Review: Character Driven: Life, Lessons and Basketball by Derek Fisher2:40 PM
It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Touchstone (September 8, 2009)
Derek Fisher has spent twelve seasons in the NBA playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, and Utah Jazz. He is the president of the NBA Players Association. Currently the starting point guard for the Lakers, he lives with his family in Los Angeles.
Visit the author's website.
List Price: $24.99
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Touchstone (September 8, 2009)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Life, Lessons, and Basketball
with Gary Brozek
A Touchstone Book
Published by Simon & Schuster
New York London Toronto Sydney
Chapter One: Putting Your Skills to the Best Use
When people found out that my wife Candace and I were expecting a child, more than a few of them said, “Your life is about to change.” Candace and I both had a child from a previous relationship, so we had some idea of the truth of that statement. What we didn’t know was the extent of how much our lives were going to be altered several months after our twins, Tatum and Drew were born. I don’t know if having twins changes your life twice as much, but when you find out that one of your newborn children has a serious illness like cancer, very little in your life and your routine remains the same. We suspected that something was wrong with one of Tatum’s eyes; after first dismissing the difference in its appearance as parental paranoia, we took her to a specialist. When we learned that she had a rare but very dangerous form of cancer known as retinoblastoma—a tumor of the retina—it was as if someone had sucked all the air out of the doctor’s office.
After we were told initially that there was little hope of saving Tatum’s eye, we were stunned momentarily and that pit of the stomach sinking feeling could have overwhelmed us. I don’t want to trivialize the situation by comparing my daughter’s dire diagnosis to the game of basketball, because truth to be told thoughts of my career, the Utah Jazz’s prospects for the playoffs and any thoughts of winning a championship were very, very far from my mind. My energies were concentrated on doing whatever I could to help my daughter and support my wife who was understandably upset and fearful. I was experiencing a lot of the same emotions as Candace, but I could sense that this was particularly hard on her. Her maternal instincts were running at their highest level and they had been for some time prior to the diagnosis and prior to her pregnancy. Prior to her getting pregnant with the twins, we’d experienced a miscarriage. Losing that child was a blow to both of us, one that we’d recovered from to a certain degree, but not something we had by any means forgotten about.
In the wake of that sad event, we’d decided to explore other medical options to insure a safe and full term pregnancy. As a result, we’d seen a few fertility specialists, and we’d made the decision to go with what we were told would most likely be a safer alternative—in vitro fertilization. My whole life, I’ve been someone who looks at all the alternatives and choices before making a decision based on a careful risk / reward analysis. If the doctors we were dealing with felt that in vitro fertilization offered us the best chances of having a child, then that’s what we were going to do. I can still remember sitting in that doctor’s office talking about everything that needed to be done. I was able to block out all thoughts that in vitro wasn’t normal or natural and that the procedure would be done in a lab instead of in the privacy of our own home. What mattered was the results. Candace and I both were very eager to have a family together, and so we were going to do whatever it took to make that dream come true.
I do have to admit to trepidation in regards to one part of the procedure. To increase the chances of having a viable fetus develop and to avoid having to go through the painful procedure of harvesting one of Candace’s eggs, we were told that it would be good idea to fertilize and then implant more than one ovum at a time. If they “took,” we could decide if we wanted to bring those ova to full term. Candace and I knew that we would of course not destroy one or more of the eggs, so we had to decide just how much we wanted to increase the odds of our successfully producing a child together. I was cool with the idea of having twins, but when the doctor said that we could go for three if we wanted to, I had to call a time out. I looked at Candace and she looked at me. We each did some elementary school math and came to the same conclusion. There were two of us, and if God willing Candace would get pregnant with twins, we could each handle one of the twins at a time. Two parents, two hands/arms each, two children. That would work. Any number of children above that would make the math, and the amount of work we’d have to do that much harder. If circumstances were different, and we didn’t have any kind of control over the situation and God willed that we would have triplets or even more children, then we’d have accepted that also.
We looked at the doctor and said, “Two, please.”
My career as a basketball player came into play when Tatum was diagnosed and the way I was able to handle the situation. Like many people, I believe that God never puts on our plates more than we can handle, and that everything that happens in our lives fits into a pattern of His creation. When you are faced with challenges like Candace and I were, all the choices and decisions and experiences you have had leading up to the specific moment of having a seriously ill child fall into place. Because I’d dedicated my life to basketball, because I had been in pressure packed situations, and because to succeed in basketball I had to understand the role of focus, tenacious diligence, teamwork, and sacrifice, we were all able to do what it took to secure a successful outcome for Tatum. Ultimately, whether or not Tatum’s eye would be saved was out of our hands and in the hands of God. I truly believe that, but there were a lot of other human beings who made that possible. I do know that looking back at all those choices I made that lead us to those wonderfully skilled individuals who did save her eye, there was ample evidence of the guiding hand of God at work. We asked Him to lead us and were comfortable with knowing that His will would be done, and we put the power of prayer to use.
Let me give you one example of how a choice I made in my life paid unexpected dividends down the line. We were fortunate to have a family friend who worked in a medical school library and was familiar with all kinds of print and electronic resources. When Tatum was diagnosed and we were essentially told that our only option was to have Tatum’s eye removed so that the cancer would not spread, my basketball training and God’s intervention combined to make me realize that I needed to pass the ball off. This was not a shot I could take independent of the team; I needed to turn to forces greater than my own. I really believe that God put this friend in my life to do more than just someone to socialize with. He put her there because with his medical background, she was someone I could turn to to do the kind of research and study to find an alternative to surgically removing my precious daughter’s eye. With her background and training, she was able to quickly sift through much of the medical literature that existed and report back to Candace and me.
