Rochester U's James Fisher: Big Fish With Big Plans
“God has a plan.”
So says Theresa Fisher, especially with respect to her nine, yes nine, children.
Shortly after her youngest son's first birthday, he wandered outside of their home in Armada, Michigan, roughly 50 minutes north of Detroit. Had he headed out the front he might have bumped into the driveway basketball hoop.
He instead ventured into the backyard with a small pond 30 yards away. That’s a long distance for an infant.
But he got closer. And closer. And all the way to the edge. And then the little baby boy fell in.
His brother Phil, fully clothed, jumped in and grabbed him.
Breathing had ceased.
A rush to their father near the garage preceded an attempt to resuscitate. There was no life.
Until there was.
James Fisher was saved.
“God has a plan for him. He wasn’t ready to take him home yet,” said Theresa.
A few years later, James began to process what had happened.
“I think learning of his survival really hit him hard and gave him great pause as to what life really meant to him and what is God's plan for him, what is his purpose in this life,” said Mom.
James also had to process the passing of his brother Andrew that occurred just months after his own brush with death.
Dad recalled James, still not yet 2 years old, gazing out the window. James looked up at his father and asked when Andrew, older by barely 2 years, was coming home.
“I was spared and he wasn’t,” said James. “Maybe there’s a real purpose why I was saved that day.”
There had to be a purpose. And James had to find it.
Growing up, James also wanted to find - desperately wanted to find - a team. Whether football, baseball, or basketball, it didn’t matter.
While he searched for his opportunity, James played with the only team he had: his family.
But there exists a sort of tax to pay as the second youngest in a family as big as the Fishers’. “It’s probably the typical little brother story of just being handled by your brothers at will,” said James.
If this was the typical little brother story, his brother Joe played the typical big brother antagonist.
Take one moment on the baseball field, for example. Just some harmless, presumably non-contact play between brothers.
Barreling towards second, only one person stood between James and the bag - Joe, determined to cover the base.
“Joe was like a linebacker out there.”
When the dust settled, it became clear that the call no longer claimed priority.
“His knee was digging into my collarbone area and I thought it was broken. It was extremely painful.”
In addition to being a talented multi-sport athlete, Joe was a learned teacher for his younger brother. One night, he taught James a valuable lesson in their shared double bunk bed room, free of charge.
“I guess I snored a lot when I was a kid,” James confessed.
A sleepless brother. A tight fist.
“I remember feeling something warm coming down my face and it was red.”
“I woke up with a bloody nose. And there’s my brother Joe standing right there.”
Around Joe, James had to ration snoring and sliding, but not his brotherly love.
The love is brotherly because it’s buried deep down and doesn’t always shine through the dirt stains, or the blood stains.
And James even divulged some info that could serve as a defense for Joe.
"I was a cry baby then. . . Now we’re actually really good friends as brothers,” assured James.
Still with no team of his own, James remained confined to playing on the driveway hoop at home. He did his best to measure up to Joe and his other roommates, Steve and Mike.
James had quite the team at home. His family, with its stupendous size, meant the world to him. And when eldest siblings David, Phillip, and Kathryn joined in for a game, it meant even more.
“James always loved sports. He would do his best to keep up with the three older boys, and they were very good at including him in everything they did,” said Mom.
Well, not everything.
“No one really held my hand and helped train me in basketball,” said James.
And though James still searched for a team of peers, perhaps his family and his home, bloody nose, hurt collarbone, and all, represented his purpose.
Maybe this is where he was meant to be - where he was meant to find his purpose.
The Quest For An Actual Team
School played a comparable role in James' life to that of his family. At St. Joseph’s Academy, basketball belonged to everyone, including fifth grade James.
“The whole school showed up early, got together before school and we had this huge long line of ‘knockout’ and we’d play."
Thanks to his time spent in the driveway, James had familiarity facing bigger and older opponents. “I was extremely competitive and going up against high schoolers. I remember winning a couple of times and feeling great about that.”
Then came middle school, a time for growth and change. And more basketball.
With great anticipation, the sixth grade tryouts finally arrived. And then an actual team. Maybe.
His experience consisted of only pick-up games and “knockout,” with no formal coaching.
But James laced his sneakers tightly and played the same way he always played with his brothers.
Harder than everyone else.
After years of waiting, he had his answer.
James earned a spot on the roster.
“It was my first taste of playing for an actual team in an actual league.”
