If Derek Fisher Had Been a Razorback: Insight from Nolan, Corliss & Derek Himself

Courtesy: Ferris Williams, Sync magazine

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.

STEPPING UP

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

 

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The Most Dominant Athlete in Arkansas College Sports

Courtesy Jim Hilton

I don’t usually repost press release copy from universities, but I’m making an exception today. Because it’s a shame not more people know about Edina Begic, the UALR volleyball star who likely just pulled off this year’s single most dominant individual season in all Arkansas college team sports. You’ll read about some of all the amazing things she achieved below, but what I find most stupendous is the fact that the Bosnian she received a Sun Belt Conference Player of the Week award seven times this fall – including one historic stretch of five such honors in a row.

The Beginator.

The Begicinator.

After another record-breaking year that saw her finish third in the nation with 5.11 kills per set, Begic was this week named to the American Volleyball Coaches’ Association All-Region Team for the Southwest Region. Begic is UALR’s first volleyball player to achieve this honor.

The junior outside hitter, who is now eligible to be named an All-American, topped the Sun Belt Conference in kills per set and points per set and was named its Offensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. She was also third in the country with 5.83 points per set. Begic is the first player in conference history to win Freshman of the Year followed with a pair of Offensive Player of the Year awards. She is only the the third Trojan to win Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player, joining Barbara Gomez (1997) and Tanja Radovic (2000).

Behind Begic’s offensive prowess, the Trojans took the No. 2 seed into last month’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament and held a 12-6 record in Sun Belt play along with an 8-5 mark in non-conference games. Begic set multiple school records this season, shattering the record for kills in a match with 36 kills in only four sets against Arkansas State on Oct. 2. In that match she had 16 kills in the fourth set alone and hit .517 for the match.

Against Georgia State on Nov. 8, Begic broke the school record for kills in a season and currently ended the campaign with 634 kills.

Milanovic has put up impressive numbers herself this season. She was the first Trojan to break the 30+ kills in a match barrier, matching the- then school record for kills in a match (34) against Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Sept. 7. She is second on the team with nine double-doubles for the season, including her first match in a Trojan uniform against Southeast Missouri State on Aug. 31 (22 digs, 17 kills). Besides being second in kills per set in the SBC, Milanovic sits ninth in both aces (0.24 per set) and hitting percentage (.282).

Begic is the third player to win Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year for UALR, joining Barbara Gomez (1997) and Tanja Radovic (2000). A Trojan has been selected All-Conference 35 times. Finally, Begic broke the school record for kills per set in a match on Oct. 25 against Troy, tallying 28 kills in only three sets (9.33 kills per set).

All-America teams will be announced on Dec. 18.

While Begic may end up being the first UALR All-American volleyball player, there’s a chance the second is already playing by her side. Sophomore Sonia Milanovic paired with Begic to make up the nation’s top spiking duo. She was the first Trojan to break the 30+ kills in a match barrier, matching the- then school record for kills in a match (34) against Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Sept. 7. She finished second in kills per set in the Sun Belt with 3.99 kills per set. That’s 41st in the nation.

Congrats, Edina and Sonia. I hope you lead UALR to a season for the ages in 2014.

[Check out photographer Jim Hilton's other superb sports photographs here]


Jeremy Evans on Scottie Pippen, Bobby Petrino and Competing Against Streetballers in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest

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Evans is the second Arkansan to win an NBA Slam Dunk Contest. He’s also the second Ashley County native to compete in one.

In January, I interviewed 2012 NBA Slam Dunk champion Jeremy Evans for SLAM magazine. We discussed the redundancy that’s come to pervade the dunk contest and possible remedies. I proposed allowing the general public into the contest, and Evans welcomed the challenge of competing against pro streetball dunkers. Tonight, Evans will defend his title against a field of NBAers including Gerald Green and James “Flight” White, who has promised to unveil dunks never before seen by the public.

Evans, a Crossett, Ark. native, and I also touched on other subjects in the interview.  Here are some highlights:

1. Evans isn’t the first “Arkansan” to win the NBA’s slam dunk contest. Fred Jones, who grew up in Malvern and moved to Oregon in middle school, won the 2004 contest.

2. Ashley County in southeast Arkansas has about 22,000 people but has produced two NBA players besides Evans. The first was Myron Jackson, a 6-3 guard who played for UALR.  Jackson, a Hamburg native, played eight games with the Dallas Mavericks in 1986-87. The following season another Hamburg native, Scottie Pippen, made his NBA debut.

Evans said Pippen inspired him as a young player. Hamburg is only 15 miles from Crossett, and as a teen Evans believed “if he can make it, I can make it.” Evans twice met Pippen – at a basketball game in Hamburg and at Wal-Mart in Crossett.  In Wal-Mart, Evans (who is an introvert) said his mom took him over to introduce him to Pippen. “He signed my shoes and that’s about it,” he said with a chuckle.

Pippen, by the way, participated in the 1990 NBA slam dunk contest, where he threw down a free-throw line dunk (Evans says he’s completed one of these only once – during a practice in high school).

3, Evans loves to draw. “I do everything – airbrush, portrait, oil painting, colored pencils, landscapes – just about anything you can imagine.”  After his playing days end, he wants to open his own studio.

As far as he knows, he is one of the only NBA players who seriously draws. He recalls one erstwhile Oklahoma City Thunder player had a similar interest, and ultimately opened a studio in Oklahoma (he’s forgotten the player’s name).

