Putting Your Skills to the Best Use:
Performing When It Really Matters
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 each 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 to which our lives would 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 such as cancer, 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 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 initially told that there was little hope of saving Tatum’s eye, we were momentarily stunned, 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 be told, thoughts of my career, the Utah Jazz’s prospects for the play-offs, 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. Before 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.
In the wake of that sad event, we’d decided to explore medical options to ensure a safe and full-term pregnancy. As a result, we’d seen a few fertility specialists, and we’d decided on 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 home. What mattered were the results. Candace and I both were 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 regard to one part of the procedure. To increase the chances of having a viable fetus develop and to avoid having to repeat the painful procedure of harvesting one of Candace’s eggs, we were told that it would be a 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.”
When Tatum was diagnosed, my career as a basketball player came into play in the way I handled 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 the way 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 Tatum’s eye would be saved was out of our hands and in the hands of God. I truly believe that, but a lot of other human beings made that possible. Looking back at all those choices I made that led us to those wonderfully skilled individuals who did save her eye, I see 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 be more than just someone to socialize with. He put him there because with his medical background and training, I could turn to him to do the necessary research and study to find an alternative to surgically removing my precious daughter’s eye. He was able to quickly sift through much of the medical literature 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 better explain their potential risks 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 in the best position to score. Evaluating time on the clock, the score, the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses, and a dozen more factors are things I’ve spent nearly a lifetime doing. I had some idea those skills would transfer to life off the court, but being able to assess situations and make decisions quickly under such extreme, nonbasketball circumstances put those skills to the test in ways I had never anticipated.
That our friend found two doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York who had experimented with a radical new treatment, one they’d only performed on fourteen patients, without publishing the results, 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 our due-diligence work, getting a second and third opinion, hoping against hope that we could avoid surgically removing our daughter’s 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 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 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 not ever to have had any firsthand experience with the place for myself or any of my family members and friends. I knew that this cutting-edge facility was recognized worldwide as one of the most advanced cancer-treatment and research facilities out there. What I learned as we pursued 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 1930s, 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 death sentence. Survival rates for the disease were incredibly low. Fortunately, thanks to the work of many doctors and researchers, the odds have significantly increased, 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 five thousand children are afflicted with this cancer each year, and about half that number eventually die from it. I say “only” in regard to the number of children in the United States with the disease (compared to almost three thousand 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 only in about 10 percent of the cases is the mutation 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 had in the seventies trained under one of the leading experts in the field of eye-cancer treatment, Dr. Algernon Reese at Columbia 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 forties and fifties. 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, intraarterial chemotherapy, they seemed surprised. As Dr. Abramson later said in a New York Times interview, “I’m not sure how he knew about that. . . . He must have done a lot of homework.” Thanks to my friend, I had been able to copy someone else’s homework. Spreading the ball around, and trusting that a teammate would 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 in that office, floors above the growl and hum of midtown 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 were marked by all kinds of potential pitfalls. That spring we had only recently moved 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 hadn’t made sense to move right away that summer. I’m sure a lot of you can relate to the problems of moving and having to find new doctors, plus deal with health insurance companies (we were fortunate to have good coverage) and all the issues of who’s in network and who’s not. Candace had been concerned that something wasn’t quite right with Tatum’s eye, but 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. Katie McElligott confirm my wife’s suspicions. I was at practice when the voicemail 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 something was wrong. If we had waited and if we’d let the red tape of insurance companies deter us, I don’t know what the outcome would 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 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 fraternal twins, Drew and Tatum were going to be subject to a lot of comparisons, maybe more so than other siblings. When they were born, Tatum had darker skin than Drew, whose coloring was more cocoa. Drew 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 needed food. He had to nurse or get a bottle immediately, and we could do nothing 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, then eat. Even from her earliest days, she seemed quite playful and mischievous, more capable of demonstrating a bit of an attitude.
Candace had noticed that sometimes when she looked into Tatum’s eyes, something didn’t seem quite right. 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. But sometimes when light shone in Tatum’s eye, Candace thought 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. In the more than ten years that I’d known Candace, I’d learned to trust her instincts. If she thought something was wrong, then something had to be 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, visible in the pupils of children with retinoblastoma, is known as leukocoria or the cat’s-eye reflex. Just as a cat’s pupil appears white in certain lighting, so will that of a child who has retinoblastoma or other eye conditions including Coats’ disease. That white reflection in photographs does not always indicate those serious conditions, but it is definitely worth checking out with a doctor. We learned all of this only after Tatum’s 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 telltale 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 as if 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. Thoughts were 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 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 after a long and protracted illness, as 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, like a kind of sign being driven into the ground indicating that was then, and next was now. Facing the prospect that she might lose not just her eye, but that we could lose her, was unimaginably difficult to process.
In a way, hearing that news was also as if 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 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, whom I’d be matched up against—just neatly took their place in line behind—a long ways behind—one overriding concern: what were we going to do to help our daughter?