The young squad faced its share of challenges while developing under the direction of Coach Father David Gillilan. That team lost many, many games.
Additionally, numerous opponents were seventh and eighth graders, a full year or two older than James - the youngest one on the court once again.
And he was one of the best players on his team.
The offseason saw Father Gillilan replaced by a familiar face. James’ older brother Steve took the reins at St. Joseph’s. Family and basketball harmonized for James that year, almost like it was meant to be.
James says his proudest moment from those two years came with one of the many disappointing results.
“I scored 21 of our team’s 23 points, even though it was a 31-23 loss on a Friday night.”
James’ best friend Noah Meduvsky also earned a spot on the team those years. Noah’s proudest moment materialized as a season-long achievement, now a timeless memory between friends.
“One of the things Noah always holds over my head for that season is that he scored more points than me. He always reminds me of it,” said James.
James built a foundation of family and basketball in his formative years. What started with the hoop in the driveway moved into the gym at St. Joseph’s.
“As poor as our team was, that time of playing with friends was some of the fondest memories I’ve had.”
Still searching for his purpose, James knew it had to be connected with his family and hometown.
St. Joe's Goes
St. Joseph's, a private school in Macomb County, Michigan, should not be confused with the plush settings of Exeter or Andover. It received its funding largely through private donations - barely. The school taught a traditional Catholic curriculum - the same teachings the Fishers used to raise their children.
This included Mass prayed in Latin and a strong commitment to Catholic beliefs and values.
“The thing I loved about St. Joseph’s was the social life of the school that was intertwined with the parish community,” gleamed James. “The school campus was on the same property as the church. The school invigorated the parish.”
As it turned out, the school funding could have used some of that invigoration.
Instead, St. Joseph’s had to close its high school.
The Fishers scrambled for a rebound, commencing the search for a new high school for James, Joe and Mike. In an instant, James was in danger of moving away from everything he held dear.
Guided by priests from the parish, Mom worked tirelessly to find a school within the Society of Saint Pius X, which preserves the Catholic faith in its fullness and purity.
Her hard work paid off and she found one: a boarding school called Our Lady of Mount Carmel Academy.
Location: New Hamburg, Ottawa, Canada.
Canada? All the way in Canada? That's another country!
Not so perfect - according to James.
James fought this like his life depended on it, because in a way it did. James needed to stay home and find his purpose.
He couldn’t leave the basketball hoop in his front yard and abandon his friends and family for the sake of school. This would uproot his life and replant him somewhere else entirely.
And his friends shared a similar opinion.
“They thought I could just take the same homeschool route they were on."
Yeah, how about homeschooling, Mom?
James made a persuasive pitch.
His parents also knew he had a desire, a need, to find out why he had been saved.
After much contemplation, they came to their decision.
James was going to Canada.
“It felt like a glooming fate inevitably approaching me,” said James.
Oh Canada No
“I didn’t like it. I missed home and wanted to be home and didn’t want to be at boarding school,” said James. “‘Resentment’ is perhaps a good word."
James wasn’t the first student to feel this way. “I assume immediately they don’t want to be here,” said Matthew Zepf, an English, humanities and literature teacher at Mount Carmel Academy. Mr. Zepf laid it out plainly for James, “You’re here and you’re gonna do what you gotta do. This is your duty and I expect the best from you.”
But back home, the phone would ring.
It was James. Calling to ask his parents if he could return.
Mom knew of his misery.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said.
A breach in the armor?
Another phone call. James, once again, pleading his case hoping to slowly whittle down the resistance.
James and his brothers would occasionally return on weekends. Walking those familiar halls, he’d reminisce over the memories of his favorite place, reaffirming his idea that this had to be his purpose.
Like the abrupt sound of a gym buzzer, James’ visit concluded and it was back to the cold reality of Canada.
Upon returning to school, James enhanced his persuasive techniques.
It was time for the heavy artillery.
James broke out his pen and paper and wrote letters home.
“I would use all sorts of emotional ploys to get my mom to bring me back home,” he said.
The emotional pull to come home wasn’t exclusively sourced to James’ family. Noah Meduvsky fiercely recruited “Big Fish,” a nickname his friends reeled him into accepting. Noah belonged to a team in a homeschool league, with which James had even played before leaving.
“Once he told his program about me and I played with them once or twice, practically the whole team wanted me to come back and play,” said James.
