There’s 5:35 left on the clock, 4th quarter, and the Thunder trail the Grizz 80-79. Close game in a close series in a playoffs where reputations and legacies and banners and rings and the Mount Rushmore of capital b Basketball all hang in the capital b Balance but Derek Fisher isn’t scared.
Russ comes off a pick. Beethoven, Fish likes to call him, because Russ is a pup and there’s a movie about a pup called Beethoven. Beethoven jacks up a bad 3. Clang, clang, no beuno. Its alright. Fish lives for long rebounds. Could spot one from a mile away. “Nose for the ball is like a fine wine,” he whispers in Conley’s ear as he bumps him off his spot and snatches up the leather. “Gets better with time, chuckle, chuckle, chuckle,” Fish chuckles as he kicks it back out to Beethoven, who puts up another brickalicious 15 footer. Kids these days.
Whistle stops play and Reggie Jackson scoots down to the scorer’s table. Mr. October, Fish calls the kid, because his name is Reggie Jackson, and that’s what people used to call the baseball player, Reggie Jackson.
Mr. October waves at Fish as he checks in. Fish pats the kid on his butt bottom and passes along a few words of advice (“Follow your shot, get back on D”) the way vets are supposed to. He grabs a seat, leans back, drains a cup of Gatorade, mmm, tasty… and watches the game unfold.
Beethoven attacks – always attacking – finishes hard at the rim, and draws the foul. Ok, young fella, enough chest thumping, act like you’ve been there before. Reminds Fish so much of young Van Exel.
Fish giggles thinking about Van Exel. Used to call him Dennis the Menace, because he reminded him of the TV character Dennis the Menace who was always pulling pranks and acting up. The name never much stuck.
Fish throws on a teal shooting shirt (these arenas keep getting chillier!) and his mind wanders. No one on the bench knows this, but tonight is the night: Number 245, all-time record for playoff appearances. It’s hard even for him to believe.
Beethoven misses a runner as Fish stares out into the distance, reflecting the way old men reflect. He thinks about Morgan Freeman and about golf and about Roth IRAs and then about some of those other guards from that ’96 draft: Tony Delk, Moochie Norris, Randy Livingston. He wonders what they’re doing now, if they’re sitting at home, watching Ol’ Fish set records and thinking to themselves, “how?”
It’s a fair question, he must concede. He’s no dummy; he knows that his 11.7 career PER would’ve ranked him 256th in the NBA this year; that he’s never once in 17 seasons notched a PER north of an NBA average 15.0; that from 2011 to 2013 he was worth 1.6 wins combined; that, number by number, crunch by crunch, his career most resembles the likes of Tyrone Corbin, Jeff Malone, Dick McGuire and Brad Davis.
And yet here he sits, opening round of the playoffs, 39 years young, still dishing out nicknames like prime rib at an Old Country Buffet.
Scotty Brooks, who was himself still lacing it up when the Fish made his first splash in ’96, calls a timeout. 87-82 Grizz, 3:30 left. 1,500 games worth of experience tells Fish that this is capital D, capiral T Danger Time.
The team leans in. It’s one of those moments that the stat heads and their spreadsheets and regression analyses and algorithms will never be able to calculate, the value of having a guy who’s been there, done that, can make steady eye contact that says, “follow your shot, get back on D.”
So Scotty wraps it up. Hands go into the middle, “team first, on three, 1-2-3, TEAM FIRST!”
Beethoven and the other pups rush back out onto the floor. Fish settles again into his seat. “They’re gonna miss me when I’m gone,” he thinks. Who knows.