"He's really the only one I listen to," Bryant said. "Everybody else is a bunch of young kids. Derek, he and I came in the league together. We spent long nights together as rookies, battling each other, playing full court one‑on‑one games. You know, we've been through it. So he can come to me and say, 'Kobe, you're effing up.' We owe that to each other."
On a team that's built its supporting cast out of 20-something role players with little playoff experience prior to 2008 — Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Shannon Brown et al — Bryant and Fisher have been the two veterans leading the way. Their level of trust in each other has never been higher.
"Yeah, I probably am the only guy he listens to," Fisher joked. "But he's married, so I know he listens to somebody else.
"Like any of us, man, when we've known somebody for a long time and we've developed a relationship and a level of trust, I think professionally as well as personally, that we respect each other in a way that nothing else comes between that respect. And I think we've observed each other's kind of growth from the ground up, so to speak, in terms of being together as rookies and learning about the NBA and learning about how to be successful in this game."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson has been at the helm for three waves of NBA champions — the Bulls under Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, the old Lakers when Kobe and Fisher were still youngsters and now the new Lakers. He's seen this dynamic before.
"It's not unusual for players that have played together for a long duration of time and come through a variety of situations in the course of their careers to have a relationship, especially when you have winning and positive results," Jackson said. "You know, we had multiple relations with groups of guys in the early decade with Rick Fox and Robert Horry and that crew of guys, and these two guys have lasted ‑‑ similar to Pippen and Jordan in those Bulls' days. So they have a wonderful relationship, not only in communication but also in knowing how to play with each other in a way that's supportive and also very team‑oriented."
Their teammates certainly aren't surprised.
"They've played together for … how long?" asked Gasol. "Twelve years of their careers? That's a long run. That can build a lot of confidence and trust among good players."
Actually, it's only been 11 — Fisher had a three-year layoff in the middle of his career when he left the Lakers to play in Golden State and Utah. But he couldn't stay away. He couldn't leave such a good thing behind — not with how well he and Bryant meshed.
"He's our vocal leader," Bryant said of Fisher. "He's the guy that pulls everybody together and is always giving positive reinforcement. I'm the opposite. We play off each other extremely well."
That contrast — Fisher the good cop, Bryant the bad, so to speak — is what makes the Lakers go. When you make a good play, Fisher's there to congratulate you. When you "eff up," as Kobe says, he'll let you know about it.
"I see it," Ron Artest said of that dynamic. "I see it. I'm learning a lot, being around those guys. Learning because Fish and Kobe are teaching me about this team a lot. I'm constantly asking Kobe about the team. Even in these playoffs, I'm still learning."
"I learn so much from him," Lamar Odom said of Fisher. "When he speaks and when he doesn't speak. The way he carries himself. He's a man."
Most of these Lakers are merely boys. But the two men leading the way are the reason they're back in the Finals, up 2-1 with a chance at a fifth championship ring.