LAS VEGAS -- Derek Fisher speaks in paragraphs, not sound bites. Like his remarkable career, every answer is filled with an uncommon depth and thoughtfulness.
But on this afternoon, I expected him to be talked out. Less than a week had passed since the Lakers had closed out the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA Finals to win their second straight title, and Fisher had spent most of that time on a dizzying coast-to-coast run of public appearances.
After meeting with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and coach Phil Jackson for an exit interview last Thursday, he flew to Las Vegas for three days of meetings with the NBA Players Association meetings, helping the union draft a new collective bargaining proposal.
He granted this interview before all of that, so I had no idea how much energy he'd have left when we finally met at a corner table of this lounge inside the Wynn Las Vegas on Friday.
"You know," I said, as he walked over to the table, gripping a water bottle and still looking a bit sleepy. "You don't have to do all this. You could just take a week off after the season and sleep in."
He laughed, knowing he still had a lot more to do in Las Vegas, and then a lot more to do this summer with a trip to China to represent the NBA at the World Expo in Shanghai.
"It comes with the territory," he said. "Being on a successful team, being president of the Players Association, going to China [on behalf of the NBA].
"As far back as I can remember, I've been more of a leader than a follower. I don't feel the need to walk anybody else's path but mine. In high school I took drama classes; I played in the band. I played the trumpet.
"I did stuff that I wanted to do. I didn't worry about how it looked or if that wasn't the cool thing. Even after all these years, even though I don't have to do some of the things I do in the community, or with the NBAPA, it's just I want to do them."
There has been sacrifice involved in walking that unique path, but there has also been great reward. In his 14 NBA seasons, he has won five championships and the hearts of countless Lakers fans with some of the most memorable postseason moments and heroics in franchise history.
He has done it with class and grace, but rarely gaudy statistics or individual accomplishments.
Kobe Bryant may be the largest figure in the Lakers' locker room, but there is no voice that carries more weight than Fisher's. He speaks softly at times, but his words always stick.
And so it seems appropriate, as the Lakers deliberate his value to the team, to let him make his own case for returning.
His teammates and coaches have sung his praises endlessly. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has never wavered in his public admiration for him. Local and national columnists have made the case for him to stay.
I would add my own opinion to the chorus, but as always, Fisher's words will carry more weight.
ESPNLosAngeles.com: You're 35 years old and soon to be 36. You understand why that comes up when people talk about contracts, right?
DEREK FISHER: Yeah, but it's almost like age discrimination in a sense, and people need to let that go. It's the performance; it's not the age. It's the success of my performance and the teams' [performance] that should be judged.
It doesn't matter if I'm 25 or 35 in terms of age, you don't need the birth certificate to figure out whether this guy can play. So for any critic or coach or GM or whatever, you're doing yourself a disservice if you're coming into a conversation with me focused on age.
I have and continue to prove all those theories wrong and the other shoe is not about to drop just because I'm about to turn 36, so don't wait for that. If you're waiting for that, it's not going to happen.
Q: So you feel as good now as a 25-year-old?
A: Physically I'm actually getting better. I mean, if you measured me running when I was 25, I might be faster than what I am now in terms of outright speed. Maybe dunking, too.
But so many other things have improved, I'm actually stronger, better, more mobile and efficient in my body movements, which is why I don't miss games. I've played 413 consecutive regular-season games, and I was just talking with Phil and Mitch about how with seven Finals appearances, that's 199 playoff games which don't get added into the consecutive games streak.
Q: OK, so what's the fountain of youth? What's making you feel so good?
A: I'm still kind of a junkie with the workouts. I like to get there a couple hours before everybody else and shoot or lift or do whatever I do.
I've learned it helps me stay mentally focused, and physically it keeps me in the same place -- in particular because in the regular season, Phil consciously limits my minutes. It's like I have to do the extra stuff even more, so that I feel like I'm still ready, like I can go.
My workload is really high. I don't sit out of practices. I practice every day, unless Phil basically makes me sit out.
If I'm playing shorter minutes in the game and it's one of those weeks we have four games in six days, we practice but it's not really a heavy practice, if I'm not doing my extra shooting and my extra working out, or extra lifting and stretching and all that, the body starts to settle in. I have to work in order to feel good. The more minutes I play, the better.
I'm worse at 20 minutes than I am at 38 minutes. My body is not even warmed up when I play 20 minutes.
