The kind of luck Rick Fox has, you've got to wonder. Here's a guy raised in the Bahamas who was groomed to take over the family ice business, and now he starts at small forward for a Los Angeles Lakers team mat's likely to repeat, is married to a triple-threat diva, does a little acting in the off-season, watches the boats sail by from his deck in Marina Del Rey, plays with his five kids. Plus, he's good-looking, which right there moves him ahead of Ringo Starr in mankind's sweepstakes department.
Nobody's that lucky, even at a time in our history when people are constantly testing their luck, when it's O.K. for ambition to be satisfied with a winning lottery ticket. Remember when life was a cabaret? Now it's a raffle. Still, the idea that a man can succeed across so many fronts on luck alone is almost offensive. It's one thing to meet former Miss America/platinum-selling singer/movie star Vanessa Williams at a party and woo her during the lockout season—quite a thing, actually—but to have this NBA gig on top of that is ridiculous. The 31-year-old Fox plays alongside Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, merely the best players in the game, and entered the Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers this week with a shot at the unprecedented: a perfect postseason. Odds must be acknowledged, the house edge protected. Which makes you think, something besides luck is going on.
Fox works at it—that's his little secret. While he insists his existence is charmed ("Look around," he said last week on his deck. "You don't orchestrate this"), it's not entirely the result of chance. Just to single out the most immediate aspect of his good fortune, which is starting for the best team in the NBA, well, he made his own luck there, sacrificing money and then shedding pounds, quietly turning his increasing irrelevance into well-rewarded indispensability.
When you watch him hitting a three-pointer or slashing to the basket for a dunk or shutting down a high-scoring opponent, it's hard to remember that the 6'7" Fox was on his way out of L.A. a year ago. Nobody said as much, but the notion sure was hanging in the air. He had been a backup to Glen Rice, scoring 6.5 points a game on career-low 41.4% shooting, his numbers declining for his third straight year as a Laker. Come playoff time, Fox's role had been so diminished that the only way he felt he could contribute was to goon it up in a series of uncharacteristic un-pleasantries with Scottie Pippen.
Fox was, as he puts it now, "expendable." This was a disheartening reality for somebody used to easy success, learning the game at 14 as a kind of exchange student in Warsaw, Ind., and becoming a vital part of such storied programs as North Carolina, the Boston Celtics and the Lakers. His life wouldn't seem so lucky if he'd been cashed out at the beginning of a great run.
"I'd been on teams with great histories, but none that had won," Fox says. "In Warsaw I was declared ineligible my senior year. At North Carolina my last game was a loss to Kansas in the Final Four. In Boston I was hanging out with Red Auerbach, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. The only thing was, they all were at the end of the line. So last year I'm on a championship team and I'm running into the stands to hug my dad—we're crying like babies—to tell him he can finally be proud of me. Those 10 years, losing in the Final Four, suffering through a 15-win season in Boston, where we'd get booed on the street, they all washed away."
There was a good possibility that one ring with the Lakers was all the jewelry he was going to get. Last summer coach Phil Jackson suggested to Fox that he lose at least 15 pounds and become the athletic player he'd been when he'd averaged a career-best 15.4 points in 1996-97, his final year in Boston. Fox, who had bulked up to try to earn playing time as a banger for L.A., took Jackson's suggestion as an ultimatum. He lost 25 pounds, dropping to 228. "If I hadn't," Fox believes, "I wouldn't have been back."
If he hadn't, the Lakers might not be winning, although that took a little patience. When Rice was traded before the season, Fox became a starter by default—"Enough people weren't in shape, Phil had to play me," he says—but he was no great shakes in the beginning, and neither were the Lakers. The team was more likely to be scrutinized for the growing feud between Bryant and O'Neal than for any spark of greatness. Still, Fox adjusted to his new body, recalibrating his jump shot now that his feet were actually leaving the floor, learning to take advantage of legs that were suddenly quicker. His teammates noticed the changes, though they were suspicious at first. "He slimmed down, all right," says reserve guard Brian Shaw, "but I don't know if it was for the basketball or because he just likes the way he looks. He's always wearing sleeveless sweaters now."
The Laker he really had to impress was Bryant, who had become so distrustful of his teammates that he believed the only way to win was to score 40 every night. Fox could hardly blame Bryant for not dishing the ball his way. ( Shaq could blame him; Fox could not.) "Kobe'd never seen me dunk in Boston," says Fox. "He was like 15 then."
Dunk? Impossible to imagine, says Bryant. "He had too much junk in his trunk."