We knew that time was running out and the longer it took us to find alternatives, the riskier those procedures might be. Cancer has unflagging energy, and we knew that with each passing day, the tumor was growing. Candace and I could have tried to do all the research on our own, but poring through medical journals to try to understand all the complications and even just the possible approaches to treatment would have cost us precious time. Even developing a basic understanding of the options and then trying to track down doctors who either did those alternative procedures or who might be able to explain better to us what the potential risks were with those procedures was not something we could do either. The clock was winding down, and we knew we needed to rely on someone who could quickly cut through the lingo and technical aspects of the treatment options and feed us the information as quickly as humanly possible. As a point guard, I have always had to assess the situation on court and distribute the ball to those who are the in best position to score. Evaluating time on the clock, the score, the opposition’s strengths and weakness, and a dozen more factors are things I’ve spent nearly a life time doing. I had some idea those skills would transfer to life off the court, but being able to assess circumstances and make decisions quickly under such extreme non-basketball circumstances, put those skills to the test in ways I had never anticipated.
That our friend was able to find out that two doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York had experimented with a radical new treatment, one they’d only performed on fourteen patients and had never published the results of those early clinical trials, is in my mind, nothing short of a miracle. Those doctors had just begun the treatment in 2006—a year before Tatum was diagnosed. Another stroke of good fortune we could add to our score. When Candace and I sat in an office speaking with Dr. David Abramson and Dr. Pierre Gobin, they at first told us that the only real choice we had was to have Tatum’s eye removed. I’m sure that they figured that we were parents doing their due-diligence work, getting a second and third opinion hoping against hope that we could avoid the negative outcome of surgically removing our daughter’s affected eye. Of course, if removal of the eye meant preventing the possible spread of the cancer, and that was truly our only option, we would have agreed with that course of treatment. Something had told us, in the face of all the other opinions that lined up with Dr. Abramson and Dr. Gobin’s initial assessment, that we had to dig deeper. If nothing else, we wanted to hear that dire prognosis from the best doctors in the field, and Dr. Abramson was considered the go to guy in the area of retinoblastoma.
Like most people, I’d heard of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (though I knew it simply as “Sloan-Kettering”) even if I’d been fortunate to that point on not ever having had any firsthand experience with the place for myself or any of my family members and friends. I knew that it was a state of the art cutting edge facility recognized world-wide as one of the most advanced cancer treatment and research facilities out there. What I came to learn as we pursued this option as a potential treatment for Tatum was that the doctors at Sloan-Kettering had a long history of advancing treatment of the rare cancer affecting our baby girl’s eye. In the 1930’s, doctors there had come up with the first treatments that successfully managed the disease. Prior to that, I learned, being diagnosed with retinoblastoma was essentially a literal death sentence. Survival rates for the disease were incredibly low back then. Fortunately, thanks to the work of many doctors and researchers, the odds have increased significantly, though in most cases the patient ends up losing the afflicted eye.
The cancer is rare, only about 350 children in the United States are diagnosed with retinoblastoma each year, but it is the most common type of eye cancer among children. Worldwide, approximately 5,000 children are afflicted with this cancer and about half that number eventually die from it. I say “only” in regard to the number of children in the U.S. with the disease (compared to almost 3,000 kids with leukemia for example) but for every child and every parent of a child diagnosed with the disease, that number is far too large. In most cases, the disease is the result of a randomly occurring mutation in chromosome thirteen. Most often, the affected child is the first in the family to have the disease and it is only about ten percent of the cases that the mutation is inherited from one of the parents. Candace and I weren’t so concerned at that point about the cause of Tatum’s cancer, we were mainly concerned with treatment options. We were fortunate to find Dr. Abramson. He was the Chief of the Ophthalmic Oncology Service at Sloan-Kettering and in the ‘70s had trained under one of the leading experts in the field of eye cancer treatment, Dr. Algernon Reese at Colombian Presbyterian Medical Center. Dr. Reese, an ophthalmologist, and Dr. Hayes Martin, a surgeon had pioneered the use of radiation treatments in eye cancer in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Dr. Abramson and his team continued to advance treatment options including the type of chemoeradication (shrinking the tumor with chemotherapy) technique our friend had learned about.
When I asked them about their experimental treatment, intra-arterial chemotherapy, they seemed surprised. As Doctor Abramson later said in a New York Times interview, “I’m not sure how he knew about . . . . He must have done a lot of homework.” Thanks to Thomas, I had been able to copy someone else’s homework. Spreading the ball around, and trusting that a teammate will execute under pressure proved to be a wise move. Dr. Abramson and Dr. Gobin stepped up for us and agreed that if Candace and I were willing to take the risk, they were willing to do the procedure. We knew that we had to do everything we could to save Tatum’s eye. The decision was in that way easy. Subjecting your infant daughter to anything, even a regularly scheduled immunization is hard. Sitting there in that office, floors above the growl and hum of mid-town Manhattan, we took a deep breath, trusted that the Lord had led us to this place for a good reason, and signed the consent forms and did all the other necessary paperwork.
