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WHERE ART THOU, DEREK FISHER?

Byline: KAREN CROUSE

The Lakers aren't the same team without him, that's as plain as the soul patch on Phil Jackson's face. For sure, we'd feel a whole lot better about the Lakers' chances today against Pacific Division-leading Sacramento if Derek Fisher were in the lineup.

Shaquille O'Neal sitting out his fifth consecutive game with a strained arch in his right foot is a trial, but the overall defense of their NBA title wouldn't be such a tribulation if the Lakers had Fisher's twentysomething minutes nightly.

The fifth-year point guard aggravated a stress fracture in his right foot during a pick-up game over the summer, underwent surgery and hasn't logged a minute this season. Without Fisher's energy and effort the Lakers have proceeded clumsily, like a wheel without grease.

It doesn't take James Ellroy to unravel the mystery of why the Lakers lack the spit and polish they had last year, when they dropped only 15 games during the regular season (one fewer loss than they bring into today's matinee): They don't have ``Varnish,'' the name that team broadcasters Chick Hearn and Stu Lantz bestowed upon Fisher in appreciation of his hustle.

We're not suggesting Fisher's absence is the sole reason the Lakers' defense has done an Acapulco cliff dive this year, plummeting from first in the league in field-goal percentage defense to 15th. But in the spotlight search for answers, it's as good a place as any to start.

``He always has been that spark plug defensively,'' forward Rick Fox said of Fisher. ``It starts with the pressure you put on the ball. He's on the ball.''

Actually, Fisher is like orange on the ball. Or had you forgotten how colorless Portland's Damon Stoudamire and Indiana's Travis Best were against the Lakers in last year's playoffs?

Fisher doesn't simply stay on opposing point guards like dandruff. He clogs the passing lanes and chases loose balls and elicits more charges than a department-store White Sale.

In his absence, no Laker consistently has stepped up to pay the price. We're not saying the Lakers have tread softly into battle, but when Tyronn Lue took a charge with 2:20 left in the second quarter of the Lakers' home win over Charlotte on Friday, there was talk of stopping the game so he could be awarded a Purple Heart.

Fisher is famous for diving for loose balls with the single-minded focus of a sea gull swooping down for a fish. He winds up in the first rows of seats so much, the lower bowl of the Staples Center might as well be dubbed ``the Fish net.''

To be sure, the Lakers miss not having his energy off which to feed. As Jackson wryly observed, ``We have a lot of guys who have to kneel to get on the floor.''

The last time a Laker wound up in the stands? That's easy. It was last month during a home game when Ron Harper plopped himself down in a courtside seat in disgust after the triangle offense had coagulated into a tetrahedron.

The Lakers miss Fisher, 26, because his wheels have considerably more tread left on them than do the 36-year-old Harper's. The latter has put so many miles on his legs it's a wonder they aren't as bald as his head.

Too, Fisher's tank is always full. That's no small thing for a team with two starters (Harper and Horace Grant) who sometimes look as though they're running on fumes.

``Derek,'' said off-guard Kobe Bryant, ``has the energy to get after people for 48 minutes.''

The Lakers' front office clearly values Fisher's contributions or it wouldn't have lavished a seven-year, $30 million contract on him before the 1999-2000 season. But because he isn't flashy or from a college basketball powerhouse or flush with endorsements, the rest of us tend to look right past him.

If it took an injury for the public to appreciate everything Fisher brings to the Lakers, well, then, at least he hasn't sat out in vain. Fisher, of course, would have chosen invisible over invalid any day.

He couldn't care less how much or how little credit he gets. All that matters to him is getting back on the court.

From the first day of his rehabilitation, Fisher set his sights on returning to the lineup in time for the Lakers' first trip out of the All-Star break - a 10-day gut check through New Jersey, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Indiana, Dallas and San Antonio.

Right now his timetable is looking a tad optimistic. Fisher has resumed running and lateral movement drills but doctors haven't cleared him for takeoff; he cannot yet engage in any explosive jumping, which makes it a leap to think he'll be ready to return to the lineup next week.

``Right now there's no definite timetable,'' Fisher said, adding, ``I'll definitely play after the (All-Star) break. That's been my light at the end of the tunnel, that I'm going to get to play a good portion of the latter part of the season.''

The Lakers need Fisher on the court and not just for all the aforementioned reasons. Fisher has a passion for playing basketball, which is not to be confused with having a passion to be the best player on a team or in the league or ever.

Fisher's love of the game is purer than any jumper, it's deeper than anybody's pockets. A total eclipse of egos couldn't darken his perspective. It's luminous enough to lead the Lakers out of their funk.

``When you can't go out and just have fun and play, there's something missing in your life,'' Fisher said. ``I just love to play basketball regardless of where it is and who it's with and who it's against. Not being able to do that has been the greatest setback.''

Kobe, Shaq, are you listening?
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 4, 2001
Words:970
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