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Stories of The NBA
Jack McCallum
December 31, 2007
Grace Under Pressure, On and Off the Court
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December 31, 2007

Stories Of The Nba

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Grace Under Pressure, On and Off the Court

THOUGH THE San Antonio Spurs won their fourth championship in nine years, behind Finals MVP Tony Parker, an important moment of the 2007 playoffs came a month earlier.

Under normal circumstances, an NBA player showing up late to a game means that some sort of transgression has taken place. But point guard Derek Fisher arrived late for games twice in the 2007 postseason, and both times he was extended a hero's welcome by the crowd, his teammates and his coach.

Fisher, then with the Utah Jazz (he rejoined the Los Angeles Lakers, who drafted him in 1996, last summer after being released from his contract so he could move his family to a city with better medical care), has always been a coach's dream—a gutsy, no-nonsense workaholic who built himself into a solid player, never a star but frequently a starter. In his first stint in L.A., he was the one who provided the blue-collar stability on a team dominated by the oversized and volatile personalities of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

So when Fisher, who was traded to Utah before the 2006--07 season, said he had to miss Game 1 of last season's Western Conference second-rounder against the Golden State Warriors for personal reasons, everyone knew it must be serious. It was.

Fisher's 10-month-old daughter, Tatum, had been diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a form of eye cancer, a week earlier, and Fisher had to fly to New York City to be with her and his wife, Candace, for an emergency operation. The procedure took place on May 9, the day of Game 2. After the operation, which was termed a success, Fisher returned to Salt Lake City on a charter plane, got a police escort to EnergySolutions Arena and walked in to a huge ovation near the end of the third quarter. He huddled briefly with coach Jerry Sloan ("I asked him if he was all right, and he said he was," Sloan said later) and headed directly to the scorer's table to check in, getting high fives and hugs from his teammates and Warriors star Baron Davis.

Fisher didn't do much until the overtime period, when the Hollywood script kicked in. He took only one shot, a three-pointer that went in, and added two key free throws to help the Jazz to a 127--117 victory. "I don't know how I got through this tonight," Fisher said afterward. "I really don't."

Three weeks later, as the Jazz faced elimination in the Western finals against the Spurs, Tatum was back in New York for follow-up treatment. Fisher knew his priorities. He flew to New York after Game 4 to be with Candace and Tatum, then flew back to San Antonio for Game 5, arriving at halftime. It was no Hollywood ending this time—the Jazz lost 109--94—but Fisher had already given the sports world a lesson in grace under pressure.

Tatum continues to receive treatment, but Fisher says he is optimistic about her recovery. Meanwhile, he's back alongside Bryant in the Lakers' backcourt, a dependable floor leader playing hard but keeping the game in perspective.

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