Derek Fisher: Faith, Family and Hard Work

UPDATED: February 10, 2011
PUBLISHED: February 10, 2011

It’s rare for a basketball player to get a standing ovation for merely showing up to a game, especially when he doesn’t arrive until midway through the third quarter. But that’s exactly what happened in Game 2 of the NBA’s 2007 Western Conference Semifinal matchup between the Utah Jazz and the Golden State Warriors.

The Jazz, playing at home, were down in the game, struggling to overcome key players’ injuries and foul trouble. That’s when Derek Fisher trotted out of the Jazz locker room. The cheers erupted as he entered, reaching a crescendo as fans threatened to tear the roof off of Energy Solutions Arena in Salt Lake City. No one expected Fisher to play in the game. No one expected him even to be in Salt Lake City, let alone the arena. Just that afternoon, he and wife Candace had been in a New York City hospital, waiting for word on their baby daughter, who was undergoing a risky experimental treatment for cancer.

To understand how Fisher defied the odds and everyone’s expectations, you first must understand his views on basketball, leadership and family, and the principles he lives by.

Today, Fisher is a clutch performer, who won five championships while playing alongside Kobe Bryant in two stints with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s often credited as the leader and glue of one of the most volatile teams in the league.

Fisher’s first eight years in the NBA were with the Lakers. His second stint with L.A. came later—after asking the Jazz to let him out of his contract. Not for money. Not to chase trophies; the Jazz was a contender. No, Fisher put his career and reputation on the line for his family. Those who knew him weren’t surprised.

Success comes from the ability to handle failure and mistakes."

A Solid Foundation
Long before the glitz and glory of an NBA career, Fisher was a typical kid growing up with loving parents and a big brother and sister in Little Rock, Ark. “My mom introduced us to faith and God, and what that means. That’s a foundation for me that will never leave,” Fisher says. “Second [is] my family and the things that come with supporting my family, not just financially, but as a husband, father, brother, son and cousin. I know I represent them in everything I do, and so keeping my family really close to my heart is something that helps me make smart decisions.”

As a youth, Fisher played basketball, football, baseball and soccer, as well as trumpet in the band, and participated in speech and debate. No matter what he was doing, Fisher went all out. When his dad woke him up before sunrise so he could run hills wearing a weighted flak jacket in the stifling Arkansas humidity, he didn’t complain. “I understood at a young age that, no matter what it was I was doing, it took an extremely large amount of work to be good at it,” he says. “I carried that thought through my whole life. I want to be good; I want to be the best I can be.”

Fisher’s appetite for self-improvement remained unquenched—as an eager student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where he had a stellar basketball career, and today. “I don’t wake up very many days and not want to do something… even if it’s just reading a book or watching something that’s motivating, inspirational or paradigm shifting; I want to be improving myself,” he says.

He took inspiration from positive influences, such as supportive family, coaches and teachers, as well as negative influences “because success comes from the ability to handle failure and mistakes,” he says.

And there were plenty of obstacles along the way. As his career was taking off, he broke his foot; then after months of rehab, when he was ready to return to basketball, he broke it again. Doubt about his NBA future crept in. Instead of moping, Fisher changed the way he trained, ate and even rested. He’s since been one of the more durable guards in the league.

Unwavering Commitment
His determination and character attract his teammates. Knowing how I strive to be a person of integrity, honor and respect off the court allows me to build solid relationships with teammates and not have to be someone else to get to know them better,” Fisher says. “I think the people you’re trying to get to follow you have to see you’re unwavering in your strength, positive attitude and ability to fight through adversity and struggles. That’s something I take pride in: my ability to keep a still chin even when things aren’t going great.”

Keeping a still chin would be a test during the trying days leading up to that playoff game in 2007. As Fisher headed through the crowd to get to the court, the thunderous applause broke over him like waves. He teared up, politely acknowledging the crowd.

Internally, everything he had learned—perseverance, faith, determination—was under siege. Just days earlier, his 11-month-old daughter Tatum had been diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare and aggressive cancer of the eye. The family struggled to get educated, find the right doctors and examine the options. The most common course of treatment was removal of the eye.

Basketball became background noise for Fisher. “The decisions were hard, but sometimes the harder the decision, the greater the focus,” he says. “My wife and I were very focused on making the right decisions for our daughter, not for us.”

As the day of Game 2 dawned, Fisher and his family were in New York City, where they found doctors who had performed experimental form of chemotherapy that could save the eye and, hopefully, push the cancer into remission. Doctors asked Fisher whether he wanted to postpone the surgery until after the playoff game. “Absolutely not,” was his answer. “Just do what’s best for my child.”

Keeping Priorities in Check
As they flew back to Salt Lake City late that afternoon, it was too early to tell whether the procedure had been successful. “I hadn’t even thought much about basketball,” he says. “I wasn’t sure I could even physically or mentally concentrate enough to help the team.”

But with his daughter stabilized, his fire to compete burned again. Once on the court, Fisher made a key steal to send the game into overtime. As the extra frame came to a close, Fisher nailed a threepoint basket to seal the win. Spent but satisfied, he left the arena a hero.

Three weeks later, his family got the word: Tatum’s surgery was successful. But she needed follow-up care from highly trained specialists, and there were none in Salt Lake City. Fisher made the painful decision to ask for his release in the hopes of signing with a team in a city where specialists were available.

When he re-signed with the Lakers, Jazz fans and some in the media questioned his motives, but Fisher never wavered. His daughter’s health and his family’s well-being were paramount.

Last summer, Tatum and her twin sister celebrated their 4th birthdays with a small gathering of close friends and family. Fisher and his wife are careful not to use the word “remission,” but they’re confident and hopeful they caught the cancer in time.

Confidence is something Fisher never lacks. Many might wear such a trait in an off-putting way, but Fisher’s belief in himself is more engaging than cocky. “Our success is not defi ned by external forces. Our success is defined by ourselves and our spirit, our heart, our faith. There isn’t anyone on Earth who can impact that or change it. It’s up to us individually to be successful.”

One last winning shot from a guy who knows how to sink them.