Padecky: Cardinal Newman grad Chris Fisher on the move in broadcasting career

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OAKLAND — It started with what would be considered by others the most unremarkable of sensations. A tingling. That was it. A slight tingling in his right thumb. Easy to ignore for others, but it set off bells and whistles for Chris Fisher. It was 2001, and it was the first time in a month Fisher felt his body below his neck.

Thus it began, the journey, when a boy became a man, when a kid was forced to grow up, it seemed, almost overnight, when everything about him was paralyzed except his mind.

“There’s no scientific explanation for this,” said Fisher, 34. He still doesn’t know why he can physically do this: He will walk into every NBA arena this season with a black cane in his right hand, his stiff left leg moving against its will, creating a halting gait.

Fisher will walk and people will talk. Pro basketball is a game of high flyers, and NBA fans would be surprised to learn Fisher has accomplished more than anyone on the floor, even if he can’t jump an inch. The Rohnert Park native is the television play-by-play announcer for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“You hear that people have to be a certain age to do this,” Fisher said. Age is a barrier? Age is an obstacle? What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis? Please, save yourself the embarrassment and don’t pose those questions to Chris Fisher. Fisher knows real obstacles, real barriers. Too young? Actually, he’s both young and old.

“I move around like an 85-year-old with the cane,” he said before the Warriors’ opener vs. the Thunder on Tuesday. “And I’ve never been happier.”

Doing what he always wanted to do, Fisher pinches himself at his good fortune. That alone is significant because, well, he can feel the pinch. It hurts so good.

It was Oct. 26, 2001, the night before the homecoming game at Cardinal Newman. A junior at Newman, Fisher was in the front passenger seat of an Acura Legend. A buddy was driving. Another buddy was in the back seat. The trio were on Chileno Valley Road west of Petaluma.

“I was looking at some compact discs,” Fisher said.

At the very last second, Fisher looked up to see the Acura entering the curve too fast. The car went off the road and flipped hard on its roof. Fisher was pancaked. His first thought didn’t capture what was to happen next.

“Oh no,” Fisher thought to himself, “I’m going to have to call my parents and tell them I was in an accident.”

In less than five minutes, he guesses, that thought became a forgettable understatement. Now upside down, his knees pressed to his chest, the roof above him had collapsed upon him, pinning Fisher to his seat. He tried to move. That’s when reality came crushing in on him.

“I couldn’t move my legs,” he said. Worse still, he realized he couldn’t feel them. Fisher couldn’t feel anything. He nonetheless struggled. “I wanted to get the hell out of the car.” Fisher was 17, an avid snow skier. He played soccer. In great shape. He was an athlete. And, remember, he was 17. Just seconds before Fisher was looking at CDs IN HIS HANDS, for criminy sakes.

His two friends, uninjured, got out of the car.

One flagged a passing car. A helicopter and police came. He was extracted from the car with the Jaws of Life. He was flown to Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa. In the emergency room, doctors found Fisher had broken his neck and injured his spinal cord near the C5 and C6 vertebrae. He immediately went into surgery. It lasted six hours.

Fisher asked the doctors if he would ever walk again. He was given two answers: “I don’t know” and “No.” With “I don’t know” as the most optimistic assessment, the second answer seemed to carry a heavier weight.

“My only reference for something like this,” Fisher said, “was Christopher Reeve. I knew he couldn’t move after his accident.” Reeve was the actor who suffered a spinal cord injury after being thrown from a horse he was riding.

Fisher spent five days at Memorial before being flown to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. He was in intensive care for two and half weeks. During that time Fisher was intubated, a breathing tube reaching into his throat. Kept him alive. For two and half months he stayed at the Santa Clara facility. Jim and Leslie, his father and mother, stayed with him, as did his sisters, Casey and Robyn. And then there were his friends. For months this support team took their turns to feed him, talk to him, stay with him. His friends? Didn’t want to name them.

“I know I’ll leave someone out,” Fisher said.

The progressions were easy to identify but did not rapidly connect themselves to one another. It was slow, the regeneration that moved through his body. Strange sense it was, his body awakening again, piece by piece. The nerves were connecting the dots, and in turn Fisher emerged. Arm exercises. Leg exercises. Body becoming vertical in bed. Body now upright. Right foot able to exert pressure on floor. Wheelchair. Arms at side, sliding across parallel bars. Then a walker. That was a big one. Then the cane.

