The right side of the NBA Draft Class of 1996 book is getting very thin. Not many pages left to tell the story of this remarkable group of players. The first overall pick in that draft, Allen Iverson, just watched his No. 3 go up to the rafters in Philadelphia, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ No. 11 is on its way in Cleveland. In Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash have been betrayed by their bodies and played a combined 16 games this season. In Miami, Ray Allen is flirting with the lowest three-point shooting percentage of his career.
Time’s running out on this distinguished group that has accounted for four Most Valuable Player awards, the all-time leader in three-pointers, 62 All-Star appearances (including four All-Star MVP awards), 17 first-team All-NBA appearances, 11 times on the first-team All-Defensive squad, a defensive player of the year award, six times leading the league in scoring, five times leading the league in assists, three times in steals and once in blocks.
For those lucky enough to still be playing these days it’s the little things that matter, the moments that won’t be stand out on the final recaps of their careers, but the signs that they’re still doing what they love. Jermaine O’Neal, the 17th pick of that draft, makes a critical late-game block and pauses to stare at the crowd and soak it in. Derek Fisher, the No. 23 pick, finds himself making five three-pointers to give his team a chance at a Sunday ABC game.
This season I had a chance to talk to Fisher and O’Neal about their reflections on the beginning of their careers and they push to extend it. Interestingly, they both had connections to Kobe Bryant. Fisher’s was obvious, as they spent they joined the Los Angeles Lakers together as rookies and wound up winning five championships in the purple and gold uniforms.
“The memory of how bad we both wanted to be successful, even though we were coming from two completely different planets and obviously had different levels of ability and what our so-called legacy and what you could accomplish could be, that’s what kind of has always drawn us together,” Fisher said. “Even though he’ll go down in history as a handful of, maybe one of the greatest players to ever play the game, we’re still very similar -- just in our drive to be the best that we could be and be successful. Even though I [attended college] and I’m still older, I still learned so much from watching him and observing him, just about greatness and toughness and work ethic. It’s amazing how much I owe him in terms of the success I’ve been able to enjoy in my career.
“The same love for the game that we had when we came into it in 1996 is still there,” Fisher said. “Just like any other industry or business in life or job that you take, there’s a point where it becomes less about the money and how much you’re making at the job and all the things that come with it and just enjoying and having a passion for doing it. But also still wanting to be successful, to win a championship. I think that’s what continues to drive guys that have been in this game as long as we all have. That’s what keeps you coming back.”
O’Neal came to the NBA straight from high school, just like Bryant, at a time when that was still a novelty. (O’Neal still has a framed newspaper article in which a Charlotte Hornets executive said O’Neal wasn’t ready to make the jump and predicted he would be out of the league in a couple of years.) The other connection was more recent: a phone conversation with Bryant recommended O’Neal head to Germany for the same platelet rich plasma treatment on his knee that rejuvenated Bryant. That allowed O’Neal to give the NBA one last season, with the Golden State Warriors.
“It’s about ending your career the way you want to end it, not have somebody else do it,” O’Neal said. “There’s too many people who feel like they have say in what you’re going to do. For us, people have to understand this is our life. This ain’t just basketball, going out there for 48 minutes. We have many nights we don’t eat, worrying. Your body, injuries -- it’s real for us. To get an opportunity to do this for 18 years is unbelievable. That’s what’s driving me, to end this on my own terms. Whatever happens, happens. You walk into the second chapter in your life and try to be as competitive as you were professionally.
“It’s funny, because you notice things a lot more. You notice things about the plane rides, the bus rides, bus rides to the hotel. Everything is slow motion. You don’t know if you’re going to do it again next year. You observe and you really cherish this opportunity. This is an opportunity that most people don’t get to ever do, let alone for 18 years.
“I get a kick out of seeing people saying, ‘He’s still going.’ Now I’m playing with people that were five when I got drafted. It’s one of those things that, it’s like you think about all the things that you didn’t know and all of the things that you do know now. If it weren’t for basketball, I don’t know where I’d be. Basketball was a saving grace. My life, my wife and kids, mother, brother, my entire family, it’s given me an opportunity to be a pillar for my family for many, many generations. The amount of money I’ve been able to make in this game has been fantastic. The relationships I’ve been able to build. There’s a lot of things you have to respect and honor.
“Hopefully I can end this fantastic ride, this character-builder, this life-changing opportunity, the way it should be. Whatever that is, we’ll see come April. Maybe even June.”