My sportswriter friend David Harten attended Western Kentucky University with Evans in the late 2000s and told me Evans drew a portrait of CBS announcer Mike Gminski before a 2009 NCAA Tournament game. “Someone came up to me and asked me to do it,” recalled Evans, who enjoys portrait drawings the most. “I did it just because they asked me to.”

Evans’ favorite type of art is portraiture. He likes the challenge of trying to get a person’s face exactly right.

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If Mike Gminski one day needs to be portrayed in a raucous comedy titled “Announcerman,” I know exactly who should play him.

Read the rest of this entry »


If Derek Fisher had played for the Razorbacks

This was closer to happening than you think. Illustration by Ferris Williams

There aren’t many blank spots on longtime 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. On every big stage the Little Rock native has played, he has left his mark.

Yet there’s the stage he never played on.

It doesn’t matter how many big-time events Fisher has been a part of in his 16-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.

See the rest of the story at Sync magazine.

PS – This concludes what has apparently become my blog’s  Of(Fish)al Derek Fisher Week.


UALR basketball star Will Neighbour On the Mend

UALR’s top player discusses his recovery from shoulder surgery. (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

In a perfect world, UALR’s leading returning scorer from last season would near home right now, representing his native Great Britain.

Instead, he’s in his second home – Little Rock – trying to finish off the last few weeks of rehab from an April surgery to repair a a torn labrum in his left shoulder and a torn left bicep. Neighbour suffered the injury on December 31, but still produced an All-Sun Belt second-team season, averaging 10.5 points per game on 41.3% three-point shooting.

For the last few years, his goal had been to show off that perimeter stroke in front of family and friends in this summer’s London Olympics. Priority shifted in the spring, though, when he weighed the risks and rewards of trying out for the British national team (thus postponing his surgery) and getting surgery out of the way to come back strong for the start of the 2012-13 season.

He chose the latter, and doesn’t seem to regret the decision much. The rehab “is coming along real well,” he told me on Tuesday during an interview for an upcoming SYNC and KUAR FM 89.1 story.

Here’s more on his progress:

I’m working out with the team, but I can’t do any of the contact stuff. I can do the shooting drills, dribbling drills and I’m working out every day with my two trainers – coach [John] Barron, a fantastic weight coach and Michael Switlik. He’s doing amazing too. We’re doing rehab everyday and just trying to get full range of motion back and just get my shoulder strong and ready for the season.”

The trainers estimate he won’t be ready for contact drills and scrimmaging for another two months, he added.


Derek Fisher’s spring more than a Little Rocky

In Oklahoma City, greybeard Derek Fisher helped the Thunder wrest two games away from the favored Spurs.

For an NBA player, dry patches don’t come much more Saharan than this.

Twenty-two times over the course of the three biggest games of his season, Derek Fisher tried to put the ball into the basket. Eighteen times he failed. You’d get better percentages from Shaq picking up wood and trying to hit against Cliff Lee.

Even before last week, the Little Rock native was having a tough go of it. Indeed, this has been one of his most difficult seasons since coming out of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock nearly 16 years ago. He spent half of 2011 jetting around the nation, carrying out duties as the president of the National Basketball Players Association in the midst of a lockout. He spent hundreds of hours thumbing through papers and negotiating in boardrooms while younger players stayed sharp playing pickup games. In this way, Fisher sacrificed on-court maintenance for off-court progress, and it showed by the time the season finally started in December: the 6-1 point guard stumbled out of the blocks, shooting well below his career 40% field goal average while having trouble staying in front of younger, quicker opponents.

The man who had helped the Lakers win five NBA championships, who for 13 seasons served as a calming liaison between the likes of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson, was suddenly expendable.

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“I think it would be good for both of us.” – Megan Herbert on possibility of UCA-UALR basketball

 The recent football successes of UA and ASU have triggered new rounds of debate whether those teams should play against each other. Still, despite recent strides made by the ASU program, it’s a hypothetical clash unlikely to happen any time soon.
 Following is another possible matchup that’s a lot closer to reality, and could be just as interesting for its colleges’ fans:

  No two women have meant more to basketball in central Arkansas in the last few years than Chastity Reed and Megan Herbert. Reed, who graduated last year, became UALR’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder while leading the Trojans to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. Herbert, a junior, could make a similar splash in UCA’s record books. The Southland Conference Player of the Year is a conference tournament title away from helping UCA crash its first March Madness.
The women’s legacies may end up looking similar on paper, but the players have hardly been more different on the court. Reed, a wing player, dazzled crowds with superior athleticism, a quick crossover and a devastating mid-range game. Herbert is just as skilled but has a much more subtle game, filled with deft high-low passing, flip shots and an almost Tim Duncanesque economy of movement.
Their personalities seem near opposites as well. Always intense, Reed jawed much of the game, as flamboyant as her New Orleans roots. Herbert’s more measured, quick to smile but slow to let her competitiveness boil over in front of fans.  Both women have made their programs extremely proud.
  It’s a shame, though, they never played each other.
The women of UALR and UCA already compete in soccer and volleyball. They should compete in basketball, too.  Herbert agrees: “They have a great program and we’re trying to get our  program where we’re highly recognized in the state, too. I think it would be good for both of us.”
   Read the rest of this entry »

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