So what’s it going to be, Mom? You’re going to allow James’ triumphant return from beyond so he can live his purpose at home, right?
“I had the support of other moms in the same boat and priests and fathers of the other boys who assured me it was the best thing for him,” affirmed Mom. “It was too late. Coming back home was not an option.”
Practice with a Purpose
In a place he detested, missing the people he loved the most, James somehow managed a positive thought. He realized that amongst the classwork and the litany of rules, one activity brought James solace.
Bouncing that round leather ball on a hardwood floor. Shooting through those glossy nets.
James would bond to the game in order to survive - to try to forget he had been taken off his path to his purpose.
A glimmer of light? A ray of hope? Perhaps even a spark?
Maybe basketball was part of his purpose.
No hyperbole: James spent every available moment in the gym.
“That’s actually when I started developing some talent and a love for the game. . . . I had a lot more free time on my hands that I would spend on getting shots up,” James said.
He also shot up height-wise with a five-inch growth spurt to ascend to 6-foot-5.
“I was just gifted. I was taller, athletic . . . all these different things,” he said.
Perhaps his raw athletic talent was passed down to him from someone he loved and missed back home. Martin Fisher impressed at a Detroit Tigers tryout camp in the 1970’s, and had a batting average of .407 after a few games before an injury ended his career.
"My dad says I was the one to receive his athleticism," said James with pride, but with also a hint of skepticism about that .407.
James did run into a little problem, however: The school did not have a team.
Well, James had been there, done that. Much like his driveway back home, he started playing pick-up games and “knockout" with classmates.
He helped Mt. Carmel manage to scrape together a team that played a couple games at other schools his 8th grade year. They then had a full schedule by 9th grade. And this led to another problem: Mt. Carmel did not have a court.
Well, they had a gym with a couple of rims, but no court anywhere near regulation size.
In order to join the league Mt. Carmel had to come up with money to rent a place to host games. Much like St. Joe's, Mt. Carmel would never be confused with the boarding school derided by Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman."
So the school had a choice, add another expense or continue without a basketball team.
They made the hard decision.
And found the money.
It paid off. Sort of.
No major championships, but they did eventually get a 6' 9" guy. Yes, James gained another 4 inches.
And with a whole lot of hard work, he also gained the title of captain. Even more impressively he gained the respect of coaches - opposing teams' coaches.
"Those coaches always came up to me and were like, 'Where did you come from? You're really good. You could go to college.'"
That's great - to most.
To James it felt like an expectation to excel at basketball. Pressure to succeed. Much like the pressure to find his purpose.
Some Good Carmel?
About the time the idea of post-high school hoops began bouncing around, Fisher's mom observed a change in her eighth-born. (There's a phrase you don't see often.)
“He had no brothers to run to and began to just be James and not a Fisher brother,” she said.
He began to appreciate the good example of the priests and their counseling."
He similarly appreciated the top notch education the school managed to provide despite little to no funds This resulted in a desire to help and to lead. In addition to the capital "C" he had on his team, James assumed the role of a house team captain his junior year..
“After accepting that I was going to be there for the rest of high school and recognizing the value I was receiving, I was able to thrive,” James acquiesced.
As a senior, the Mount Carmel staff elected James the school captain, a demanding responsibility outside the classroom. It ran from 6 a.m. until lights out requiring a constant example set for boys ages 11 through 18.
“He's got a very humble quality in his leadership and leads from the front,” said Zepf.
Captain of the school he frequently begged to leave. Inconceivable a mere 4 years prior.
"He matured with each passing month and began to think seriously about his future,” said Mom.
He realized that this maturity didn't just happen at Mt. Carmel. It happened because of Mt. Carmel.
But could he do more? He definitely would if he could. But COVID hit and sent everyone home his senior year. So clearly, he couldn't. Or could he?
What if he could raise a little money for the school? Better yet, what if he could raise a lot of money, not just for Mt. Carmel but for other schools like St. Joe's?
“My dream is to make a bunch of money and support these institutions that have given me unbelievable value,” he says. “Any success I have is practically from my formation there. Looking back it was the greatest thing to ever happen to me,” Fisher says.
And there you have it: Purpose found.
And imagine if he had been allowed to leave Mt. Carmel.
Thanks Mom. Thanks Dad.
Purpose with a Plan
Not only did he have a purpose but he had a plan - in fact had two.
Plan A: Get a basketball scholarship, go pro, and use his money to help little Catholic high schools.