The next day, Tatum was given an MRI exam that confirmed the diagnosis. We had a play-off game that night against Houston and I would suit up. At that point, no one except Jazz owner Larry Miller, General Manager Kevin O’Connor, and trainer Gary Briggs knew the specifics of the situation. They told me that I was under no pressure to play that night or any other during the play-offs. They agreed that Tatum’s condition and our privacy was what mattered the most.
I had been making such a mad rush from practice to doctors’ 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, 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. 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 Briggs’s office 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, on Wednesday, May 9, 2007, Tatum would undergo the procedure at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
Dr. Abramson knew about the play-off 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 just a few hours would have no effect on the prognosis for Tatum’s eye.
“Absolutely not,” I told him. “Just do what’s best for my child. How many games I miss in the play-offs is totally irrelevant.” I meant every word of that, and even when Dr. Abramson suggested some possible adjustments to the schedule, I remained firm in my commitment 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, our decision on Tatum’s care was easy: spare no cost, leave no stone unturned, and put basketball where it belonged on my list of priorities, well below my family and its needs.
Doing the right thing came so easily 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 members’ needs above your own. Dr. Abramson was simply trying to accommodate me and my needs, figure my career into the scheme, and I appreciated that, but I never questioned whether we should 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. Dr. Gobin and Dr. Abramson were realistic but confident. I liked that about them both. They were as personable as could be without seeming smug or fake. They were clearly brilliant men, but their compassion and consideration for us as people, and not just as an opportunity to test a procedure that could make them famous or wealthy or both, 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 a 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 of the 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. A tumor-killing drug would be injected through a tiny blood vessel in the eye. 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. Prior to surgery, from our hotel room, we could see Central Park spread below us, and I envied the imagined emotional ease of the runners and cyclists I saw circling that great expanse of green. I’d heard that some people consider Central Park Manhattan’s lungs, providing a breath of fresh air squeezed out by 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 darkness, I found myself drawn to that window and knew that for me there was a very different reason that 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, 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 procedure, she couldn’t eat. Normally, she was a happy and satisfied baby, but being forced to go without food had her especially fussy that night and the next morning. Candace and I had both flipped a switch in our minds the instant we got the diagnosis. We’d been in caregiver and protection mode all week and were especially alert that morning. It tore us up to hear Tatum’s wails, and to see her in distress was gut-wrenching. We made a few calls back to Utah to make sure that Drew, my daughter Chloe, and my stepson, Marshall, were doing okay. Once Tatum finally fell asleep, we made a few more phone calls to family members to let them know what was going on. My mother assured me that the prayer circle at Eighth Street Church back home in North 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, my touchstone, the place on which the foundation of my life was built. I could add that to the list of the many blessings I’ve received. Hearing my mother tell me that those prayers were going out, I knew that we had a whole bunch of folks on the sidelines and in the stands doing their 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, but showing up at 7 a.m. for a 10 a.m. scheduled start was difficult. When one of the surgical-team members was called away by a separate emergency and Tatum’s procedure was delayed, our already protracted period of anxiety went into overtime. Though we weren’t guaranteed results, we had been encouraged by the success rate among the few patients who had previously undergone the treatment, and we had a lot of faith in the doctors. Knowing that any kind of invasive procedure was risky, and knowing that with an infant, and with the veins and arteries in such a delicate part of the anatomy—the eye—the operation required great precision, Candace and I were both on edge. We’d read up on the procedure, knew that this was the best chance we had, but still the thought of having toxins injected into our 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 as if a brick were lodged in my throat. When I turned back to catch one last glimpse of Tatum, 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 take a short nap to 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 time on pins and needles. I was grateful that our friend was there with us; he and I spent most of the time talking about what we imagined the progress was and counting down the minutes until someone came out to give us the promised midsession report. That report never came, but when one of the team members at last reported 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 walked alongside her to the recovery room.
I was glad that we had a job to do while Tatum was in recovery. A tube had to 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 postsurgery and she came out of her anesthesia-induced slumber, she grew more and more active and agitated. Another concern was that she keep down any fluids or food she was fed, so Candace and I worked together on that. It felt great to contribute to Tatum’s well-being and comfort. I don’t like to give up control, and the feelings of helplessness that I’d experienced during the operation had started to work on me. Just being able to hold Tatum in our arms made us feel 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 could really do was wait—both for Tatum to recover from the anesthesia and for the three weeks to lapse before we returned to see if the chemotherapy had had the desired effect. With Tatum’s immediate safety and condition seemingly well in hand, I had a few moments to think about all that had happened. Through the week 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 called 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 play-offs 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 play-offs and win an NBA championship, which 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 game back in Salt Lake City that night. The Jazz had helped us out greatly by securing a private jet to take us back and forth. Our only concern about flying so soon after the treatment was Tatum’s leg. We needed to keep her still. We wanted to be back in Salt Lake City to be with our large circle of supporters and to restore as quickly as possible some semblance of normalcy in our lives. Even though Drew was too young to fully understand what was going on, I’m sure that 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 stepson, 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, that he was both worried about his half 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 in to 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 permission to leave the hospital, we got 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 that nothing more was to be done except to wait to see if the drugs had the desired effect on Tatum’s tumor. We were also reassured because our friend with the medical background was a former registered nurse, and he 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 and were comfortable in having us leave.
