How Derek Fisher is connecting with the Sparks in Year 2

Back in April, when everyone was still adjusting to quarantine and virtual socializing, the Sparks were supposed to open training camp for a season that was supposed to begin in May.

Neither happened. All sports around the country were on freeze as the industry tried to find a way to play in the midst of the pandemic. So there was no telling when or if the WNBA season would happen.

But Sparks head coach Derek Fisher still wanted to convene his team. So he started a series of Zoom sessions, twice a week for players and staff and once a week just for the players.

“Those Zoom sessions helped us buy into the fact that we are of one accord, so when we see each other, oh this isn’t my first time meeting you,” Sparks off-season acquisition Brittney Sykes says. “It makes it easier when the coach shows his investment.”

And it helped Fisher get buy in from new players and old in his second season as head coach of the Sparks.

But he has a few other factors that help with that, too.

“I mean, the man has five rings,” Sykes laughs.

And he didn’t win them by being the most talented player on the court.

Finding his role

It was 1998. Fisher was in his second season in the NBA, and still coming off the Lakers’ bench. But starter Nick Van Exel was out for 10 days with a knee injury, and Fisher was going to get his first start.

In a pregame interview, Fisher declared he would be happy with two points, 20 assists and a team win. But when the game started, Indiana double-teamed Shaquille O’Neal, and he started feeding it to an open Fisher on the perimeter.

Fisher finished with 20 points, six assists and a Laker win.

“It was one of those things that for me as a young player helped connect to this idea that the game doesn’t happen always the way you think it should,” Fisher recalls. “You really just have to submit yourself to the will of the game in order to help your team win.”

It’s a concept that Fisher tries to pass down to his players, just as coaches like Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloane passed to him.

On a team like the Sparks, it can be easy to get caught up in the superstars on the team — Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray. But Fisher knows it takes more than three players to win a championship, which has been his stated goal since taking the Sparks job.

“I don’t really see one as necessarily a greater value than another,” he says of stars and role players. “I just have to respect what roles those type of players bring to the team.”

This season could have presented unique challenges. The Sparks acquired Sykes, once a primary option on Atlanta, and Seimone Augustus, a future Hall of Famer, and asked them to accept smaller roles than the previously filled.

Combine that with another year of roster turnover and losing Kristi Tolliver and Chiney Ogwumike to opting out of the bubble, and you could have been forgiven for questioning what version of the Sparks you’d see in 2020.

Instead, L.A. is 15-4, half a game out of a double bye into the semifinals. Sykes is thriving as a defensive stopper, Augustus is providing steady leadership off the bench and young players like Wiese and Te’a Cooper are playing their parts.

“His experience as a player allows him to understand on a different level how important each piece is,” Wiese says. “So he has a bunch of credibility when it comes to playing your role as best as you can, in a big picture sense, to get to where we want to go as a group.”

Learning on the job

Much of the talk early in the offseason for the Sparks revolved around one of Fisher’s final decisions of 2019.

In the last game of the semifinals, Fisher opted to leave Parker, a two-time MVP, on the bench for most of the second half. The Sparks lost to complete the sweep, and the conversation turned to his handling of the situation.

Parker deferred to the coach, and Fisher said he was trying to give the team a boost with new, rested players. But criticism followed.

“Some of it was self-inflicted, but I think we all really learned from the experience once everybody was able to step back and really look back on it, once the noise kinda quieted,” Fisher says.

That was his first year with the team, and first in the WNBA. He was still learning the ins and outs of the league, and about the players on his roster.

He says the biggest difference this season is his improved relationships with his players. He had a team dinner with all the players for his birthday last month, and veterans like Parker and Gray tease him playfully about his height and cooking abilities, respectively.

“That’s the one thing that I think really has grown and evolved in a major way,” Fisher says. “It’s sports but it’s still a human business and you have to understand who people are in order to know what they’re gonna do, how they’re gonna react.”

It’s led to a version of Fisher that his players find stabilizing when adversity hits.

“We admire the fact that he stays calm in any situation,” Sykes says. “When you see that in a head coach and then you see it in each other, alright, yeah we got this.”

Los Angeles Sparks (15-4) at New York Liberty

When: 4 p.m. Tuesday

Where: IMG Academy, Bradenton, Fla.

TV: CBS Sports Network, Spectrum SportsNet