Tuesday night, in Game 5 of a terrific Western Conference semifinals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers, Derek Fisher will play his 252nd NBA playoff game. This is a league record, one he set just last series. It is certainly the only individual record Derek Fisher will ever own, and it's probably the record any NBA player would want more than any other.
As strange as it is to think, Derek Fisher was not, in fact, born 35 years old, bald with a gray beard. (He might have been born with that headband though.) He went to college at Arkansas-Little Rock -- one of only six Trojans ever to make the NBA; the only other to play more than 22 games was Pete Myers -- and was the 1996 Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year. In a nice touch, the man who has played in more postseason games than any other basketball player never, in fact, made the NCAA tournament. Arkansas-Little Rock lost on a last-second shot to New Orleans in the 1996 Sun Belt Tournament; the shot was by a man guarded by Fisher.
When Fisher was drafted, in between Efthimios Rentzias (total NBA games: 35) and Martin Müürsepp (total NBA games: 83), Hubie Brown praised him while admitting no one knew who he was. Also: bonus Rick Pitino draft analysis!
The No. 1 pick in the draft that year -- considered one of the best drafts of all time -- was Allen Iverson, and perhaps surprisingly, there are four players other than Fisher still playing: Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Ray Allen and Jermaine O'Neal. Three of those men will be Hall of Famers. But none of them have played in as many playoff games as Fisher.
What's terrific about this is Fisher is only 18th in all-time games played, behind active players Kevin Garnett and Allen. Fisher has played for five different teams in his career, and they' were all constantly making the playoffs. In only two years -- from 2004-06 with the Golden State Warriors -- Fisher was not a part of the playoffs. Fisher isn't the primary reason his teams have made the postseason … but he's consistently been one of the main ones. Whether he was starting for the Lakers, backing up Deron Williams in Utah or filling out the bench and making everyone nostalgic in Oklahoma City, he is always there.
Here's the most amazing thing about Fisher: Not one of his playoff teams has ever lost in the first round. Can you believe that? I had to go back and check several teams to make certain that was true. Sixteen times teams with Derek Fisher on their roster made the playoffs … and 16 times they won in the first round. Not only has Fisher made the playoffs all but two seasons in his career, he has won in the first round every time he made it there. This is actually more amazing than holding the all-time playoff games played record. If I had realized this when the Thunder were down 3-2 to the Grizzlies last series, I would have felt a little more confident in the Thunder.
He might not hang onto this record that long, though. Here are the 10 men who have played in the most playoff games in NBA history heading into tonight, via Basketball Reference:
1. Derek Fisher, 251
2. Robert Horry, 244
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 237
4. Tim Duncan, 222
5. Kobe Bryant, 220
6. Shaquille O'Neal, 216
7. Scottie Pippen, 208
8. Karl Malone, 193
Danny Ainge, 193
10. Magic Johnson, 190
(For what it's worth, Fisher needs 15 more playoff games to tie the NHL's Chris Chelios for most playoff games in the four North American professional sports. He has a chance if the Thunder get hot.)
Only two of those players are active: Duncan and Bryant. If Oklahoma City wins this series against the Clippers, obviously far from a certainty, they'll have, at minimum, six more playoff games. That's 257. If Fisher retires after this season -- which is likely, considering the Lakers are supposedly considering him for their head coaching job -- that'll be where the record sits. Kobe will have to drag that sorry Lakers carcass to the NBA Finals twice to break the record. Depending on how Duncan does the rest of this postseason, he's looking at having to do it at least once more. You wonder how much those men have left in them, but they're close.
Even if Fisher survives those challenges, he's like the rest of the planet: His record will be taken out by LeBron James. James is 40th on the list now with 146, and it seems fair to assume he at least has, oh, let's say 12 games left this year. So we're at 158. If he plays 16 playoff games a year -- his average up to this point -- he should obliterate the record in seven years. And he's never lost in the first round either, unlike Kobe (in 2006 and 2007) and Duncan (2009 and 2011). LeBron, if he keeps his pace up, will obliterate a lot of records in seven years. But that's probably a different column.
Derek Fisher has five championships, a successful leadership of the players union and the respect of anyone who has ever played with him. He also has a highlight shot even Michael Jordan would envy.
There's not much left for Derek Fisher on the court. He's averaging 14 minutes a game these playoffs, three points, half an assist. He's even 3-of-18 from the three-point line, which is the opposite of Derek Fisher. (In the 2003 playoffs, he was 29-of-47 from three-point range, which is unfair and possibly sorcery.) But I still gotta think he has one last perfect moment left in him. Derek Fisher isn't a legend of basketball. But legends have come and gone, and he's the one still around. He's always the one still around.