Obviously, there is never a good time to have anyone in your life become sick, but the circumstances of Tatum’s diagnosis was marked by all kinds of potential pitfalls. We were in the process of moving from the Bay area to Salt Lake City. I had been traded during the off season, but with the kids still infants and lots of loose ends to tie up, it didn’t make sense to move right away that summer. I’m sure a lot of you can relate to idea of moving and having to find new doctors, deal with health insurance companies (we were fortunate to have good coverage) and all the issues of who’s in network, who’s not. Candace had been concerned that something wasn’t quite right with Tatum’s eye, had been assured by our pediatrician that nothing was wrong. Only when we finally settled in Salt Lake City and Candace pursued second and third opinions did Dr. Katy McGelligot confirm my wife’s suspicions. I was at practice when the voice mail message came in telling me that we needed to get to a pediatric ophthalmologist that afternoon. I joined them there and I was glad that we had been persistent and followed Candace’s gut instinct that told her that something was wrong. If we had waited and if we’d let the red tape of insurance companies and all that deter us, I don’t know what the outcome could have been.
Call it a mother’s intuition, call it her keen sense of observation, call it the Lord moving in mysterious ways, but whatever you call it, we were grateful that we had acted on Candace’s suspicions. Neither of us had ever heard the word retinoblastoma before, and to be honest, I’d never even thought that people could have cancer of the eye. In most ways, Tatum was a typical ten-month-old child. Being part of a pair of fraternal twins, Drew and Tatum were going to be subject to a lot of comparisons, maybe more than other siblings. When they were born, Tatum had darker skin than Drew whose coloring was more cocoa. He had a lot more hair than Tatum, though now that isn’t the case, and he was always a lot less patient than her. When Drew was hungry, everyone in the house, and probably the surrounding neighborhood, knew that he was in need of food. He had to nurse or get a bottle immediately and there was nothing we could do to persuade him to just hold on for a minute. Tatum, on the other hand, would wake from a nap and assess the situation, come fully awake and alert, and then she’d eat. Even from her earliest days, she seemed quite playful and mischievous, more capable of demonstrating a bit of an attitude.
What Candace noticed was that sometimes when she looked into Tatum’s eyes, something didn’t seem quite right to her. She couldn’t articulate exactly what was wrong, and each time I looked into my little girl’s eyes, I was so in love that I couldn’t imagine there being anything wrong with her. I felt the same about Drew. They seemed to me to be God’s perfect little creations—even if they did fuss and cry a bit. Candace told me that what got her thinking something might be wrong was that sometimes when light shone in Tatum’s eye, it didn’t seem to reflect back the same way it did from her other one or in the same way it did from Drew’s. I’d learned in the more than ten years that I’d known Candace to trust her instincts. If she thought there was something wrong, then there had to be something wrong.
Candace noticed that in some photographs of Tatum, depending upon the angle one of Tatum’s eyes reflected back a white light. That white light is visible in the pupils of children with retinoblastoma. This is known as leukocoria or the “cat’s eye reflex.” Just as a cat’s pupil appears white in certain lighting, so will a child’s who has retinoblastoma or other eye conditions including Coat’s disease. Not in every case will that white reflection in photographs be a true indication of those serious conditions, but it is definitely worth checking out with a doctor. We learned all of this only after her diagnosis, and our doctors told us that it is a good idea to take a monthly flash photo of an infant and child to check for that tell-tale marker of a potential problem.
After the examination, when the doctor told us that he’d detected some abnormalities and what he suspected was a tumor, I felt like all the air in the room had been sucked out. I remember grasping Candace’s shaking hand, and my mind rushing. The sensation was like what happens when you are driving a standard transmission car and you think you’re in gear but you’re in neutral. You hit the gas and you can hear and feel the vibration of the rapidly racing engine but you don’t increase your actual speed. I had thoughts bouncing all around my head, but I wasn’t making any kind of positive steps toward coherence.
Looking back on it, I now realize how could it have been otherwise? I’m not a real worrier by nature, and despite the difficulty Candace and I had experienced in having lost a child previously, I didn’t overly fixate on the list of possible bad things that could happen to the twins before or after they were born. I had lost some people close to me, usually through a long and protracted illness as was the case with my grandmother. I’d lost a few older relatives, but they had lived what seemed to me then to be long lives. Nothing could prepare me for someone telling me that my daughter had cancer. It was a life-altering moment, a kind of sign being driven into the ground indicating that there was a then and next there was to be a now. Facing the prospect that we could lose her, and not just that she might lose her eye, was unimaginably difficult to process in a short span of time.
In a way, hearing that news was also like I’d instantly done some mental spring cleaning and thrown away anything that wasn’t needed and put everything else neatly into order. As clichéd as it sounds, I knew in that moment that very little besides my daughter’s health and my family’s safety was what mattered. All the little gripes and complaints I might have had about how the season was going—even though things were going well—any nagging pain from overuse or injury, any thoughts about upcoming games, who I’d be matched up against, all that just neatly took their place in line—a long ways behind—one overriding concern: What were we going to do in order to help our daughter?
In the immediate, Tatum was given an MRI examination the next day that confirmed the diagnosis. We had a playoff game that night against Houston and I would suit up. At that point, no one except the Jazz owner Larry Miller and the General Manager Kevin O’Connor knew the specifics of the situation. They told me that I was under no pressure to play that night or at any other point during the playoffs. They agreed that Tatum’s condition and our privacy was mattered the most.
I had been making a mad rush from practice to doctor’s appointments to the hospital for tests that the reality of what was going on with our child hadn’t really sunk in. We’d won the game (details TK) and only when I sat in front of my locker after the game did the truth hit me, and it hit me hard. I sat staring blankly ahead of me, a towel draped over my shoulders. Guys filed past me and music began blaring. A few minutes later, reporters were allowed in, and they were just doing their job, but the last thing I wanted to do was to talk about the game, the series, or anything to do with basketball. All I could think of was what my daughter potentially faced. I didn’t want anyone to see the anguish I was experiencing, so I went into TK Brigg’s office, our trainer, and broke down. In some ways the game had been good for me, a distraction, but it only delayed the inevitable. I was devastated. That private moment of despair was good for me, helped me get it out of my system and refocus on the task at hand—how to overcome the dire diagnosis and what seemed at the time the absolute certainty that Tatum’s eye would have to be surgically removed.
