It doesn’t get a whole lot more made-for-TV than the Utah Jazz’s 127-117 overtime victory over the Golden State Warriors Wednesday night.
I don’t mean that in a cynical way. TV loves the kind of amazing story Derek Fisher and the Jazz provided in the victory that gave Utah a 2-0 series lead. It’s the kind of drama sports are great at providing. But the TV industry is happy to manufacture it as necessary.
This one wasn’t manufactured at all, though TNT announcer Dick Stockton’s repetitive use of the word “drama,” the key word in TNT’s promotional campaign, started to sound like a suspiciously happy coincidence.
Write this one as a script and it gets sent back for rewrite unless you’re working on an “Afterschool Special” or something. Too corny. Too obvious. Nobody’d believe it.
Fisher missed Game 1 and the start of Game 2 as he dealt with what was described all week as a “personal family problem,” which Fisher revealed Wednesday was his infant daughter’s diagnosis of retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that threatened her life. With time of the essence, Fisher and his wife, Candace, rushed their daughter to New York, where she underwent successful surgery Wednesday morning to remove a tumor behind her eye.
With permission from doctors for 10-month-old Tatum to travel on the Jazz’s private plane and, he said, permission from Candace to play, Fisher and family flew back to Salt Lake Wednesday. He told the team he’d be back, though not for the start of the game, and coach Jerry Sloan kept him on the active roster.
That wasn’t the dramatic part. Here’s the dramatic part.
Fisher is Utah’s starting-off guard, but he’s also the backup to Deron Williams at point guard. His absence meant Gordan Giricek started and Dee Brown became the backup point. This became an issue with one minute gone when Williams picked up two quick fouls and headed to the bench.
Then he got hurt in an ugly collision, and that was the end of Act I.
Trying to draw a charge, Brown fell backward on contact, right into the legs of teammate Mehmet Okur, who fell on top of Brown as Brown was in sort of a sitting position. At 6-11, 245, Okur has about a foot and 65 pounds on Brown if you believe the rosters. Brown’s chin was driven into his chest, and he lay on the court for several minutes before being helped off.
It looked bad. Soon he was being wheeled into an ambulance, his neck in a brace. Good news came later that the injury was only a neck sprain.
Now the Jazz were without a point guard. Well, really, they had a perfectly good Deron Williams sitting right there on the bench, all warmed up and everything. In 168 professional basketball games, Williams had fouled out five times, none of them in the 49 games since Jan. 20.
Williams was a good bet to come back into the game with 5:09 left in the first quarter and not foul out, or at least easily get the Jazz to that second-half moment, whenever it was going to be, when Fisher arrived. The team knew Fisher’s whereabouts and knew he was on his way in and unlikely to be delayed, since he was on a private jet and would get a police escort to the arena.
But Sloan must know drama, so he put Matt Harpring in for Brown and gave the point duties for the rest of the quarter to Andrei Kirilenko, who seems to have been alerted in the past week or two that he’s a good player, something he’d apparently forgotten. The Jazz, tied when Brown went down, trailed by three at the end of the period, so it worked out fine.
Williams returned for the second quarter and led the Jazz to a five-point lead at halftime and a three-point lead late in the third quarter when Fisher made his dramatic entrance to a roaring ovation. He greeted the players and coaches on the bench but never stopped on his way to the scorer’s table, the crowd beside itself as he came onto the court and accepted greetings from his teammates and from former Warriors teammate Baron Davis.
Act III might have been Fisher lighting it up, raining 3-pointers on the Warriors as the Jazz raced to an emphatic win, a tearful Fisher carried off on his team’s shoulders.
It’s nice to know there are limits to this sort of thing.
Fisher, a solid but unspectacular kind of player, did solid but unspectacular work as the Jazz clung to a small lead until the final two minutes, when the Warriors surged in front. Golden State led by three with about half a minute to go when Fisher made the defensive play of the night, badgering Davis as he dribbled upcourt and forcing him to step on the sideline.
Okur missed a 3-pointer, but Mickael Pietrus missed a pair of free throws that would have given the Warriors a five-point lead with 16 seconds left. Given new life, Okur hit a jumper and then, after Davis missed a free throw too, Williams hit the tying shot and sent the game to overtime.
Overtime belonged to the Jazz. The Warriors looked beaten, tired, outmanned, but they trailed by only three when Fisher took a pass in the left corner from Williams with about 1:10 to go. He let fly.
Fisher hadn’t played in four nights, since the Jazz’s series-clinching win in Houston Saturday. He’d spent the interim on planes and in doctor’s offices, hospitals and waiting rooms. No practice, no shoot-arounds. He hadn’t even worked out except, he said, a few minutes on an exercise bike at the hotel in New York.
The ball’s going in slow motion here. We’re watching Fisher watch it, in slow motion. Watching the guys under the basket jockey for rebounding position. Now a shot of Candace, back home, staring at the TV. The ball again, spinning, slow motion. Now little Tatum, sleeping peacefully. Fans holding their breath in the stands. Now back to Fisher.
And regular speed: Through the net. The dagger. Jazz by six. Crowd erupts. The Warriors wouldn’t threaten again.
Far be it from me to point out Utah’s 67-42 rebounding advantage, 19-13 on the offensive boards. Or to note that the Jazz outshot the Warriors 53 to 42 percent, that Stephen Jackson bricked up the room to the tune of 4-for-18, that Matt Barnes suddenly looked like an NBA journeyman again or that if the Warriors had managed to make just two of those four free throws down the stretch of regulation, the series would likely be tied now.
You won’t hear that from me because the Derek Fisher drama was real. Can you imagine even showing up for work after the day Fisher had Wednesday? I can’t.
And what about the rest of the Jazz? With one much-admired teammate’s baby fighting for her life earlier in the day, another comrade wheeled into an ambulance with what looked like it could have been a devastating injury, the Jazz had two excuses to mail in Wednesday’s game, to chalk it up to distraction and worry, go get ‘em in Game 3.
In real life, that’s usually how these things go. Look what happened to the St. Louis Cardinals last week following the death of pitcher Josh Hancock in a car wreck. They went to Milwaukee and, dazed, sleepwalked through a three-game rout, getting outscored 23-3 in the process.
A similar thing happened to the same team five years ago after star pitcher Daryl Kile died suddenly. In their first game back, the Cards fell behind the Chicago Cubs 8-0 by the middle innings and lost 8-3.
I wrote then, “Baseball isn’t like the movies. Baseball is like life. Sometimes the music doesn’t swell. Sometimes, you just have a really bad weekend. Sometimes one of the guys on your team dies, and you set your jaw and pull your cap down tight and dedicate the game to him, and then you go out there and get raked. Baseball wouldn’t be any good if it weren’t like that sometimes, because then it wouldn’t be like life.”
Basketball’s not like the movies either, except, as with anything else, when it is. And when it is, we don’t really believe it. We say you couldn’t write a script like that because nobody’d buy it.
Maybe we should, because that was a hell of a story Derek Fisher and the Jazz told Wednesday.
Previous column: Superstars
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
Bookmark http://www.salon.com/sports to get the new Kaufman column every day. Get a Salon Sports RSS feed. Discuss this column and the sports news of the day in Table Talk. To receive the Sports Daily Newsletter, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.