ONE NIGHT IN UTAH
A GAME OF REMARKABLE EMOTION
Sports possess remarkable powers. They can invoke an amazing roller coaster of emotions: euphoria, despair, hope. They can be an escape from our everyday lives.
Perhaps their greatest power of all, though, is their ability to connect us.
On May 9, 2007, Derek Fisher gave us a reason to stand up and cheer, regardless of the team we root for, regardless of whether we were sports fans or not.
Just ten months prior, Derek’s wife Candace gave birth to twins: daughter Tatum and son Drew. After spending two seasons as a member of the Golden State Warriors, Fish had asked to be traded to a team where he could have a more prominent role. The Warriors obliged, and traded him to the Utah Jazz, where he started 61 of 82 games at the point during the ‘06-‘07 season.
With the Jazz in the middle of a postseason run on May 2, Fish’s world was turned upside down. Candace had noticed a mysterious glow in Tatum’s left eye, making it look similar to a cat’s eye.
The diagnosis was a parent’s worst nightmare. Tatum had retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that affects 1 in every 20,000 newborns. She had a small tumor behind her left eye, and the doctors told Derek and his wife they must ask quickly so the cancer would not spread to her brain and become fatal.
“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,” Fish told the Salt Lake Tribune in 2007. “The uncertainty…was tough.”
He continued to play despite the news, and the Jazz advanced to the second round of the playoffs, knocking off the Houston Rockets in seven games. As the Jazz’s second round series against Fish’s former team, the Golden State Warriors began, Tatum was set to fly to New York’s Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and undergo a procedure involving surgery and chemotherapy with Dr. David Abramson.
Derek missed Game 1 against the Warriors, a 116-112 Utah win, to be with his family. Surgery was set for the morning of May 9, with the second game of the series scheduled for that night in Salt Lake, and the Jazz assumed that Fish would miss Game 2 as well.
As Tatum went in for surgery, the rest of the family waited anxiously for news of her condition.
“Your daughter’s in other people’s hands in a sense,” Fisher said about his feelings of helplessness throughout the process. “As a father, in particular with daughters, you feel like they’re your responsibility and all you want to do is protect them, keep them safe, keep them out of trouble and keep them healthy.”
Fortunately, Tatum emerged in good condition. Knowing that she was OK, Derek decided it was time to be there for his team. With his family’s blessing, he hopped on plane set for Utah.
He arrived at Energy Solutions Arena during the second half, with the Jazz holding a slim advantage. He changed into his uniform and warmed up as best he could, and walked down the tunnel towards the stadium floor.
As soon as Derek emerged, the Jazz faithful erupted with a deafening roar.
“As soon as he got in the arena, he went straight to the scorer’s table,” fellow Jazz point guard Deron Williams said. “There’s not enough that could be said about him, what he did tonight.”
Late in the fourth quarter, head coach Jerry Sloan motioned for Derek to enter the game. He walked onto the court to another thunderous roar from the Utah fans. His former teammates greeted him and asked of his daughter’s condition, and he exchanged hugs with a few. With the Jazz holding a slim two-point advantage, he was inserted to defend Warriors sharpshooter Baron Davis.
In the game’s final minute, Fish pressured Davis with the inspired defense that had become one of the most respected parts of his game. His stifling pressure caused Davis to lose his balance and step on the baseline, turning the ball over to Utah.
In overtime, the teams traded baskets early, but the Jazz took a 120-117 into the final 90 seconds. With his team looking for the final dagger, Fish stepped to the forefront, and delivered a second unforgettable moment.
Off a missed shot attempt, the ball was swung out to guard Deron Williams. He bluffed a drive to the basket, drawing Fisher’s defender towards the key for just a split second before hitting Fish in the left corner.
Derek hoisted the first shot he had taken in three days, practice or game. It touched nothing but net, sending the crowd into pandemonium. Utah had a 123-117 lead, an advantage they would never relinquish.
The two biggest plays of the night had come from the player with the heaviest heart.
“To wake up this morning and take my daughter to the hospital, not knowing if I was going to see her again, if the procedure’s going to go well, to her coming out of it and being well, and then flying back home and helping the team win a game. I think had I thought about it, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I was on auto pilot and it just happened,” Fish told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
After the game, he gave an emotional, heartfelt on-court interview, in which he talked about his family’s plight and his daughter’s condition and procedure.
“I didn’t know before I said it,” Fisher said, “but in the moment that I was saying it, I just felt that if I shared it, it would be helpful in some way.”
He urged a watching nation to become aware of this dangerous disease, and have children checked regularly, because the same could happen to them.
’’He has done more for the field, more for patients, than I have done in the last 30 years, of 50 lectures and 400 publications,’’ Dr. Abramson, said in an interview. ’’What he’s done has been enormous and profound.’’
Abramson told a story about two families from Jerusalem — one Israeli, the other Palestinian — who came to Sloan Kettering for treatment.
“Probably the only time they had sat in the same room,’’ he said. ’’When I asked them why they had come, their story was the exactly same: they had heard about the basketball player’s child.’’
Since that night in Utah, Tatum has received follow-up care in both Los Angeles and New York, and has become the joyful toddler her family hoped she’d be.
Some day, she’ll hear stories about her father’s courageous actions on that one night in Utah, and how his inspiring play and heroics brought not just an important victory, but impacted millions of lives around the world.