The day after we met with Dr. Gobin and Dr. Abramson, Wednesday May 10th, 2007 Tatum would undergo the procedure at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
Dr. Abramson knew about the playoff game the Jazz had that night against the Golden State Warriors. As a former alternate on the 1960 men’s Olympic swimming team, he knew what an athlete’s life was like. He suggested that we could hold off doing the procedure until after the game. A delay of a just a few hours would have no effect on the outcome of the procedure or the viability of Tatum’s eye following it.
“Absolutely not,” I told him, “Just do what’s best for my child. How many games I miss in the playoffs is totally irrelevant.” I meant every word of that statement, and even when Dr. Abramson suggested some adjustments could be made to the schedule, I remained firm in the commitment I’d made to Candace and to Tatum. There hadn’t been any real need for discussion—Candace and I both knew that as difficult as the circumstances were, the decision about how to approach Tatum’s care was easy—spare no cost, leave no stone unturned, and put basketball where it belonged on my list of priorities. In other words, well below my family and its needs.
Doing the right thing came so easy because of the values that my mother Annette and my father John had instilled in me from the beginning. They made every sacrifice they could to enable me to be where I am today, and they demonstrated every day that you put your family member’s needs above your own. Doctor Abramson was simply trying to accommodate me and my needs, figure my career into the scheme, and I appreciated that, but there was never a question in my mind that we would do the procedure as soon as humanly possible. This was an aggressive and risky treatment, and the two men who pioneered it gave off an air of quiet confidence that I’d always appreciated in teammates. Not that they needed any more motivation, but just to show how the Lord does truly move in mysterious ways, Dr. Gobin, who grew up in France, had lived for a time in Los Angeles while working at the University of California at Los Angeles medical center. He was a die-hard fan of the NBA team there and remembered me from my days with the Lakers. Score another bucket for the home team.
I felt confident in the team we’d assembled. Doctor Gobin and Doctor Abramson were realistic but confident. I liked that about them both. They were as personable as could be without seeming smug or distant. They were clearly brilliant men, but it was their compassion and consideration for us as people and not just as a condition or an opportunity to test a procedure that could make them famous or wealthy or both that really impressed me. They didn’t push us to try something; instead, they only agreed to do it when we brought up the possibility. Their confidence and calm helped to settle our nerves a bit, but nothing could still them completely. Dr. Gobin, who specialized in something called Interventional NeuroRadiology, was another highly respected medical pioneer, primarily known for advanced treatment for stroke victims. In 2001, Dr. Gobin joined the Weill Cornell Medical College as Professor of Radiology and Neurosurgery, and the New York Weill Cornell Hospital as the Director, Division of Interventional Neuroradiology.
I didn’t know this at the time, but there was a third member of the medical team, Dr. Ira Dunkel, a pediatric oncologist who also worked with Dr. Abramson and Dr. Gobin to come up with this treatment option. The procedure would involve injecting a tumor-killing drug through a tiny blood vessel in the eye. The doctors explained that within fifteen seconds, the drug is directly on site in the tumor. It either destroys the tumor entirely and it disappears, or it becomes calcified.
I’ve been anxious before games before, but nothing compared to the jitters I experienced that night. From our hotel room, we could see Central Park spread below us, and I envied the imagined emotional ease with which I saw the runners and cyclists circling that great expanse of green. I’d heard that some people consider Central Park Manhattan’s lungs, a breath of fresh air squeezed from the concrete ribs that surround it. I wished I could exhale, heave a great sigh of relief, but as daylight turned to twilight and then into full on darkness, I found myself drawn to that window and knew that for me there was a very different reason why New York is the city that never sleeps.
In some ways, Tatum’s being an infant was a blessing. We didn’t have to explain to her the risks involved and she didn’t have to deal with the anxiety of knowing that she had cancer or that she faced a surgical procedure the next day. Unfortunately, we had no way to communicate to her that because of the sight-saving procedure she was going to undergo, she couldn’t eat. Normally a very happy and satisfied baby, being forced to go without food had her especially fussy that night and the next morning. For Candace and I, we’d both flipped a switch in our minds the instant we got the diagnosis. We’d been in caregiver and protection mode for weeks, and were in an especially high state of alert that morning. It tore us up to hear Tatum’s wails and to listen to them and to see her in distress was gut wrenching. We made a few calls back to Utah to make sure that Drew and my stepson Marshall were doing okay. A few more phone calls to family members to let them know what was going on gave us something to do once Tatum finally fell asleep. My mother assured me that the prayer circle with the church ladies back home in Little Rock was complete and doing the necessary work. Until that night I’d never really thought of the significance of the name of my hometown. A rock can be a weapon or a refuge, and as Jesus told St. Peter, it was upon that rock He was going to build his church. Home and family have always been my rock, a touchstone, a place on which the foundation of my life was built. I could add that to the list of the many blessings I’d been privileged to receive. Though I didn’t need to hear my mother telling me that those prayers were going out, it was nice to know that we had a whole bunch of folks on the sidelines and in the stands doing their very best to help my family get through this difficult time.
