EXCLUSIVE – Sparks GM Penny Toler on Derek Fisher’s new job in familiar surroundings

EXCLUSIVE – Sparks GM Penny Toler on Derek Fisher’s new job in familiar surroundings

Unless they’ve been living under an enormous rock, basketball fans will have seen Los Angeles Lakers legend Derek Fisher’s name in the news for myriad reasons recently. 

As well as committing to business ventures that have caused a stir, he also replaced Brian Agler to become the head coach of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks last week. He was introduced to the media on Friday in a press conference, in which he seemed to say all of the right things.

Make no mistake, this is not completely unfamiliar territory for Fisher. The five-time NBA champion is no stranger to the Sparks – a team he has had a personal connection to since its formation in 1997. Not only did he keep his finger on the WNBA pulse, Fisher made himself readily available to the team in a way very few high-profile players within the men’s game would at the time. Sparks’ General Manager, and former player, Penny Toler remembers the then-Lakers point guard’s willingness to aid their development from day one, during their dominant run in the early 2000s. 

“I said to Derek in the interview that he was with us when we won our first championship, he was then with us when we won our second, he was even with us during our attempt to win the third time,” Toler told Double Clutch.

“When the Lakers would be in preseason, Derek used to fly to the game and then back home for practice. He has always been a part of us, truly. He’d call from time to time to talk strategy, player development and everything team-related.”

There was never any doubt in Toler’s mind that the 18-year NBA point guard had the chops for the role. Fisher clearly knows basketball to an elite level; he served as a floor general for some of the most dominant outfits in basketball history.

Crucially, for the organisation, however, he has shown a public admiration for some of the most influential female figures in basketball and demonstrated an active knowledge of the league itself. Fisher grew up studying players like Dawn Staley and has involved himself in a youth program led by Sparks’ veteran star Candace Parker over the last few years. According to the front office, he knows about, cares about and most importantly fits with the brand.

Toler said: “I knew that he was interested, so I thought he was right for the job because he knows the WNBA’s brand and understands Sparks basketball.”

“Also, I know him well. I have had the privilege of knowing Derek for more than 20 years now. Over that time we have talked basketball so many times. When we had a vacancy, it was perfect timing. He’s a humble guy who will roll his sleeves up and get his hands dirty if he needs to.”

In the 2018 playoffs, the Sparks reached the playoffs but were eliminated in the second round to the Washington Mystics – a result that they hope to improve on in the forthcoming season. The roster is loaded with veterans, many of which will act as leaders themselves, so it was vital to Toler that the experienced players bought into Fisher’s hiring. 

“I knew that he was the perfect coach to take on this veteran team. When you have a veteran team, the coach needs to come in with a lot of credibility and Derek definitely has a lot. I know the girls will be happy to work with him because he will take an interest in them as basketball players and people – which may just be the most important thing.”

Featured photo – via David Crane / Los Angeles Daily News / SCNG / Double Clutch illustration