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Hours before walking straight from the locker room to the middle of the EnergySolutions court late in the third quarter Wednesday night, pausing only to hug a teammate and believing he could help the Utah Jazz win a playoff game, Derek Fisher walked out of the operating room of a New York hospital, knowing he could not help his infant daughter.
Ten months into her life, Tatum Fisher was facing a surgical procedure to treat a rare form of cancer, lodged in a tumor behind her left eye. She was sleeping. Her parents were terrified.
"You don't know if you'll get her back," Derek Fisher said Thursday, recounting the varied emotions of the longest day of his life.
Ultimately, it became one of his best days. The procedure went well, although subsequent treatment awaits Tatum. The Jazz beat the Golden State Warriors in overtime, with her father making a key contribution that will long be remembered in the team's playoff lore.
Fisher already has his place in NBA history. As the ultimate complementary player among superstars, Fisher helped the Los Angeles Lakers win three consecutive championships earlier this decade and is one of the league's most respected players among his peers. Once Kobe Bryant, former Lakers teammate, learned of Fisher's intentions of playing Wednesday, he sent him a simple text message: "Go at them."
That's what the Jazz have come to expect from Fisher, 32, who quickly became the acknowledged leader of a young team in his first season - almost a father figure to some players and "a brother of mine," according to forward Carlos Boozer.
In the city where he lived from birth through college, Fisher is revered for donating $700,000 to the University of Arkansas-Little Rock to establish Fisher Fellows, a life skills program for athletes. "He has such high character and is such a role model, and made himself into a great player," said Chris Peterson, the school's athletic director.
Yet in his 11th pro season, playing against his teammates of the previous two years, Fisher did something Wednesday he had never done: show up late and save a game.
"A lot of people wouldn't do that," Boozer said. "He didn't have to be here. Obviously, he loves basketball."
Fisher figured he was just being loyal to his teammates by reporting to work. "That's what I do," he explained. "It's not who I am, but it's what I do."
Basketball fans will remember how well Fisher played, under the most trying of circumstances: having missed the previous game and not even having taken a practice shot for three days until he launched a successful three-pointer in overtime. Others will wonder why he was so driven to play at all, when coach Jerry Sloan would have excused him again, considering how Sloan missed three games in 2003-04 when his wife was dying of cancer. Parents will revisit their own worst fears about their children's health - which is precisely what Fisher hopes will happen as he attempts to increase awareness about retinoblastoma, which often goes undetected.
His own parental experience - Fisher and his wife, Candace, have four children - was on his mind when he was introduced during a July news conference after being traded from Golden State to the Jazz. Fisher's opening remarks were a heartfelt expression of hope to the family of missing 5-year-old Destiny Norton, amid his own joy in the recent birth of Tatum and her twin brother, Drew, and his misgivings about uprooting his young family.
With his annual salary approaching $6 million, Fisher could afford to fly his daughter to New York to visit Dr. David Abramson, a leading authority in a new method of treating retinoblastoma. Yet he says Tatum may never have been diagnosed at all if not for a sequence of events that included something the average family encounters: having to find a new pediatrician within an insurance network, resulting in the key local referral. Fisher credits his wife for being persistent, convinced the odd glow in Tatum's eye told of a problem.
Suddenly, things were happening fast. As of last week, when Tatum was diagnosed with a condition that was potentially fatal if the cancer spread into her brain, the Jazz were facing elimination against Houston. Fisher had bigger worries.
"You find out that your child could die, and you don't really know exactly what you can and can't do, so many things are going through your mind," he said Thursday, standing on the team's practice court with his hands in the pockets of his sweatpants and fielding questions for a half-hour. "The uncertainty . . . was tough."
Fisher told teammates about his daughter's condition after Game 6 against Houston, but only hinted about it publicly while continuing to play. After the Jazz won the series in Game 7, he attended Sunday's practice but then prepared to take his family to New York, missing Monday's Game 1 against Golden State.
Wednesday, assuming Tatum's procedure would go well and the family could return home, Fisher made plans to play in Game 2. Sloan included him on the night's 12-player active roster, submitted an hour before tipoff. Fisher hoped to arrive at least by halftime, but was delayed until the last 3 1/2 minutes of the third quarter.
By then, he was desperately needed. Dee Brown, the Jazz's No. 3 point guard, had gone to the hospital with a sprained neck after a first-quarter collision. Deron Williams, the starter, was temporarily taken out of the game because of fouls, just when Fisher was changing into his uniform.
That explains how Fisher never even took a seat on the bench before checking into the game. He played the last 3:18 of the third quarter, then sat out - actually, riding a stationary bicycle in the tunnel to keep warm - until the last 1:13 of the fourth period. The Jazz fell behind by five points before rallying, and Fisher helped them force overtime by hounding Golden State's Baron Davis, who missed a shot at the buzzer.
In overtime, Fisher assisted Boozer for a basket that put the Jazz ahead to stay. He later clinched the win with a three-pointer.
Watching him take the court, "I knew he was going to do something special," said his agent, Mark Bartelstein.
"It's hard for me to really take credit for what happened," said Fisher, citing "some form of divine intervention" influencing his shot.
Fisher was emotionally drained Thursday, hoping to rest after the Jazz arrived in Oakland for tonight's Game 3, but was satisfied to have contributed to Wednesday's win.
"It probably was a little bit of a release for him . . . maybe comforting to get back with his teammates," Sloan said.
"He definitely lifted our spirits," Williams said.
And those of others, closer to Fisher. Such a performance "can help the spirits of your family for that day or how ever long," Bryant said.
Fisher, representing about 450 players as president of the National Basketball Players Association, has been overwhelmed by the response from the NBA community, including the standing ovation from nearly 20,000 fans when he entered the game. He believes his family's faith and the prayers of others will carry them through whatever is ahead for his daughter and his basketball team.
Billy Hunter, the Players Association's executive director, witnessed the fans' greeting and remembered having to console Fisher, who was initially hurt by last summer's trade. "Isn't it funny how things can turn around?" Hunter said. "You never know what God has in store."
Fisher understands that as well as anyone.
"Sometimes [life] hits you really hard and you have to stand up and face it and deal with it," he said. "We're going to beat this thing. That's the same attitude I take toward my job."
* ROSS SILER contributed to this story.