You wouldn't think the compassion extended so lovingly to Derek Fisher and his family that magical night a year ago could be conditionally tied to a jersey. You wouldn't think folks could choose basketball over a family's inspirational fight against its baby girl's cancer. But it came to that just six months later when thousands of Utah Jazz fans booed Fisher because he dared return as a Laker, because a search for the best medical care for his daughter led him from Salt Lake City back to Los Angeles.
One can only wonder what the reaction will be Friday night in Salt Lake City when Fisher takes the court for the Lakers in Game 3 of their playoff series against the Jazz. "I think it'll be as crazy and hostile an environment as I have ever played in . . . ever in my career," Fisher said. "And I don't know how much of it will be personal. . . . I think me coming back will have some impact on how they handle themselves. It'll be interesting to see. I was just told that Friday's Game 3 will be one year to the date of the game that I came back to play in last year. Talk about not being able to plan everything in life. . . . There's no way that's an accident. I'm sure there will be a lot of emotion in the building that night."
It was exactly a year ago that Fisher flew from New York to Salt Lake City following one of his daughter Tatum's treatments for a cancerous tumor of the retina, rushed to the arena and led a playoff victory over Golden State, complete with a dramatic three-point shot in overtime. People cried and hugged and pledged their support to the Fishers. But after seeking permission from the Jazz to examine relocating to a community closer to the best doctors and facilities for Tatum's continued treatment, Fisher chose Los Angeles, where he had been a member of three championship Lakers teams at the start of the decade. And this was a problem because they hate the Lakers in Utah.
So when the Lakers came to Salt Lake City on Nov. 30, Fisher was booed, as if May 9, 2007, had never happened.
So much for Fisher leading the critical victory that pushed the Jazz to the Western Conference finals or for Tatum's health. Kobe Bryant, close friends with Fisher throughout their careers, thought back to Fisher's determination to play that night after the long flight from New York on what had already been a draining day. Kobe text-messaged Fisher in New York. "I asked him," Bryant said, " 'Are you gonna play?' And he said, 'I'm gonna give it a go. I think I owe it to the people in Utah because when I arrived here they welcomed my family and me with open arms. I owe it to them to go out and perform.' And he made that huge, huge shot and he just played his heart out. And now the first time we go back there these people have the nerve to boo him. It just set me off."
In a conversation with ESPN, Fisher was his usual measured self, though clearly bothered by the reaction to his first return to Salt Lake City. "To think about it now, a year removed from what we experienced and what Tatum went through, how much stronger we are as a family, how much better she's doing, its amazing that that can happen in one year," he said.
"It was a difficult thing to grasp or understand, in terms of what was it that the fans didn't quite understand about our story as a family. There were plenty of articles and stories about what took place and why. When you hear about a family experiencing cancer or any serious illness there is no point to judge any professional move or personal decision that's made in terms of improving the quality of life."
Fisher isn't painting everybody in Utah with the same broad stroke.
"I got a letter from a lady who was our real estate agent in Salt Lake City," he said. "She and her husband treated us like family the year we were there. She attached a newspaper article from one of the local newspapers that basically said it was the wrong time for Jazz fans to boo. She wanted me to know from her husband as well as from the writer and other Jazz fans that those fans that were booing are not speaking for everyone in that community. So it was good to receive some of that feedback."
Still, we're not talking about a handful of boos. "It hurt," Fisher said. "It threw me off. I'm really tough mentally, resilient, in terms of road games and being able to deal with the crowd. [But] that particular night it was an out-of-body type experience, similar [and opposite] to the one I had before . . . I couldn't shake myself out of it. I felt really bad that I couldn't help us make a better effort in that game." (The Lakers lost by 24 with Fisher missing 7 of 8 shots.)
The central issue, while nothing excuses the insensitivity, is that a good many folks believe Fisher used his daughter's illness to orchestrate his way out of Utah and back to Los Angeles.
Never mind that Fisher was acting on the advice of his doctors in New York. Never mind that he wound up leaving "$6.5, 7 million on the table" to leave the Jazz. Reason took a back seat to a misguided civic pride, where a father somehow becomes a treasonous villain for using his every resource to care for his daughter.
"If we can agree that my daughter has a cancerous tumor in her eye. . . . at that point whatever I choose to do that's best for her, it doesn't really matter where I work, who I work for, what type of job I have," he said. "Those are personal and private matters or decisions . . . I guess because I have a public career . . . obviously people feel that they can speak out or have an opinion about it. . . . The Lakers were an afterthought . . . after the city of L.A. was chosen. Our doctors in New York gave us five cities that he felt comfortable with.
"So initially," he said, "there were calls made from the Jazz about doing a trade to one of these teams in these particular cities, and once that couldn't happen, I said, 'Look, give my family and I the chance to make this [decision] ourselves.' Even if [the Jazz had] traded me to Memphis or Miami, San Francisco, it doesn't necessarily mean that we are going to feel comfortable in that city with those doctors and those medical professionals, as great as they may be."
Once the decision was made to move to L.A., there was still no guarantee he would play for the Lakers. In fact, Fisher began talks with the Clippers. Forgotten in all this is that Fisher re-joined a Lakers team that was involved in talks to trade Bryant, a team that lost in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight season.
The Lakers were as likely to miss the playoffs as qualify, while the Jazz had a team that was coming off a trip to the conference finals, helped there by Fisher.
Fans usually aren't logical, but Fisher is. He's one of the most respected players in the league, one defined by his work ethic. Fisher has played in all 82 games five times in the last six seasons.
He is exactly what ought to be applauded in every NBA arena.
It is probably just as well Tatum is too young to know anything about this. Fisher said his daughter is, "doing great. She will be 2, as well as her twin brother, on June 29. And it's amazing to see her every day and see the things she's into, and having fun, and you can tell a little bit what she's been through, but she's doing great."
As usual, the children are way, way ahead of the adults.