In our minds, the major challenge was over—the procedure was done—and the rest was out of our hands. That wasn’t the most comfortable place for either Candace or I 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. 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.
Despite the many times I’d played in either New York or New Jersey and my 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 my nerves. I couldn’t help but think of Tatum’s delicate physiology and be amazed that these potent drugs had worked 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 it felt like being in the waiting room prior to the procedure, with little we could do to help Tatum. More waiting was ahead of us, but something told me that I could do more.
Once we reached our cruising altitude and were making our way west, thoughts of our play-off 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 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 further information. 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 to 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’d pulled out after trailing by 3 at halftime and by 5 going into the fourth quarter. The Warriors up-tempo style and the performance of their guards Stephen Jackson and Baron Davis, who had 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 play-off 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 decided not to reveal any of the details of what was going on in our personal life. While I was up front 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 outside of that 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 the Jazz would have the game in hand without me. 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 told me he had a message from the Jazz. 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 as 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 was eager to find out how the game was going, and when we turned on the radio, I learned from Hot Rod Hundley that things were not going anything like I’d hoped. Dee Brown had been hurt and taken to the hospital with a possible neck injury when our own six-feet-eleven-inch Mehmet Okur fell and landed on him. Five minutes into the game and the Jazz were 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 one minute 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 was listening to the game instead of being on the court or courtside participating in it. As the police car’s Mars light strobed the scene inside and outside the car, I had that peculiar sensation of being both 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 players’ entrance and I got out of the car, teams of cameramen and soundmen and photographers were there. With flashes going off and guys hustling alongside me as I strode quickly into the arena to the locker room, I was doing everything I could to keep my mind focused on what I needed to do. I wasn’t exactly certain of 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 I could say that a calm descended on me, but I was more like numb, relying on muscle memory to do even the simplest things such as 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 heard a few people shouting my name, and I looked up and was impressed by how many fans had worn baby blue to the game.
Anytime you come up out of the tunnel, you see the court fully spotlit and gleaming, but that day I really felt that I was walking toward the light. Making my way to our bench, I saw a few of our guys looking at me. I could see a mixture of concern and a happy-to-see-you look. I glanced up at the clock; 3:18 remained in the quarter. Carlos Boozer had just been fouled and was making his way toward the free throw line. I felt as if someone were 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 in other ways it felt as if I were still there.
I said a couple of words to Ronnie Brewer, Paul Millsap, and Jarron Collins, letting them know that things had gone well. I didn’t have much time to talk. I heard assistant coach Phil Johnson 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 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. In Salt Lake City, family and faith come together in a unique way all the time, but this was different and special. I can never repay the people for their outpouring of support for the rest of that season. A thank-you can never really be 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 doctors’ 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 give no quarter and ask for no quarter, as it always was, especially in the play-offs. Stephen Jackson and Baron Davis also expressed their concern, 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 the 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 play-off atmosphere, which seemingly 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, my body was jump-started and my brain instantly switched to basketball mode. No premeditation, just action. I also marveled that Deron Williams, who seldom got into foul trouble, had earned his fourth. It all seemed part of a larger plan.
Back on the bench at the start of the fourth quarter, I was better able to focus on the ebb and flow of the game instead of wondering whether 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 Warriors’ 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 layup for his 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 center Mehmet Okur hit a three to put us up 106–100. Things were looking good, but with the way Golden State was hoisting up and hitting the 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 that 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 reenter. We were down 110–107. A few moments later, the Warriors scored again, and we trailed by 5 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. 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 3 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 had been disappointed, but this time my faith in myself proved good—as did the shot. We were up by 6, 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 on court during a time-out 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 postgame 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 my family situation. Candace and I had agreed to keep things within the family, but when Ms. Oliver asked me about what had been going on, my gut told me that I needed to open up.
With tears in my eyes and an enormous sense of relief, 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 that I had a message to deliver. I had to do the right thing, and if I had to feel a little uncomfortable by sharing a personal slice of a sometimes too public life, 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 we hadn’t gone through what we did and received such enormous support locally and nationally, I would have wanted to write a book. I’ve never felt particularly special just because I am a basketball player. I am more reserved than most people and truly felt that what I did in those days dealing with Tatum’s health, 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, was simply what most fathers, most parents, 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 payback. 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 that crisis. And as uncomfortable as it can sometimes be to have a light shone on me, I feel it’s my duty and my privilege to share with you more of those moments that led 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 blessings 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’m 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. I’m going to share with you some of the fundamental lessons I learned on the court and off that have enabled me to succeed beyond what most people who saw me play the game could ever 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 and kept me here in the NBA. 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 them.
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 offense 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, and brother—that I sometimes felt I had to keep separate actually work together as a team. 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 that 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 that 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 downside of my career, but as I see it, things have never looked brighter, my future never more certain, my love for my family never more a source of contentment and pleasure. In no way am I ready to hang it up, but this seems like a good point at which to stop and take stock of where I’ve been and how I got here. 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 halftime 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.
© 2009 F. H. E. Enterprises