We knew that waiting while Tatum was in surgery was going to be the hardest part, and showing up at 7:00 a.m. for a 10:00 a.m. scheduled start was going to be difficult. When one of the surgical team members was called into a separate emergency and the procedure was delayed, that already protracted period of anxiety went into overtime. Though we weren’t guaranteed results, but had been encouraged by the news of the success rate among the fourteen patients who had previously undergone the treatment, we had a lot of faith in the doctors. Knowing that any kind of invasive procedure was inherently risky, and knowing that with an infant the veins and arteries in such a delicate and fragile part of the anatomy—the eye—required great precision had Candace and I both on edge. We’d read up on the procedure, knew that this was the one best chance we had, but still the thought of having toxins injected into your child’s system to attack a tumor was unsettling at best. I tried to stay focused on the positive, and was grateful that my years in the league had taught me how to fight off distractions. Prayer made that task much easier as well.
By the time we were instructed to put on masks and gowns so that we could escort Tatum into the operating room, a steady diet of adrenaline had begun to take its toll. Tatum too had exhausted herself, and I was grateful that she was asleep when Candace laid her down on the table. We both kissed her and told her that we loved her. I’ve faced some tough assignments in my life, but nothing compared to having to walk out of that room. I trusted the doctors and have faith in God, but leaving your child to face any kind of uncertainty or pain had me feeling like a brick was lodged in my throat. When I turned back to catch one last glimpse of Tatum before the procedure began, I was struck again by how small and vulnerable she looked surrounded by all the adults in the room and the various monitoring devices. Walking out of that operating room was the toughest part of this ordeal yet.
Most days when I have a game, I’m able to take a short nap to rest and restore my energy before heading to the arena. We’d been told that the procedure would take a couple of hours, and I spent nearly every second of that span of time on pins and needles. I was grateful that our friend was there with us; she and I spent most of the time talking about what we imagined the progress was and counting down the minutes until someone came out of the surgical area to give us the promised mid-session report. That report never came, for whatever reason, but when one of the team members came out to report that the procedure had gone well, I was enormously relieved. When we saw Tatum being wheeled past us in a kind of incubator, my heart did skip a beat—seeing her in that device, alone and isolated, had our hearts aching for her as we alongside her to the recovery room.
I was glad in some ways that we had a job to do while Tatum was in recovery. The procedure required that a line be inserted through her femoral artery in her upper thigh. The doctors didn’t want the incision to tear open, so we were given the job of keeping Tatum still. As each minute passed post-surgery and she came out of her anesthesia-induced slumber, she grew more and more active and agitated. The other concern was that she be able to keep down any fluids or food she was fed, so Candace and I worked together to be sure that those two tasks were taken care of. It felt great to have something to do to contribute to Tatum’s well being and comfort. I’m not someone who likes to give up control and the feelings of helplessness that I experienced during the procedure had started to work on me. Just being able to hold Tatum in our arms felt as if we’d been given some powerful medicine to calm us and soothe the aches in our hearts.
With the procedure completed and the early prognosis good, all we really could do was wait—both for Tatum to recover from the anesthesia and for the three weeks to lapse before we would return to see if the chemotherapy had the desired effect. With Tatum’s immediate safety and condition seemingly well in hand, I had a few moments when I could think about all that had happened. Through the weeks we struggled with Tatum’s health concerns, I’d been in close contact with the Utah Jazz organization, and they couldn’t have been more supportive. When Tatum was in recovery and sleeping again, I took the opportunity to call Kevin O’Connor, the team’s general manager to let him know Tatum’s status. I followed up that phone call with one to our coach, Jerry Sloan, simply to let him know how Tatum was doing. No one asked me if I’d be able to make that night’s game, no one pressured me in any way to commit to anything. They both simply were glad to hear that things had gone well for my daughter. That meant a lot to me. Though they were my bosses, work was something fairly far from their minds.
During my phone call with Coach Sloan, I’d let the team know that as much as I wanted to remain on the active roster for that night’s game, I understood that it really wasn’t my decision to make. Basketball, and our series with the Warriors diminished in importance compared to taking care of my family. That said, I still felt a sense of responsibility to my teammates, the organization, and the fans. We were, after all, in the playoffs, and needed to maintain our home court advantage with a win that night in Utah. The Jazz organization and fans had high hopes that we could make a run deep into the playoffs and win an NBA championship that had eluded them.
I had my priorities straight, but knowing that Tatum’s chemo treatment was an outpatient procedure, we had scheduled a return flight for that day regardless of the fact that we had a game back in Salt Lake City that night. The Jazz had helped us out greatly by assisting us in securing a private jet to take us back and forth. The only concern we had about flying so soon after the treatment was Tatum’s leg. We needed to keep her still. The main reasons we wanted to be back in Salt Lake City was to be with our large circle of supporters and to as quickly as possible restore some semblance of normalcy in our lives. Even though Drew was too young to fully understand what was going on, I’m sure he and Tatum both were picking up on the worried vibes that Candace and I were putting out despite our best attempts not to. Marshall, Candace’s son and my step-son, had been affected as well. He was well aware, at age twelve, of everything that was going on, and I knew from conversations that I had with him, he was both worried about his step-sister’s health and his mother’s mental state. He hated seeing her worried and upset, and the sooner we got back home to him and to our life and its routine the better it would be for all of us. I also put a call into the mother of my daughter Chloe. Though she was much younger than Marshall and couldn’t fully comprehend what was going on with her baby sister, I wanted to let her know that things were okay.
Once we got the okay to leave the hospital, we took the opportunity to get back to Salt Lake City as soon as possible. If we had any indication from the doctors that it would have been in our best interest to remain in New York, we would have done it. They assured us there was nothing more to be done except to wait to see if the drugs had the desired effect on Tatum’s tumor. We were also reassured in knowing that our friend was also a former registered nurse, and she could monitor the incision on Tatum’s leg and take all the steps necessary in case something happened. The doctors kept telling us that we were in good hands on the flight and were extraordinarily comfortable in having us leave.
