Utah's Fisher Torn Between Family and Game
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
OAKLAND, Calif., May 14 -- David Abramson was walking through Central Park last Thursday when he felt a buzz on his hip. He picked up his BlackBerry and read a message from a patient telling him about Utah Jazz point guard Derek Fisher's heroic performance against the Golden State Warriors in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.
"I wasn't aware he made it to the game. I wasn't aware he had played. I wasn't aware he had played so well. I wasn't aware he talked about retinoblastoma," said Abramson, who, along with Pierre Gobin, had treated Fisher's 10-month-old daughter, Tatum, at New York Presbyterian Hospital the day before for an advanced case of retinoblastoma, a cancerous tumor of the retina that strikes about 300 children a year.
Only hours after Fisher left the hospital where the successful surgery had been performed, he walked through the tunnel of EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City and helped his team win by playing stifling defense against Baron Davis and burying a clutch three-pointer in overtime. When he was done, Fisher spoke of his emotionally draining day and pledged to fight the rare form of cancer that afflicted his young daughter.
Abramson, an alternate on the 1960 Olympic swim team, isn't much of a basketball fan. He wasn't familiar with Fisher, his 11-year basketball career or three championship rings with the Los Angeles Lakers until shortly before he treated Tatum. Fisher and his wife, Candace, were among 20 families he treated last Wednesday. The only time basketball was mentioned, Abramson said, was when Abramson offered to delay treatment to coincide better with Fisher's schedule, since the Jazz was set to play a game that night and he had already missed Game 1. "I said, 'Well, this is what you worked your whole life for,' " Abramson said. "He was very, very clear that his first concern was his child and his second concern is his child."
Knowing that the cancer was close to spreading to the brain, Fisher was unwavering. "Just do what you can as quickly and as efficiently as you can," Abramson recalls Fisher telling him.
The most common way to remove the cancer is to remove the eye, but Fisher and his wife knew that Abramson and Gobin had developed a procedure called intra-arterial chemotherapy, which removes the tumor and treats the disease without removing the eye. Nothing has been published about the treatment -- which Abramson and Gobin also refer to as "chemosurgery" -- and Abramson said he plans to present it at a scientific meeting next month in Italy.
Abramson said Tatum was the 10th child to receive the treatment, but her case has brought more awareness to the disease. "I'm struck that after 30 years of writing over 400 articles about this, it's only now that there is so much more publicity about the disease, for which I'm delighted," said Abramson, a leading authority in treating this form of cancer, in a phone interview on Monday. "I guess a point guard is much better at getting out the message about cancer."
Subsequent treatment still awaits Tatum. She will return to New York in two weeks for another eye exam. Abramson said he believes that Fisher will eventually serve as an ambassador for the cause, as promised, but understands that his focus is currently divided between caring for his family and helping the Jazz advance in the playoffs.
Fisher's reputation as a solid, poised performer is already set -- in addition to his championships with the Lakers, he also hit one of the most clutch game-winning shots ever in 2004 with 0.4 of a second left in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs.
But he is approaching a different sort of following in this series, and his story becomes more powerful with each game.
He arrived in Salt Lake City for Game 2 with the assistance of a police escort and rushed to the court shortly after he dressed in the locker room. Fisher hit the only shot he took in the game, a left-wing three-pointer that secured an overtime victory for the Jazz. It was the only shot he had taken in four days, since he left the team after the "glow" in Tatum's left eye was diagnosed as a life-threatening disease.
"He's gone through a tremendous amount, disregard basketball. We've tried to support him any way we could. Our organization did everything it could to help him. He has to take care of those things first," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan, who missed three games in 2003-04 when his late wife, Bobbye, was dying of cancer. "I said that if something like that comes up, basketball is not that important."
After a less dramatic performance in Game 3, Fisher dispelled the Warriors' home-court magic at Oracle Arena as he scored 14 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4 on Sunday and helped the Jazz take a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven series. In a four-minute span in the fourth quarter, Fisher silenced the sellout crowd with a three-pointer that gave the Jazz an 89-87 lead, knocked down a 20-foot jumper from the left side for a 93-88 lead and sent most fans home with another three-pointer that put his team ahead 100-93. Game 5 is Tuesday night at EnergySolutions Arena.
"It's been an incredible week to 10 days, culminated by this game," Fisher said Sunday night. "It's difficult. Even on days like today, I'm thinking about my family and my wife and my children. Thinking about how important they are to me. But at the same time, it's an opportunity for me as an individual, at least, to leave those things for two or three hours and help my team.
"I do think about [my family] at times during the game, but this is what I do. My family loves me and they support me through this. And I love them more than ever at this time," said Fisher, who has four children with his wife. "I'm ecstatic that I can help my team, because I don't have any expectation as far as my performance at this point. I really don't. I'm just happy that I'm not a detriment to these guys right now. My focus is really kind of split at times."
Abramson said he has yet to see Fisher play but added that he should serve as an inspiration. "I grew up thinking Mickey Mantle was my role model. I think I wished I could hit like him. But this guy really is a role model," Abramson said. "This is a husband, a really involved parent -- a terrific role model."