Fisher: Knicks didn't fire me for 'character,' 'integrity' issues

Derek Fisher has broken his silence. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Derek Fisher has broken his silence. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

In the month since he was unceremoniously fired by the New York Knicks, all we'd heard from Derek Fisher was a brief statement expressing his "deepest gratitude" for the opportunity he'd received to become a head coach mere days after retiring from his career as an NBA player, his disappointment at getting the heave-ho after just 20 months and 136 games, and his "hope to grow" from his brief experience at the head of an NBA bench. That changed Thursday.

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The 41-year-old former point guard published a first-person essay at The Cauldron purportedly intended to "set the record straight" about his firing, which was followed by plenty of speculation as to what off-court matters might have contributed to the ouster, and on the preseason altercation with former Los Angeles Lakers teammate and current Memphis Grizzlies forward Matt Barnes that resulted in a two-game suspension for Barnes.

After Fisher's firing, Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical wrote, "As a young NBA coach, the fastest path to losing a locker room comes this way: Behave like a player." Rumors had circulated during Fisher's tenure as head coach that the longtime former pro point guard had been romantically involved with the same women as his players; former Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr., traded to the Atlanta Hawks on the night of the 2014 NBA draft, had addressed rumors to that effect on the record.

In his "version of events," Fisher doesn't address those rumors and reports, instead writing that neither that sort of gossip nor the Barnes incident played any role in his firing:

First, let’s address this idea that I lost my job because of certain “character” or “integrity” issues. Not only is any such insinuation untrue, it’s downright offensive. [...]

When the organization informed me of its decision, the conversation was short. The underlying message was that things weren’t working out the way they had hoped. I thanked management for the opportunity, and that was it.

At no time did anyone at that meeting express to me that stories about my personal life were distracting from the collective task at hand, or — more important — that any of my players had expressed to management that they had lost confidence in me as their coach. Nothing remotely like that was ever brought up or discussed. [...]

At the time [of the firing], we were going through a difficult 1–9 stretch, but to its credit, the entire team was still responsive to my leadership, decision making and coaching. They hadn’t given up on me. They weren’t questioning my integrity. My relationships with my players were good and becoming stronger.

Knicks president of basketball operations Phil Jackson, who had coached Fisher during his years with the Lakers and who hired him in June 2014 to replace Mike Woodson on New York's bench, struck a similar tone in his first press conference after Fisher's firing. Asked what role Fisher's preseason incident with Barnes might have had on his job security, Jackson instead pegged the change in course to the Knicks losing nine of 10 games amid defensive woes and persistent struggles to both get out to fast starts and close games well.

“No one’s happy about how that happened or what came out of that. It was embarrassing for us and for Derek,” he said. “But that had nothing to do with what’s happened here today.”

Fisher's firing has not helped the Knicks thus far. New York is 4-8 under interim head coach Kurt Rambis and, before Wednesday's blowout of the atrocious Phoenix Suns, had been outscored by 4.4 points per 100 possessions under Rambis, nearly two points-per-100 more than they had under Fisher.

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To hear Fisher tell it now — some four months after he flew from New York to California during a break in Knicks training camp to visit his children and Gloria Govan, Barnes' estranged wife, before missing New York's next practice due to what he called a "plane issue" — not only did the Barnes incident not lead to his firing, but there wasn't really even a Barnes incident ... at least, not in the way it became described after the fact. (When, coincidentally, he wasn't talking about.)

From the essay, which ran under the headline "Truth":

First, I was stunned and disappointed by the way Gloria was treated in the media. After the much publicized (and unfortunate) situation went down in Los Angeles last year, story after story was published that portrayed her as a piece of property, instead of the strong, independent woman and mother she is; someone who is capable of making her own decisions. This is a human being we are talking about, not some pawn in a game. [...]

When Gloria and I started dating, she and Matt had already been separated and living apart for more than a year. Same thing for me. My wife and I were long separated; she was in L.A., I was in New York. Matt and Gloria were not trying to work things out, and I certainly wasn’t seeing her behind Matt’s back or in secret. The relationship wasn’t something I was trying to publicize, but it also wasn’t something I was trying to hide, either. There was no reason to.

On this point, as our Kelly Dwyer wrote back in October, Fisher's dead on. The rush to chastise Govan and Fisher, two consenting adults no longer involved in relationships with their former significant others, for violating some "code," or to smirk in Barnes' direction for driving 95 miles to get violent in front of his kids out of some misplaced sense of honor, was distasteful and embarrassing.

Fisher makes a point of downplaying his prior relationship with Barnes, characterizing them as co-workers rather than pals during their two shared seasons in L.A. That doesn't seem to square with what's come before, but it also seems secondary to Fisher's description of The Fight That Wasn't:

I don’t know what was going through Matt’s mind that day in October when he showed up unannounced at Gloria’s house, and started swinging. I didn’t retaliate. No one who was there did anything but try to get him to calm down, particularly because Matt and Gloria’s children were present. There was no fight.

That’s it. There’s nothing more to what happened than that.

That, obviously, runs contrary to both prior reports and the things that Barnes has said over and over and over and over again.

It's understandable that Fisher would want to make his voice heard on both his firing and the unsavory speculation surrounding it, but it's also more than fair to wonder whether doing it this way — a month after the firing and months after the Barnes incident, in a one-way missive that welcomes no push-back, that acknowledges his flaws and imperfections in one breath while heaping blame on the media for publishing "outright lies" in the next — actually answers more questions than it raises.

Fisher, the former president of the National Basketball Players Association, had been described as a politician during his playing days, someone who chose his words and moves carefully, after calculating what impact they might have and which way things might spin out. Maybe all Fisher wanted Thursday's missive to do was "set the record straight," but if he hopes that it will help clear the way for his return to an NBA bench — "I’m ready to continue the journey, and I’m excited for what’s to come," he writes — I wonder if he might have miscalculated, producing something that doesn't clear the air, but rather only increases the size of the cloud hanging over his head.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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