In our minds, the major challenge was over—the procedure was done—the rest was out of our hands. That wasn’t the most comfortable place for either of to be in. We’re both take charge kind of people, but we’d trusted in what our friend had told us and then the doctors. Everything had worked out as well as could be expected to that point. Next, we just had to let go and trust that we’d done the best we could, prepared ourselves and executed the game plan to the best of our abilities. We put our faith in God, comfortable in knowing what a prayer warrior Candace had been throughout this time.
For as many times as I’d played in either New York or New Jersey and having lived in Los Angeles for much of my early adulthood, the drive through the west side of Manhattan to the Lincoln Tunnel didn’t do much to settle our nerves. I couldn’t help but think of Tatum’s delicate physiology and be amazed that these potent drugs had managed to work their way through her veins and arteries. In some ways I wished that when we came out on the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel that we’d be on the other side of this crisis. In some ways we were, but just as it felt being in the waiting room prior to the procedure, with little constructive activity we could perform to help Tatum’s cause. More waiting was ahead of us, but something told me that there was more that I could do.
Once we reached our cruising altitude and we made our way west, thoughts of our playoff series crept back in. I’d done the right thing by my family, and I had another job and another group of people I was beholden to. If I could help that second group out, I wanted to. I wasn’t certain if I was capable of shutting out everything that had transpired in the previous few days, but if nothing else, maybe by being there I’d help lend an emotional hand to my teammates. I had placed a second call to the Jazz’s front office personnel to let them know I was heading home. No one asked if I was coming to the arena, and I hadn’t volunteered any information other than that we were on our way back. I appreciated that no one in the Jazz organization put me under any kind of pressure to play that night. I still wasn’t certain as we flew over the darkening fields of the Midwest if I was even on the active roster for that night.
Another “coincidence” played in my favor. Our series was against the Golden State Warriors, a team I had played for from 2004-2006. I’d been traded just that off-season, and while some of the personnel had changed, I was still familiar enough with their tendencies to feel comfortable playing against them. I had missed the first game of the series, a game we pulled out after trailing by three at halftime and by five going into the fourth quarter. The Warriors up-tempo style and the performance of their guards Stephen Jackson and Baron Davis, who combined for 40 points, made me think that I might be needed. Our guards, Dee Brown and Deron Williams, had done a great job in my absence, but playoff pressure was a whole different thing. We needed everyone on the roster to contribute, and I had no idea if I was on the roster or if I could contribute.
The flight home was quiet, each of us lost in private thoughts. Candace and I had made the decision to not reveal any of the details of what was going on in our personal life. While I was upfront with the team, I’d been so busy attending to Tatum’s needs and keeping close family members posted on what was going on that I hadn’t had time to even consider what I might do that night and the furthest thing from my mind was what anyone else outside of that very small circle knew about the situation.
When we saw the great basin and the Great Salt Lake below us as we banked into our final approach, I still had no idea what I would do if the team called on me to perform that night. Everyone wants to feel needed, but that night, I was hoping that the Jazz had the game in hand and my presence wasn’t needed. Once in the terminal, we were all met by my friend and assistant business manager Duran McGregory. He said to me again how he was thrilled to hear that the procedure had gone well. He proceeded to tell me that the Jazz had a message they wanted him to relay. I was on the roster and the team wanted me there if I felt up to it. I discussed things with Candace, and she was all for me heading to the arena. She understood that I had a job to do there as well at home. With my responsibilities taken care of on one front, it was time for me to do my job. Duran would take me to the game, and a car service would take Candace and Tatum home.
I was surprised to learn that an unmarked police car was going to escort Duran and me from the airport, which was about ten minutes from our residence in Salt Lake City, to the arena. I didn’t really sense that there was any kind of urgency, but when we turned on the radio to listen to the game, I got a better sense that the game was going anything like I’d hoped it would. Dee Brown had been hurt and taken to the hospital with a possible neck injury when our own six foot eleven inch Mehmet Okur fell and landed on him. Five minutes into the game and the Jazz was down to only ten players. I said a prayer that Dee was going to be okay. I also learned that Deron Williams had picked up two fouls within a one-minute span in that too eventful first quarter. We were forced to use a forward, Andrei Kirilenko, at the point for a few minutes. When I heard all that, my mind started racing. All of this information was coming at me so fast, and I’m listening to the game instead of being on the court or courtside participating in it, a police car’s mars light is strobing the scene inside and outside the car, and I had that peculiar sensation of both being in the car and outside of it looking in on the situation as it evolved.
To make matters more surreal, when we pulled into the player’s entrance and I got out of the car, teams of cameramen and soundmen and photographers were there. With flashes going off and the guys hustling alongside of me as I strode quickly into the arena and made my way to the locker room, I was doing everything I could to keep my mind focused on what I needed to do. At that point, I wasn’t certain of exactly what that was, but even getting undressed and then dressed in my uniform helped me filter out some of the distractions. I’d put on a game jersey thousands of times in my life, but that night I had to slow myself down and really think about left arm and right arm, right side out and inside out, frontward and backward. I wish that I could say a calm descended on me, but it was more like I was numb, that I relied on muscle memory in order to do even the simplest things like tie my shoes.
I was surprised by the sea of noise that washed over me when I came out of the tunnel and onto the arena’s floor. I knew that there was a timeout and no action going on, so what was all the commotion about? I heard a few people shouting my name, and I looked up and was impressed by the how many fans had worn baby blue to the game.
