EL SEGUNDO, Calif. When Derek Fisher faced a crisis, he had no problem prioritizing.
Tatum came first, and everything else would have to fall into place.
Fisher flashed a smile Monday at the mention of his nearly 2-year-old daughter, whose battle with retinoblastoma cancer in the left eye drew national attention last spring.
"She's doing great," he said.
So is her father.
Fisher and the Los Angeles Lakers face the Celtics in the NBA finals beginning Thursday night in Boston a development he couldn't have imagined last July when he returned to the team for which he played from 1996-2004.
"This doesn't come around every season, and there have been hundreds of guys that have played many years in this league and really not gotten this opportunity," he said. "So you have to cherish it and appreciate it, and that's what feels good about it."
Fisher came back to the team that made him a first-round draft choice in 1996 after he asked the Utah Jazz to release him from the remaining three years of his contract so he could find the best medical care for his daughter because it wasn't available in every U.S. city.
Fisher acknowledged he considered retirement before signing a three-year, $14 million contract with the Lakers, which represented a $7 million pay cut from his previous deal.
"For a while, I did ," he said. "I wasn't sure what was required for us as parents."
When it became clear he could continue to play, Fisher was only too happy to have an opportunity with the Lakers.
So was coach Phil Jackson.
"I knew the stability he would bring our team, the leadership he would give us," Jackson said.
That's precisely what the 33-year-old Fisher figured he could do, and he was convinced he could make a difference, which he did.
"When I got traded to Utah (by Golden State), I said maybe I could help us win 6-to-8 more games," he recalled, noting the Jazz went from 41-41 to 51-31 and reached the Western Conference finals. "I had a similar formula coming to this team."
While it certainly wasn't all Fisher, he did his share and more. And the Lakers have gone from 42-40 and first-round playoff elimination to 57-25 and the NBA finals.
"What he does for our team isn't always in the box score, the intangibles he brings," assistant coach Frank Hamblen said. "And he's played terrific. Loose balls are his, he takes charges, and he shoots the ball really well."
Fisher said he realized the Lakers could advance this far during a nine-game road trip that began Jan. 31 a day before they acquired Pau Gasol from Memphis.
"You're on the road, you spend a lot of time together," he recalled. "We enjoyed that. We cared about each other. I knew that would make a difference."
Fisher said he wouldn't compare this team's chemistry to the Lakers' championship teams of 2000-02 just yet.
"But the camaraderie is very, very high," he said. "That's where we differ from our teams in the past. We truly have fun coming to work. It's a good feeling."
Fisher is the elder statesman on the Lakers one of only two players on the roster over 30. The other, Ira Newble, joined the team in midseason and hardly plays.
In his first tour of duty, he deferred to the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Karl Malone and Gary Payton.
"He has more responsibility now," said Kobe Bryant, who entered the NBA the same year as Fisher and has played his entire career with the Lakers. "He's the same way now he was back then. I just feel like here, with this team having younger players, they really tend to follow him a lot more and adhere to what he's saying.
"The comments that he makes throughout the game, the spirit, the approach to practice, the preparation and his hard work, I think it rubs off a great deal."
Fisher grew up a Lakers fan in Little Rock, Ark., and is aware of their rivalry with the Celtics the teams have met 10 times in the NBA finals. He said it's difficult to put the upcoming matchup in the same category as the three he remembers in the 1980s.
"We're talking about some of the greatest players to ever play the game," he said. "By the third time, it was heated, it was personal. Our guys are young, it's hard to compare what happened in those years. To compare this to that is a little far-fetched right now."
Fisher acknowledged this series might become heated before it's over.
"We both stand in each other's way," he said. "I'm sure it won't take long for us to dislike each other a great deal. Both teams want to complete the goal, both teams are four wins away from getting it."