Hoops takes back seat to daughter's health for Fisher

Originally Published: May 10, 2007
By John Hollinger | ESPN Insider

SALT LAKE CITY -- Now that Derek Fisher's odyssey from a New York hospital to a Salt Lake City basketball court has become such a heartwarming national story, he wants to make sure he gets the word out.

In his first day as the unofficial spokesperson for the rare condition called retinoblastoma, a childhood cancer of the eye, Fisher spent 45 minutes with reporters at the Utah Jazz practice facility explaining the condition, his hectic and stressful week leading up to yesterday, and how he was able to return to a basketball court and succeed in the wake of all of it.

Derek Fisher
AP Photo/Steve C. WilsonDerek Fisher is trying to get the word out about a potentially fatal childhood disease.
Fisher knows he's one of the lucky ones. The condition is a potential killer if not caught early enough, and tough to diagnose because it's so rare and its symptoms so subtle. But in his daughter Tatum's case, he had the good fortune to run into a doctor who had seen the condition before.

Amazingly enough, it was all because his health plan forced him to switch from an out-of-network pediatrician -- "my first experience with that whole, 'man, kids are really expensive' thing," said Fisher -- to a new one, and the new doctor diagnosed it right away.

"What are the chances of us switching doctors, and the first time we see the doctor she picks up on it and probably saves my daughter's life?" said Fisher. "We would have gone for months more not knowing what was wrong, just that her one eye was a little different."

Instead, last Wednesday's routine doctor visit sent into motion a chain of events that culminated in Fisher's rousing finish to Utah's 127-117 overtime win over Golden State in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.

But before then, it required a mother's persistence just to figure out something was wrong. The telltale sign of retinoblastoma is something called "cat's eye reflex," where the eye reflects light at certain angles "as if it's glowing in the dark," said Fisher.

"You don't think you could die from it," he said.

Fisher said his wife, Candace, "had some instincts about something being a little different with my daughter's eye and mentioned it to pediatricians a couple times," and had noticed it a couple of months before the eventual diagnosis.

"Trust me, [mothers] just know that something's not right," said Fisher. "Us silly men, a lot of times we don't trust it because we're different thinkers and we always try to have an explanation. Wives and mothers don't need an explanation. They just know.

The doctor referred Fisher to an opthalmologist, who confirmed the diagnosis, and then Fisher went to New York to see the top authority in the world on this condition, Dr. David Abramson of New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, for a consultation. (And no, this time he didn't ask his health plan for the OK. "Everyone knows when it comes to kids price doesn't matter," said Fisher.)

At first, Fisher's worries went beyond his daughter. Because 10 percent of newly diagnosed patients have other family members with the disease, according to retinoblastoma.net, Fisher, his wife Candace, and Tatum's twin brother Drew all had to be tested for the condition.

Fortunately, all tested negative, while Fisher realized how fortunate he was to get an early diagnosis when they met another family in New York in similar straits. That family couldn't put a finger on what was wrong with their son, although they had been mentioning it to their pediatricians for several months. By the time it was diagnosed, he'd lost vision completely in one eye and nearly all of it in another. (Another way Fisher was fortunate -- Tatum's condition was only in the left eye).

For Tatum, the prognosis is better since it was caught earlier. Her treatment on Wedesday was a procedure performed by French doctor Pierre Gobin at New York Presbyterian Hospital's Cornell Medical Center. The doctor treated the tumor in Tatum's left eye locally to shrink the tumor, with the hope being that the tumor eventually shrinks enough to allow it to be removed surgically without losing the entire eye.

Fisher stressed that Tatum isn't completely out of the woods yet. Some time in the next three to four weeks, she'll return to New York for a follow-up visit, where they will either repeat the procedure to shrink the tumor further, or attempt to remove it if it has become small enough. Fisher said it can be done up to three times, and that there is still a risk of losing the eye. He added that these doctors have done the treatment nine times and succeeded in eight.

But once his daughter emerged from the surgery on Wednesday and was cleared to return home with the family, he figured he might as well give playing in Game 2 a try. "It's what I do," said Fisher. "It's not who I am, but it's what I do."

First, he had to be put on the active roster -- a decision that went right up to the league's deadline of one hour prior to tip-off (or perhaps beyond -- the media didn't know if Fisher was active or not until half an hour later).

"We talked about it before the game," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan "You're always concerned about putting a player out there after what he's gone through and then getting somebody hurt ... but he wanted to play and was enthusiastic about it."

There was the little matter of preparation too -- Fisher hadn't seen any tape or scouting reports on the Warriors, and in fact hadn't shot a basketball since Game 7 against Houston on Saturday.

"Fortunately I played with these guys," said Fisher, who was a Warrior until being traded to Utah prior to his season, "so I had a feel for individual guys and their strengths and weaknesses."

The rest is history. As he entered the game late in the third quarter following a police escort from the airport and a quick change in the locker room, the crowd erupted in a roar -- a bit odd since Carlos Boozer was at the line at the time and the cheers started right as Boozer was getting into his shooting motion. "I knew he was going to be here after halftime, so I knew what was going on," said Boozer, who stayed calm enough to make both free throws -- stopping in between to greet Fisher in between shots.

And after a slow start, it was Fisher who gave Utah its emotional lift down the stretch, culminating in his game-icing 3-pointer in overtime.

Of course, being a basketball player is now only his second most important job. Fisher is also taking it upon himself to be a spokesperson for retinoblastoma -- something he's amply prepared for as the current head of the players' union.

"We do a lot of things [in the community], we enjoy doing them -- you speak to kids, you do all sorts of things," said Fisher. "But then certain things come along that affect you personally, that then take your passion to another level in terms of wanting to help. This is one thing that hits home for us, and especially because of its rarity it's really important to us to raise awareness."

But much of that may have to wait until after the season. For now, he still has to focus on beating the Golden State Warriors. And although he thought about staying behind, he'll be on the team plane at 4 p.m. today when it flies to Oakland, because he knows he has a lot of catching up to do.

However difficult that may prove to be, Fisher won't be forgetting his magical Wednesday -- both on the court and off it -- any time soon.

"Sometimes you don't want to offend people that don't believe in the Lord, but I definitely feel like last night was some form of divine intervention."

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.