Anytime you come up out of the tunnel, you see the court fully spot lit and gleaming, but that day I really felt like I was walking toward the light. Making my way toward our bench, I saw a few of our guys on the bench looking at me. On their faces I could see a mixture of concern and a happy-to-see-you look. I glanced up at the clock, three minutes and eighteen seconds remained in the quarter. Carlos Boozer had just been fouled and he was making his way toward the free throw line. I felt as if someone was massaging my tense limbs, easing some of my anxiety. I was much more at home here, stepping out onto the floor of a basketball court than I was sitting in a hospital waiting room or a doctor’s office. New York City literally and figuratively felt a thousand miles away, and yet it felt as if in other ways I was still there.
I said a couple words to Ronnie Brewer, Paul Milsap, and Matt Harping, letting them know that things had gone well. I didn’t have much time to talk, I heard assistant coach TK call my name, letting me know that I was going in for Andrei Kirilenko. Boozer hit both his free throws to extend our lead to 84-80. I walked toward the scorer’s table, and I could hear and feel vibrating in my chest the outpouring of affection that came from the Utah fans. In the days to come, I would learn more about the amazingly supportive fans and how they embraced my family and me with their show of faith and support. Salt Lake City is a place where family and faith come together in a unique way all the time, but this was different and special, and I can never repay the people of that remarkable place for all they did for us. A thank you can never really sufficient, but I want them all to know how deeply grateful I am to them and what a cherished place in my heart they hold.
New York and doctor’s offices and waiting rooms and the fans were out of sight and out of mind as soon as I stepped across the sideline. I immediately went into game mode. On our first possession after the free throw, Carlos Boozer captured an offensive rebound, and the ball was kicked back to me. I fed Carlos for a bucket, and was feeling pretty good even though everything seemed to be happening in a blur of motion and emotion. I tried to focus on just merging with the flow of the game. The Warriors made a basket and then we turned the ball over. They converted to pull within a point at 86-85.
I threw a bad pass a few seconds later; fortunately, my former Golden State teammate Jason Richardson, rimmed out a three pointer at the other end, and we ended up leading at the end of the third quarter 90-89. Jason had gone out of his way to let me know that he was thinking of me and rooting for my family, but like any true competitor, he would have put the proverbial dagger through our collective hearts if he could by hitting those long-range jumpers of his. This was a case of give no quarter and ask for no quarter as it always was, especially in the playoffs. Stephen Jackson and Baron Davis expressed similar sentiments and only later could I fully appreciate how much those words meant to me.
Despite how numbed I was by the events of the day, the extensive air travel and very far out of my routine journey to the arena, I felt the electricity in the air. Not all the buzz in the building was a result of my being there under those circumstances. This was a definite playoff atmosphere, and it was like it soaked in through our pores and fed our adrenal glands. The game was definitely on.
Those three plus minutes went by in a flash, but when I sat on the bench during the quarter break, I once again marveled at Jerry Sloan’s game management skills. Getting me in there immediately wasn’t just an act of desperation. He knew that if I had time to sit on the bench, I had time to think. While it’s important to be aware and alert on the court, it’s often more important to react to what you observe while in the flow of the game than it is to ponder things. If I had sat on the bench, my mind might have wandered a bit—I’m only human. By being forced into the action immediately, it was as if my body was jumpstarted, and my brain instantly switched to basketball mode immediately as a kind of reflex action. No pre-meditation, just action.
I was back on the bench at the start of the fourth quarter, and at that point, I was better able to focus on the ebb and flow of the game instead of wondering about whether or not I could play and actually contribute. With that question answered, my mind focused more on how to slow down Golden State’s offense. With our guards in foul trouble, the Warrior’s Baron Davis and Jason Richardson were taking it to us with a mix of threes and dribble penetration. With just under eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, we were ahead 99-96. Right before the TV time out, Baron Davis had converted a lay up for this thirty third point of the night. When one player has a little more than a third of his team’s total output, you know he’s having a night. We had to figure out a way to put the clamps on the guy.
Following that time out, we went on a bit of a run. At the 4:52 mark, our forward Mehmet Okfur hit a three to put us up 106-100. Things were looking good, but with the way Golden State was hoisting up and hitting three, it was still really just a two-possession game. Just as I suspected, Stephen Jackson hit a trey. Next, Jason Richardson fired up a three, was fouled and hit two of three free throws. He followed that up by hitting a three, to put Golden State up by a point 108-107 with just a little more than two minutes to play.
I went to our assistant coach, Tyrone Corbin, and said, “I can play defense.” He nodded. The competitor in me came to the surface at that moment. I wanted in there, feeling like I could do what we needed to turn the tide. Tatum and my family were in my heart, but the game was on my mind. With 1:13 remaining in the game, Coach Sloan had me re-enter. We were down 110-107. A few moments later, the Warriors scored again, and we trailed by five with less than a minute to go. On our next possession, Deron made a great pass to Carlos Boozer for a jam. We put the Warriors on the line, and we were fortunate they missed a couple of free throws. With two seconds left, Deron made a runner to tie the game at 113. Overtime.
The rest, as they say, is history. We jumped out quickly to a lead, but the Warriors scrambled back into it. In the fourth quarter, I forced Baron Davis into a critical turnover just when we needed a stop. With just over a minute to play, we were up by three when Deron Williams found me open in the corner. I got the ball in rhythm, got in good bent knee position, and rose up with my eyes locked on the rim. The shot felt good leaving my hand, but I’d had that feeling before and been disappointed, but this time my faith in myself proved good—as did the shot. We were up by six, and I followed up that shot with a pair of free throws in the waning seconds, and we pulled out the ‘W.’
