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SALT LAKE CITY – In the silent darkness of a Manhattan morning on Wednesday, Derek Fisher and his wife, Candace, awoke to bring 10-month-old Tatum to New York Presbyterian Hospital. Tatum had been diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare cancerous tumor of the retina, and the doctors were rushing to get her into surgery.
Derek, the Utah Jazz guard, kept telling Candace that it was going to be all right, that they had found the best doctors in the world for this procedure, and that before long their baby girl was going to be herself again. Beyond his faith in Dr. David Abramson and Dr. Pierre Gobin, beyond his faith in God, the morning brought that sinking feeling of a father's helplessness.
Don't let her die, Fisher prayed.
Don't take away my baby girl.
"To wake up this morning and take your daughter to the hospital and not know if you'll see her again …" Fisher said late Wednesday night at his locker inside EnergySolutions Arena, with his eyes bloodshot and his Jazz 127-117 winners over the Golden State Warriors in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Everything happened so fast, seven days since his wife noticed that green glow in their daughter's left eye, almost like a cat's, and brought her to a pediatrician in Salt Lake City. Seven days and the Fishers' world turned upside down, the family doctor telling them that there wasn't a moment to lose, that Tatum's life was at stake.
Seven days, and Derek Fisher, a three-time NBA champion, a basketball hero with a history of big shots and bigger cool, had turned into one more father sitting in the waiting room of a hospital, wishing there were a way to trade places with his kid.
"As a father, particularly with a daughter, you feel like she's your responsibility and all you want to do is protect them, keep them safe," Fisher said.
It wasn't until Dr. Gobin told him that the procedure had been a success, that there was still a chance that maybe, just maybe, Tatum wouldn't lose her eye the way that so many of the 300 or so kids diagnosed with retinoblastoma do every year. They'll need two or three more treatments over the next few months to be sure, but there's a grudging trade that the Fishers may still have to make to rid the retina of the cancer.
"You remove the eye to save her life," he said.
After several hours in recovery on Wednesday, the doctors told the family that they could take Tatum home on the Jazz's private jet, and so, the Fishers left New York for Salt Lake City in the late afternoon. Fisher had called his coach, Jerry Sloan, and general manager, Kevin O'Connor, and told them the good news about the baby. He had missed Game 1 and only worked out at the hotel late Tuesday night after leaving the hospital. "Just worked up a sweat," he said.
He would try to get back for Game 2 against Golden State on Wednesday night, and so, Sloan kept him on the active roster. For another player, Sloan never would have believed that he could have survived this day, flown cross country, gone several days without playing or practicing, and still be thrown into the middle of a wild, breathless playoff game.
Fisher is different. He's one of the most respected, most grounded men in the NBA, the president of the players' union, a pro's pro. On the flight back to Utah, he still wasn't thinking about playing in Game 2. But slowly, surely, the anesthesia faded, and that baby girl was laughing, gurgling, looking at her parents as though they had just come from the playground together.
It was 8:15 p.m. when his flight landed at the Salt Lake airport, and the city police sent him an escort for the 10-mile drive to the arena. They turned on the radio, and suddenly, the starting guard, Deron Williams, had gone to the bench with foul trouble. His backup, Dee Brown, crashed to the floor with a neck injury and had to be taken to the hospital with what would be diagnosed as a sprain.
"My heart started racing," Fisher said.
He knew his team needed him now. Candace had given her blessing to go play, and Tatum was sleeping now, and so yes, his heart was racing like never before in his life. Even with all of those championship nights with Shaq and Kobe on the Lakers, it still felt like he was walking into a great unknown.
Fisher rushed into the locker room, dressed in his uniform and made his way to the bench in the third quarter. The roar of those 19,911 people, standing and screaming at the sight of him, had just started when Sloan yelled down to him, "Get in there."
Get in there?
Get in there.
Sloan never let him sit down on the bench. Fisher kept moving for the scorer's table, the horn sounded, and there he was standing in the middle of Game 2, in the middle of it all. It wasn't just the Jazz players greeting him, but his old teammates with the Warriors, too. He played several minutes, left the game and made a move for the stationary bike to get loose. Then, he was dribbling the ball on the sidelines, getting loose, getting ready for a playoff game that was still going to come back to him.
Utah would need him in the fourth quarter, when those go-go Warriors had overtaken the Jazz and were threatening to steal the game. Golden State was winning 112-109 when Baron Davis, who had 36 points and has been the best player in these playoffs, was bringing the ball across mid-court with 40 seconds left. The Jazz needed a stop, needed the ball, and there was Fisher digging into Davis, fighting him for every inch. Fisher got his hand on Davis' dribble and sent him backward to retrieve the ball. And then, Fisher stayed step for step with Davis across the mid-court line until suddenly the Warrior guard's sneaker touched the sideline to force the turnover.
Fisher had given the Jazz a shot now. They had the ball back with 27.4 seconds left, and soon Utah would find a way to get the game to overtime on Deron Williams' jump shot with 2.3 seconds left. Finally, there was a stoppage in play with 1:25 left in the overtime, and Fisher told himself that a chance to take a big shot was on its way, he could feel it, and this was no time to be passive, to back away.
"Had I have had to shoot the ball any time before that, it probably wouldn't have gone in," he said.
The Warriors were within 120-117 on Stephen Jackson's free throws, and soon the Jazz's Williams fired a pass to Fisher in the corner. This was it. This was the moment. Fisher knew it was coming, just knew it. As it turned out, he never hesitated. Never flinched. His three-point shot arced high, dropped through the net with just over a minute left, and the crowd wouldn't stand and cheer the rest of the night so much for the 2-0 series lead on the Warriors as they would for the spirit of Derek Lamar Fisher.
All those titles in L.A., and Fisher had never been as much a champion as he was Wednesday night.
"There's not enough that could be [said] about him, what he did tonight," Williams said.
When it was over, Fisher didn't want to talk so much about his big defensive stand or his big shot. He wanted to talk about the responsibility that he already felt to be a voice for retinoblastoma. He wanted parents to take kids to the doctors' to check for it, and he wants to raise money so that families who aren't as privileged as his own can get the help they did in a desperate time.
"There's no reason why a kid should lose their eye, or their life, because their parents can't afford to get to the best doctors in the world," he said.
After just about everyone had left his locker, Fisher, still in his uniform, slinked in his seat and let out a long sigh. Tears welled in his eyes. Nearly 20 hours earlier, he awoke in the darkness of a Manhattan hotel, praying that Tatum would make it out of the hospital. Now his little girl was waiting for him at home with her twin brother, Drew.
All Derek Fisher had wanted in the morning was to protect her, keep her safe, because a father's breaking heart understands that's what daddies do for daughters. They had made it home.