Fisher’s eyes on prize -- his family
Her eyes are his eyes.
On the bad days, when little Tatum Fisher can’t stop crying and can’t begin to understand, Derek Fisher’s clear eyes cloud.
“Sometimes in the morning, I want to call Phil and tell him I just can’t make the shoot-around, I just need to be home,” he says. “But as one of this team’s leaders, that’s not something I can do.”
On the worse days, every eight weeks, when Tatum is laid on a gurney and a tiny gas mask is placed over her face and she undergoes a cancer-evaluation procedure, Derek Fisher’s clear eyes grow red.
“They let us stay in the room and hold her until she goes to sleep, but then they make us leave,” he says. “It’s always so hard to leave.”
Her eyes are his eyes.
Last spring, in a whirlwind of events that captured the attention of a nation, a cancerous tumor was discovered in the left eye of Derek Fisher’s infant daughter.
The story has departed the front page but become embedded in his life.
Quietly, typically, with neither fanfare nor complaint, he has spent the last year helping his 22-month-old child fight retinoblastoma while trying to help the Lakers fight for a championship.
The man known for his uncanny vision -- both on the court and in the locker room -- has exhausted himself trying to save his little girl’s eye.
He has gone from practice floor to hospital room, from charter flight to computer web cam, from prayer to prayer, keeping one strong hand on his family while directing the Lakers with the other.
“Nothing can prepare you for a sick child, nothing,” says his wife Candace.
Fisher shakes his head.
“Never been through a year like this,” Fisher admits quietly. “Never.”
You couldn’t tell from his play. While Kobe Bryant has been the league MVP, Fisher has been the Lakers MVP, never missing a game or a loose ball or a chance to inspire.
“What he does for us, you don’t see in a box score,” assistant coach Frank Hamblen says. “In every way, he’s a class act.”
You also couldn’t tell from his attitude. Until now, Fisher has refused to give detailed interviews about his personal situation for fear of attracting unnecessary sympathy.
“People everywhere have to deal with their troubles, whether it’s medical or financial or whatever,” he says. “I don’t think my situation is anything special.”
The only way you can tell anything is different is from Tatum herself.
As if she knows, she sometimes calls him, “Daddy-Daddy.”
Twice the name.
Twice the man.
“She’s my Tatey,” he said. “She’s my sweetie.”
And now, it gets even harder.
Now, in the second round of the NBA playoffs beginning today at Staples Center, the Lakers face a team filled with Fisher’s best memories and worst nightmares.
He was one of the leaders of the Utah Jazz last spring when Tatum was diagnosed with eye cancer.
He was a hero for the Jazz when he flew back from one of Tatum’s cancer treatments in New York just in time to hit a three-pointer that clinched a playoff victory.
He became a former member of the Jazz when the team, in an unprecedented move at his request, terminated his contract so he could move to a place where he felt more stability and comfort with Tatum’s cancer treatments.
He was then scorned by the Jazz last winter when its fans loudly accused one of basketball’s character guys of being a charlatan.
Her eyes are his eyes.
When Fisher returned to Utah for his first game there as a reborn Laker at the end of November, his focused stare was wide with disbelief.
He was booed. He was booed as he’d never been booed before.
He was booed by fans who decided his request to take care of his daughter was a lie, that he left Utah only because he wanted to return to the Lakers.
This, even though he took about a $6.5-million pay cut to join the Lakers.
This, even though he wanted to bring his family back to within driving distances of trusted doctors and his wife’s family.
“I honestly couldn’t believe the reaction,” Fisher says. “It was very hurtful. It threw me off.”
A city that supposedly embraces family values booed like a legion of frauds.
“It was pretty sad,” Candace says.
And it wasn’t only the fans.
“It did look funny when we just released Derek outright . . . and like, three weeks later, he signed with the Lakers,” Jazz owner Larry Miller told the Salt Lake Tribune.
Fisher was booed so much, the surprise stole his game.
“It was the first time in a long time when I felt I couldn’t ground myself enough to contribute,” he says.
He made only one of eight shots, his second-worst shooting game of the season. He scored three points, his second-worst total. The Lakers lost by 24 points, their worst defeat of the season.
But Fisher learned.
He received several apologies afterward, and some fans actually cheered him in the Lakers’ second visit there, but, yeah, he learned.
“It was a great wake-up call for me,” he says. “It made me realize, ‘OK, you are no longer part of this team or this town.’ ”
Fisher didn’t expect to be applauded. But goodness, does anyone who has known this man for even five seconds really think he would use his daughter’s cancer as a bargaining chip?
Fisher thought, if only fans could see him and Candace sitting with Tatum on their drives to the hospital for the periodic procedures.
“Tatum is fine in the beginning, but we get to the hospital, she sees all those people, she knows what’s coming, she gets a little upset,” he said. “She has this certain cry, it’s her scared cry. We always know that scared cry.”
Fisher thought, if only they could see him and Candace sitting up with her for the next three nights while her body tries to regain its stability after the procedure’s shock to her system.
“All the tubes that have been in her throat, sometimes she’ll have trouble breathing, she always has to fight it,” Fisher said.
It is these intense checkups -- every four weeks at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, every two months at Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in New York -- that is keeping them strong.
For now, the tumor in her eye is “dead,” according to Candace, who runs her family of six with a quiet dignity and strength.
The tumor was put to sleep by three initial chemotherapy treatments, and has been monitored through the constant checkups.
Any decision to remove their daughter’s eye -- a common option for those with retinoblastoma -- will wait until she is old enough to tell them how much she can see with that eye.
Initially, they thought her vision there was 10%. There are some signs that it has improved to 40%.
“As long as the tumor isn’t getting any bigger, we’ll just wait until she can tell us how it’s affecting her,” Fisher says. “We want to give her every possible chance to keep the eye.”
In the meantime, the game is his refuge, the one thing he can control, one of the few 48-minute segments of his life that makes sense.
“I get scared sometimes,” Fisher says. “Then I get around my teammates and, it’s like, my sanctuary. For two or three hours, I have peace of mind.”
Her eyes are his eyes.
It would be nice to say that he can use them to look up at Tatum in the stands during games.
But because she associates crowds with discomfort -- thanks to all the doctors and nurses who have surrounded her -- she’s not happy at Staples Center, and has attended only two games.
It would also be nice to say that an NBA championship could make everything right, but it won’t come close.
“We do what we have to do to keep Tatum first and foremost in our lives, she’s our priority,” Candace says. “What Derek is doing with the Lakers is very important, but [when] that’s finished, we’re waiting for the day when he can be home all the time.”
He has thought about it. He’ll keep thinking about it. But for now he’s thinking about continuing to give his daughter the gift of the fight.
“Ten years from now, I want her to be able to see how she handled this, how she battled this, how special she is,” he says, looking into the distance, faintly smiling. “Yeah, I want her to see it.”
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.