The above paragraph encapsulated months in just a few words.

The same, however, can not be said about his will to live, to thrive, to rise above the moment, the pain, the uncertainty, the memory of that night. Where did Fisher get the spine to find his spine, his life, again?

“One thing, I was too young to really understand the severity of my situation,” Fisher said. “Then there was my family and friends. I couldn’t have done this without them. They were always there for me.”

Most importantly, Fisher was always there for himself. When he was alone in his thoughts, his feelings, what drove him past despair?

The answer is the same answer Fisher gave the Thunder when club officials interviewed him for the job. How could a guy with a cane negotiate the NBA schedule? Covering an NBA team is the most arduous, mind-numbing assignment of America’s Big Three sports. Even in baseball, the players, the writers, the broadcast team, they all can sit in a city for three or four days.

The NBA is a traveling circus. The only thing missing is the elephants. Here’s what Fisher told the Thunder.

“It was a legitimate question they were asking,” he said. “You’re always going to be challenged in life. And I will challenge myself. I always have embraced adversity and the challenge. I will not back down. I will never back down. If I’m going down, I’m going down swinging.”

I asked Fisher if he ever saw Sylvester Stallone in the movie “Rocky.” He laughed. I took that as a yes.

No matter. The Thunder liked the highlight reel Fisher sent of his time with the Pac-12 TV network. They liked the eight years he had broadcast USC sports. They liked the fact Fisher wasn’t afraid to learn his craft by working four summers broadcasting Class A baseball.

The Thunder’s front office was impressed with how much Fisher was drawn to broadcasting: Majoring in political science at USC, Fisher had one class to take to get his bachelor’s degree. But he passed on the class. Something came up.

In 2007, Fisher went to baseball’s winter meetings in Nashville looking for a broadcast job. He got it, working Class A baseball. Four years later, Fisher took the Spanish class and got his degree.

That’s how deep Fisher absorbed sports broadcasting, especially after he heard the Giants’ Jon Miller and the 49ers’ Joe Starkey. “Listenability” is not in the dictionary, but that’s how Fisher described the attraction.

“Basically,” Fisher said, “I had to show the Thunder what I stood for both as a person and a broadcaster. That’s really no B.S.”

This June, Fisher heard the Thunder job was coming open and sent in his video reel. The team contacted him in late August. He interviewed in Oklahoma City the week after Labor Day. On Sept. 24, Oklahoma City announced he had the job.

“There are only 30 of these jobs in the NBA,” Fisher said. “So when you apply, it’s about a 90 percent chance you won’t get called.”

Long odds, sure. So what? There are big numbers at play here. According to Johns Hopkins University, more than 250,000 people in America are dealing with spinal cord injuries, with 12,000 new cases annually. Fisher knows he can have an impact. He just hasn’t fully embraced it.

“It’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around everything that’s going on,” Fisher said. “I’m of two minds when it comes to talking about it. On one hand, I’m not going to sit here and volunteer to speak about it. It’s because I want to be as normal a 34-year-old as I can be possibly be.

“On the other hand, I feel an obligation, that I can have a positive effect for people who are facing the same adversity as I have. It’s not every day you see someone 34 years old walking with a cane.”

The visual gives him little place to hide. The cane and his age attract at least a question.

Said Fisher, “If I say, ‘Well, I got into an accident and it’s complicated’ and they nod and walk away, I know I don’t have to go any deeper. But if they actually stop and ask for details, I’ll talk. I know then they really want to know.”

Fisher will tell them his story. He will be honest. He can’t grip much of anything in his left hand unless he clasps it shut, enough to cradle a cell phone. He can’t feel hot and cold on the right side of his body. In terms of progress, Fisher has, in his words, “plateaued.” He will grimace if he feels pity coming his way. He didn’t get this far by moaning about bad luck.

“Hey, I got the ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card,” Fisher said. “But I can’t tell you why.”

Chris Fisher doesn’t have the answer. He just has to know the question: What are you going to do about it? So when his left leg suddenly begins to twitch — an involuntary continuous muscle contraction — he shrugs.

Chris Fisher doesn’t see the tapping of his leg as a reminder of the accident. The leg is moving? Cool. That means I’m moving. I’m not sitting still. The symbolism is strong. Chris Fisher has never stopped moving, even when he couldn’t. His mind was never paralyzed.

To comment on his columns, email Bob Padecky at

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