Fisher, Sparks left us with more questions than answers
Derek Fisher knows basketball. He enjoyed a 18-year NBA career. His favorite basketball coaches include Pat Summitt and C. Vivian Stringer. The five-time NBA champion admired Dawn Staley growing up and has been involved with a youth basketball program started by his five-time All-Star and WNBA champion Candace Parker. These are some of the things we learned about the new Los Angeles Sparks head coach at his introductory press conference on Friday afternoon.
For these reasons and perhaps a few more, Los Angeles Sparks general manager Penny Toler believed Derek Fisher to be the best candidate for the job. However, the announcement of Fisher as the successor to Brian Agler was met with a series of questions, if not outright criticism.
On Friday’s press conference, Fisher did a good job quelling some of the early criticisms to his appointment to the head coaching position. Fisher had a less than successful run with the Knicks from 2014 to February 2016. He won just 17 games in the 2014-15 season.
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However, Fisher, Toler and Candace Parker all addressed this concern over the course of the conference. When asked how she can benefit from Fisher’s experience on Friday, Parker said, “He’s won championships, and until I had the experience of winning a championship with L.A, I didn’t really realize how much it matters to the experience, expertise, and the knowledge [of that] going into a season. and how much that pushes you through.”
For Fisher, he asked to be given the benefit of the doubt that his coaching career is far from its last chapter, “The book is not finished yet. If you open a book that is 300 pages long, you can’t assume how it’s going to end on page 57.”
Less than a minute into the conference, Toler said, “He’s not here because, it’s like the WNBA is a stepping-stone. He’s here, he’s invested. I want everyone to know that he’s invested. And, because of that adversity, Derek, I think you’re going to be a great coach.”
It seemed odd for the Sparks to play defense so early into the presser. The organization wanted us to know Fisher was a good guy who knows women’s basketball, who is a fan of the Sparks. That, despite his losing record as a coach, his winning ways as a player—along with everything else—make him the best candidate for the job.
However, when there is an applicant pool of exactly one candidate, it’s hard to shake this was a decision made entirely on merit. Additionally, the press conference seemed to be gender-blind in a problematic way.
The best, or the only?
Before Friday, social media was abuzz about the appointment of Fisher as the 12th head coach in Sparks franchise history. Albeit a short stint, a 40-96 career coaching record is hardly top candidate worthy. The lacks of games is just as troubling as the lack of wins, especially considering the Sparks have reached the postseason 17 of their 21 seasons, including five Finals appearances and three WNBA Championships.
In a great piece by Rachel Galligan, the former player and coach lists the resume of just a few of Fishers now contemporaries in the WNBA. First-time head coach and reigning Coach of the Year Nicki Collen had 18 years of coaching experience to lean on as her Atlanta Dream squad made it to the semifinals before falling to 40-year veteran professional coach Mike Thibault. Before taking over in Atlanta, Collen worked under 2017 Coach of the Year Curt Miller, who has over 20 years of experience in women’s basketball.
To say Fisher’s experience pales in comparison is an understatement. Yes, his coaching journey is not over. However, for his next assignment to be as the head coach of a three-time WNBA Championship winning franchise is putting a lot of faith in his upside, despite the fact that, from the sound of things at the press conference, Fisher has spent his time since New York working on his golf swing more than working under and alongside some of the best basketball minds in the game.
Further, in a world where women of color have such a hard time finding and keeping roles in women’s basketball, it was disappointing to hear the applicant pool was never even opened. Especially when people like Taj-McWilliams Franklin—who served as the interim head coach of the Dallas Wings after Fred Williams was fired—Felisha Legette-Jack, and USA Basketball head coach Dawn Staley continue to discuss the struggles of finding work as a black female coach.
Why not hire a woman?
“Why not hire a woman, with maybe a little more experience?” asked reporter Delmy Barillas in what was to be the last question of the press conference. Again, it was a full court press from the dais.
“Well, I’d say the GMs a woman (laughs), I’ll start there,” said Toler. She continued, “I don’t look at coaching as man or woman, I look at who is best for the job. Now, the world unfortunately looks at that.” Toler went on to envoke the likes of Becky Hammon and Kristi Toliver as examples of women coaching in men’s basketball.
Now, let’s stop here for a minute. There is a huge problem if, when the credentials of your new male coach are questioned, your response is to compare him to Hammon, Toliver, or any other female coaches in men’s basketball. To begin, neither are head coaches now. Women don’t seem to get those opportunities all that often. If anything, the likes of Lindsay Whalen (currently 9-0 on her career) would perhaps have been more apropos.
Second, for a WNBA team to seemingly overlook or be ignorant to the fact that women, especially women of color, are not even considered for top coaching jobs speaks to a larger cultural issue.
“I am disappointed with the WNBA and the lack of [former] players who really want to be part of the league,” McWilliams-Franklin told High Post Hoops in 2017. “I put in literally 60 applications as a third assistant in college. I was not offered development, or any such thing when I was done playing. That was the reality.”
Yes, Toler and the Sparks can choose whomever they want for their coaching job. However, to not open the job up and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that your hunch about Fisher is correct can be a costly one. Additionally, it’s a missed opportunity to promote equity by not even interviewing any other candidate.
Overall, Fisher still has a lot to prove. It won’t be an easy road, and in some ways, the Los Angeles Sparks have placed a target on his back.