I did something a bit uncharacteristic for me following that three pointer. As I headed back up court during a time after that shot, I pointed to the sky. My faith in God is something personal to me, but at that moment I had to acknowledge that I didn’t make that shot on my own. A higher power, God, had helped me make that shot. Jesus Christ was there for me in that moment in ways that allowed me to find within myself the strength to do my job and do it well. I did another atypical thing for me. After the game, TNT’s Pam Oliver wanted me to do the post game interview. Normally, they go to the star of the game, the guy who had the most points or hit the game winner. Instead, they came to me because of the situation with Tatum. Candace and I had agreed to keep things within the family, but when Ms. Oliver asked me about the situation, my gut told me that I needed to open up.
With tears in my eyes and an enormous sense of relief spilling out of my mouth I told her, “It was very, very serious. My daughter’s life was in jeopardy. She has a form of eye cancer called retinoblastoma. And the only reason I’m saying this now is because there are kids out there that are suffering from this disease, and people can’t really identify it. It’s a very rare disease. And I want people out there to take their kids to the ophthalmologist, make sure they get their eyes checked and make sure everything’s okay, because we could have lost my little girl had we waited any longer.”
I knew at that moment that I had a message to deliver. I had to do the right thing, and if feeling a little uncomfortable sharing a personal slice of a sometimes too public life meant having to bare a bit of our collective soul, then I was glad to do it.
This book is in a lot of ways, a product of those experiences. I don’t know that if it wasn’t for what we went through and the enormous level of support locally and nationally my family received if I would have wanted to write a book. I’ve never felt particularly special just because I was a basketball player, am more reserved than most people, and truly felt like what I did in those days dealing with Tatum’s health situation and in the days and weeks following when I asked to be released from my contract so that I could work someplace where Tatum could receive the kind of follow-up care she needed, I was simply doing what any father, any parent, would do for a child or other family member. I was somewhat taken aback by all the attention the things I did or the choices we made as a family received. I was, and continue to be, enormously grateful for the outpouring of affection and am humbled by the media attention and people’s view of me. On many levels then, this book is an act of pay back. Not only do I want people to know about retinoblastoma (Candace and I have started a foundation to promote education about the disease and possible treatments) but I want them to know that what took place in those few weeks was the product of an upbringing, an environment, a long list of influential people, and an agency with capabilities far beyond what we humans can muster.
As I stated before, I realize that everything that came before the moment when Tatum was diagnosed, was preparing me to deal with Tatum’s health crisis. And as uncomfortable as it can sometimes be to have a light shone on me, I feel its my duty and my privilege to share with you more of those moments that lead to our victory on and off the court. I don’t feel that my life has been in any way extraordinary, but I do believe that I have something to contribute, and giving back in this way is one form of giving thanks for the many blessing my family and I have received. In the pages that follow, I’m going to share with you some of the many lessons I’ve learned that have enabled me to succeed and stay sane in this sometimes crazy game of basketball. I didn’t get here alone, and I’ glad to have you along with me on the journey.
I also know that in the most rational sense, my having spent thirteen years in the league is in a very real way less a product of anything that I’ve done than it is a product of some large plan laid out for me. In the chapters that follow, I’m going to share with you some of the fundamental lessons I learned on the court and off the court that have enabled me to succeed beyond what most people who saw me play the game ever could have expected. I’ve always had a quiet confidence in myself and my abilities as a basketball player. I’m also realistic enough, analytical enough to know that confidence alone wasn’t what got me here in the NBA and kept me here. I also know that I’ve been blessed beyond all measure—the success of Tatum’s procedure is just one small example of that. I’ve been provided with opportunities and the ability to recognize them when they present themselves and the skills and faith to seize those opportunities.
I don’t know that I go out of my way to be a nice guy, it’s just a part of who I am because of how I was raised and because of all the reinforcement I’ve gotten for sticking with some of the fundamental truths about how to live my life—whether that’s been the Golden Rule of doing unto others as I would want them to do unto me—or understanding the fundamental truths of how the triangle office should be run. It took me some time, but I’ve come to understand that the two selves, the basketball player and the man, husband, father, friend, brother that I sometimes felt like I had to keep separate actually work together as a team. Any separation between who I am, what I do, and how I conduct myself are all bound together in ways that I’ve only lately begun to understand. Just as there’s no sound reason why a guy who is six feet one and not the fleetest of foot can play in this league and contribute to the degree that I have, there’s no logical reason why, now at the age of thirty-four, I should be enjoying one of my best seasons ever as a professional. I should be on the down side of my career, but as I see it, things have never looked brighter, my future never more certain, my love for my family such a source of contentment and pleasure. In no way am I ready to hang them up, but this seems like a good point at which to stop and take stock of where I’ve been and how I got to this point. I love playing this game, I love my family and the life I’m privileged to lead. In my mind, my NBA career is only going to lead me to half-time in my life. What’s to follow will likely be as fulfilling and rewarding, mainly because of what I’ve learned about myself and the world during this thrilling ride.
We're NBA fans at our house (as well as NFL and Ohio State Buckeye (GO BUCKS!) fans) so I was really interested in reading this book. I thought it was really an inspirational book. It was also interesting to read the personal story behind Derek Fisher, which I wasn't aware of. Anyone who is a sports fan should pick this up. I think this would be especially great for that younger sports fan. I know that I would have loved to have had this available when my sons were younger - I think it's important for them to see the other side of their sports hero's.
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