
There’s also skepticism of Fisher’s motives for applying to a coaching job in the WNBA. Others could, and have in the past seen the league as a minor league or a stepping-stone on his way to get back to a position in NBA. It would, of course, be disrespectful and belittle the WNBA to been seen and used that way. This concern was addressed somewhat defensively within the first thirty-five seconds of Fisher’s first press conference as a Spark when the team’s VP Executive and General Manager Penny Toler said, “he’s here, he’s invested.”
The Hiring Process
Concerns about why someone with experience in women’s basketball wasn’t hired and concerns about Fisher’s motives would be quelled if we knew more about the hiring process. Mechelle Veepal wrote on the subject describing the process as suspicious and an “odd scenario.” Perhaps the Sparks interviewed a WNBA lifer? Perhaps they interviewed a woman? Apparently no. VP Exec and GM Tiler described Fisher as being on her “short list of one,” and that she knew she knew she wanted Derek Fisher right away. Tiler even said that over the years she had joked with Fisher asking him when he was coming to coach the team.
Howard Megdal convincingly writes in Forbes about other candidates who have been professionally involved in women’s basketball for years who the Sparks could have brought in to at least consider.
Tiler is a Black woman, which is uncommon for her position even in the WNBA. However, Erica Ayala and Lindsay Gibbs described on the excellent Burn It All Down podcast that Tiler’s quick hiring of Fisher seemed almost to resemble a “good old boys club” process, among other criticisms of his hire. This is a fair description seeing how “chummy” Tiler and Fisher have been with each other over the years and his longtime affiliations with Los Angeles basketball. Magic Johnson is a partial owner of the Sparks and could have influenced hiring as well.
Ayala and Gibbs even proposed that the WNBA should impose rules mandating at least one woman being formally interviewed for WNBA coaching positions moving forward.
Soon after the Sparks hired Fisher, news outlets reported Fisher’s involvement in a “luxury lending” group that markets itself to professional athletes and entertainers. Deadspin’s Chris Thompson describes the business model and “shady” and “predatory” because it uses the customer’s property, contracts, and pensions as collateral. It should be noted that among all professional athletes, this kind of lending could be most appealing to WNBA players (who could perhaps be targeted) because of how relatively small their salaries are.
Basketball fans will have to wait and see whether or not the questions and criticism of his hire are well founded. In-depth basketball strategy is rarely found in press conferences and quick podcast interviews. Fisher was certainly a smart player but it has yet to be seen if he can apply his knowledge to the Sparks’ on-court Xs and Os. Fisher could turn out to truly have an old-school style in the worst way possible. Or he could have learned and adjusted and updated his basketball vision since his time with the Knicks. If the terms of Fisher’s contract, including the dollar amount and the length are leaked then it could be revealing of Fisher’s long-term career plans, and whether or not they include the WNBA. If the Sparks continue to be a successful franchise, with championship(s) and dominance, much of the current outcry will be forgotten.
PlanetFOMO.com will keep you updated on how Fisher fairs with the Sparks as well as other WNBA stories in the coming 2019 season.