SALT LAKE CITY – Derek Fisher(notes) found a picture from a playoff game against the Utah Jazz on the Internet earlier this year. Fisher isn’t certain during which Los Angeles Lakers game the photo was taken, but he knows what it shows: As the former Jazz guard attempts to shoot a free throw in Salt Lake City, a fan behind the basket covers his left eye to taunt him.
Fisher also knew what the photo meant. The fan was mocking his young daughter, Tatum, who had cancer in her left eye. Fisher left the Jazz in the summer of 2007 to return to the Lakers so his daughter could receive what he considered was the best medical care available.
“It’s crazy,” Fisher said of the picture. “It really is.”
Fisher wasn’t greeted too warmly when he entered EnergySolutions Arena Saturday night. The Jazz fans booed him strongly when he was introduced, chanted “Fisher sucks!” during the game and cited his daughter during their trash talk. Fisher heard it all, and he once signaled to the crowd to keep bringing it as he walked to the bench.
Fisher, as he has so often done during his career, also got the last laugh. His 3-pointer with 28.6 seconds left proved to be the go-ahead basket as the Lakers beat the Jazz 111-110 to take a 3-0 lead in the series.
“I just have taken what’s thrown at me. Just try to concentrate on playing basketball,” said Fisher, who scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win. “It’s very personal. Obviously, it’s personal for them. It’s personal for me. The best way to respond to it is to make sure we win.”
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan wasn’t surprised to see Fisher rise to the moment.
“He’s done that before,” Sloan said. “He’s one of those guys that is a tough guy. He played for us. He’s a competitor. It was a big loss for our team when he left, but that’s life. He gave us toughness and he made a lot of shots like that for us.”
Fisher was a key player for the Jazz as they advanced to the 2007 Western Conference finals in his lone season with the franchise. In May of 2007, Tatum was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a cancerous tumor in her left eye that could possibly spread to her brain or the rest of her body. Fisher flew back from New York City, where his daughter was receiving treatment, in time to play in a playoff game against the Golden State Warriors. The Jazz fans loved him then. On July 3, 2007, Utah granted Fisher’s wish and released him from his contract (saving $21 million in the process), so he could get the best medical care for his then-11-month-old daughter.
Fisher and his wife, Candace, were interested in the treatment available in Los Angeles, New York City and Cleveland. Because Salt Lake City offered the renowned John A. Moran Eye Center and Huntsman Cancer Institute and Hospital, skeptical Jazz fans questioned whether Fisher was using his daughter to get out of Utah. Shortly after free agency began, Fisher signed a three-year, $14 million deal with the Lakers, where he immediately became the starter instead of backing up Deron Williams(notes) in Utah. Fisher’s departure allowed the Jazz to sign sharp-shooter Kyle Korver(notes). But after Fisher won a title with the Lakers last season – and the Jazz still don’t have a strong backup for Williams – some skepticism remains in Utah.
“I would venture to bet if I was a construction worker or a librarian or a police officer and I made a decision to transfer to another city or another department to just do what I did for my family, I would be more commended than it being taken by some people the way it is,” Fisher said. “Because it’s sports, there is so much passion and emotion with so much involved. It doesn’t help that every year we play this team 12 to 15 times a season.”
Sloan would say only that he enjoyed coaching Fisher.
“He’s a wonderful guy to coach, a real professional,” Sloan said. “That was a business decision our company made. We work under those parameters and that’s part of the job. You’d like to have all the players that you want. But sometimes you go out and do the best you can with what you got. Give them credit for that. I wished him well when he left and I still do, except when he plays against us.”
Despite spending three nights here before flying back to Los Angeles after Game 4 on Monday night, Fisher plans to stay secluded at the Lakers’ posh downtown hotel.
“I’m sure I can [go out],” Fisher said. “I just choose not to. We’re usually in and out during the regular season. But even in a situation like this where we are here for four or five days, it’s best for me to chill, stay in the room, watch film, get therapy and just be ready to go.”
Candace Fisher is a regular at Lakers’ home games and wore a T-shirt expressing her love to her husband during Game 1. But she also has decided to stay in Los Angeles when the Lakers play in Utah.
“I’ll just say that I’m glad my wife doesn’t have to address the media because she would’ve been not too good in what to say,” Fisher said. “But this is my job. I have to be respectful to fans whether they’re positive or negative. In cheering or booing, I have to be respectful.”
When the game was finally over, the Jazz fans sat stunned knowing the Lakers will likely soon end their season. Of the five Lakers doing postgame interviews on the court, Fisher was the last to finish and leave to the locker room. By then, the Jazz fans were no longer taunting him. Watching from home in Los Angeles, Tatum could take solace in knowing her dad got the last laugh on this night and made yet another big shot.
“She’s doing great, absolutely great,” Fisher said. “Every day it’s a blessing to see her just continue to grow. I feel very, very fortunate that she is doing so well and my family is doing well. I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done or any decision I’ve made at all.”