Q: There was a perception that you guys had to win a title to ensure that Phil Jackson would be back. Did you feel the same way, that maybe you had to win a title in order to justify your worth to the team?
A: I felt like, and feel like, in conversations with Mitch [Kupchak] over the years, that I'd always have an opportunity to be a Laker regardless of the circumstances. But I did feel it was important to win a championship and perform at a certain level to assure myself that coming back was on my terms. As opposed to, the leverage is all theirs if we didn't win.
I've said in other stories, that I'm going to be the first thing that everybody points to if we don't win. Period. That was a big motivating factor for me.
Q: This was not an easy playoff run, especially for you in terms of defensive assignments. Russell Westbrook in the first round, then Deron Williams, Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo. Did you draw any extra motivation from that?
A: Yes. Every round I anticipated more and more. In the West now that's how it is. Every night you've got one of those guys. But this particular time around, it was a buzz saw every time and I knew it was that way for a reason. The fire was the hottest at this point, for a reason. I walked right through it, and I'm still standing.
Q: OK, so how did you stop those guys?
A: I mean, you don't stop them. These guys are All-Stars. They average 19 points and 10 assists. It's not like they score 10 on average and then they play us and score 35.
Q: You take a lot of heat for your defense. But when Phil Jackson is asked about it specifically, he usually deflects the question and mentions things like "team defense" and rotations. Do you ever feel like sticking up for yourself when you get criticized?
A: Even with the criticism that comes with that every time, I'm a team guy. I'm not going to say it's somebody else's fault. I'm going to say, we have to defend better. We have to do this. Even when Shaq was here, at different times it was the same way. We'd struggle with our pick-and-roll defense because big fella wasn't going to come away from the basket. It wasn't because we couldn't guard pick-and-roll.
Q: Offensively, your scoring has decreased each of the last three seasons. [Fisher averaged 11.7 points in 2007-08, 9.9 the next year and 7.5 this season]. Can you see why people would think you've dropped off a bit?
A: What those people don't understand is that what I had to do for our team to be successful when I first came back is a lot different than now. Now, we have one of the deepest teams in basketball. What some people will try to do is say that he's slowing down because his points per game went down each year and I'm saying, "No, the Lakers got better each year so I didn't have to score as many points.''
If you have Ron Artest and Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum, how many points do you think we're going to score? I'm the most mature, most experienced person. I'm not worried about All-Star games or MVPs or bonuses in terms of individual accomplishments. But I understand my counterparts wanting to focus on those things. I understand why Andrew Bynum wants to be an All-Star. I get that. Lamar Odom wants to be an All-Star. Kobe is an All-Star with his eyes closed. Pau Gasol wants to be an All-Star.
So I'm on a team with four or five All-Star players, I don't have to score points. But if necessary, I can. There's no question about it.
Q: OK, quick break from questions about your age and whether you're over the hill. I hear you live way out in the San Fernando Valley. What's that, like, an hour to practice every morning? I was born in the Valley and I like it there. But you know, like, there's kind of a stigma to living there.
A: I think it's just a certain lifestyle that I think is important for when you have a family and kids. Then again, even before I was married, I was in the Valley, too. I think being from Little Rock, Arkansas, it's important for there to be grass and trees and a little bit of a slower feel to where I live as opposed to being in the city in a penthouse-townhouse kind of place.
Q: Would you still live there now if you didn't have the family?
A: No, Even though I'd be drawn to that area I've learned a lot more of how important it is to manage your rest and your body and your time. So two to three hours out of the day in the car wouldn't be at the top of the list, but for them it's more than worth it.
Q: OK, back to the interview. Sorry, I'd always wanted to ask you about that. Does it hurt you at the trade deadline when you constantly hear whispers about the Lakers needing to upgrade at point guard? Or like now, when there is so much talk about free agents the Lakers could sign?
A: Nah, because I don't really get overly concerned with who can come in and do what I do better than me or replace me. You could try something different, but you cannot go out and find what I do, period. Regardless of what you try or who you try to get, it won't be the same. It might look different. It might even look better, depending on the packaging. But it won't be what I do.
Q: Game 3, Boston. I could ask a question about it, but really, what's left to say?
A: You know, I've been fortunate enough to have some great moments in big games, and great experiences in my career. But in the Finals, Lakers-Celtics, on the road, that's just Which is where I think the emotion came from. It was just a microcosm of my whole life. At the cusp of -- maybe he can't -- I'm at my best. It was just so gratifying to help us win that game in that manner.
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.