Girls basketball: Rod Fisher still having fun after 35 years
By Tommy Williams POst-Tribune correspondent November 5, 2012 12:08AM
West Side head coach Rod Fisher watches the Lady Cougars as they practice Tuesday afternoon at West Side. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 6, 2012 6:17AM
GARY — This could be the final year on the sidelines for arguably the best girl’s basketball coach the city of Gary has ever had.
And then again, maybe not.
That’s normally the standard answer from a coach who has been at it for more than twice as long as his players have been alive, and is too busy preparing for the next game or the next season to go into deep thought on whether his mind, body, and soul would be up for another year of coaching.
So, Gary’s girls basketball coaching legend does what others before him have done: Leave your options open.
“It depends how I feel after this year,” said West Side basketball coach Rod Fisher.
Then again, why would the man not want to come back next season, or for that matter, the season after that. Have you seen that team he gets to coach this year? It’s loaded. The four freshmen who continued the West Side tradition of not only winning the Northwestern Conference title, but also running the table against Gary competition in the city tourney, are all back.
And here’s the scary part: Fisher says all four are more disciplined than last season.
Then there’s the point guard who’s only an eighth grader, but is so talented that Division I schools are already interested. She will be wearing orange and blue next season. How could you not want to coach her four more years?
There’s also another personal milestone for Fisher. He’s the third-winningest girls coach in Indiana with 564 victories in 36. The latter number is key because he needs 36 wins to hit the 600 win mark. Only two other girls coaches have reached that number.
“That just tells me that I’ve been here a long time,” Fisher said. “I enjoy what I’m doing — I still love doing it. I have a good rapport with the kids once they get to know me. It’s hard to get to know me, but once they do they see it’s a family affair.”
Thirty-five families ago, Fisher was beginning his first year in high school coaching as the head man at Wirt. Ironically, his first team was almost a carbon copy of last year’s West Side squad. Very talented (featuring the player who Fisher says was the best he’s ever coached in Jackie Spencer) and extremely inexperienced.
And just to prove he’s still mentally sharp, Fisher can name the players on that team like they graduated last year, not decades ago.
“It was a great freshman group,” Fisher said. “Bridgett Dixon, Chrystal Taliferro, the two Ledbetter kids. It was great because 90 percent of the kids had two parents at home and they were very supportive. And Jackie was a phenomenal talent.”
With all due respect to the 2005 West Side team that reached the state final, this year’s team has players who potentially could equal or surpass Fisher’s first squad in his memory bank.
There’s Ashley Danzy, who is the top returning scorer from last year with 15 points per game, and Tinon Hunter, who just missed averaging double-figures, and Lexus Fox who’s game is as sleek as, well, a Lexus car.
All three of them were freshmen last season. All told, four newbies got playing time for Fisher last season and came five points away from ousting the more experienced and eventual sectional champion East Chicago in the sectional semifinal.
That came despite getting off to a slow start to the campaign.
“We had a lot of problems last year with the coming in as eighth graders,” Fisher said. “It’s early, but this year’s team plays harder and they listen better.”
Fisher’s former players had better sit down for this one: Fisher is getting the message across to this year’s team in a kinder, more gentler manner. Actually, those who watched Cougars basketball closely saw this coming.
There was Fisher leaping up and chest-bumping one of his players a couple of years ago during a sectional game while doing the multiple high-low-five thing with his players during pre-game introductions.
“I just wanted them to see me in a different personality than I am,” Fisher said. “Aurielle Anderson, one of my former players, wanted to do this high-five thing when her name was introduced, and that day I said to her, ‘All right I gotcha,’ not knowing how I was supposed to do this. But it was just to break the tension.”
Not to say that the man has gone straight-up Henny Youngman, though.
“I have to pick my times when (I explode). I was fiery day-in and day-out, but I can’t do that anymore,” Fisher said. “I have my times, though, when the kids say ‘whoa, he’s crazy today.’ A lot of kids would come back and say ‘coach, you’ve gotten soft.’ But I’m not soft. It’s more about teaching right now.”
The freshmen (along with returning senior Mariah Hopkins, who averaged 12 points and 7.8 rebounds per game last year) have learned their lessons well, and at the very worst, are in the team picture as best team in the region.
That begs the question: Would you walk away from a coaching situation like that? Didn’t think so.
And so the kinder, more gentler Fisher would prefer you not discuss the “R” word (retirement). He says he feels good, he still loves coaching and, of course, the Cougars are loaded this season.
“I’ve been fortunate to have good health and have quality kids,” Fisher said. “It’s been a good experience for me because it’s not just about winning basketball games. It’s about taking responsibility and preparing for life after West Side.”