Jaylen Fisher was 5 or 6 when he realized he did not look like his friends, around the same time they figured it out, too.
The stares and looks turned to questions. Then the jokes started, only they weren’t funny.
“Where I came up from, you had to have thick skin,” he said. “It didn’t matter who you were. You were going to meet somebody mean. You had to take it. I just brushed it off. It’s nothing but words. Of course, words can hurt. But when you’ve been through and seen things, real life experiences, words can do nothing to you.
“You ever heard of ‘checkin’? It’s embarrassing someone. That’s a way of life in Memphis. It’s people coming at you saying, ‘Boy, you ugly.’ Or things like that. That’s what gets people through the day. If you get mad about it, they’re going to keep doing it. They are going to look at you and come at you. If you stand up for yourself, it won’t fly too long.”
The TCU sophomore point guard was raised in Bolton, Tenn., about 30 miles from Memphis. The way Fisher describes it, life could be rather cruel in Bolton, the same for some of the people there.
“You can never, ever, ever give them the satisfaction,” he said.
He never did, and more than a decade later he is used to all of it. Toughened by it. Numb to the looks. To the awkward questions. He’s just an albino, a condition that affects one in 20,000 people.
“I was first aware of it when I was around other kids,” Fisher said. “The question didn’t stand out until the question was repeatedly asked, and that’s when I thought, ‘Wait — I am kind of different.’ ”
People would ask him questions, and then he asked his mom: “Why did this happen?”
His mother’s response, “This is just how God made you.”
Fisher is at peace with that answer now. God is enough.
Fisher has given one interview about this subject before, and it was brief — that was in July 2015 to his hometown newspaper, The Memphis Commercial Appeal, when he was in high school.
During his freshman season at TCU, the subject was off limits to the media. As a sophomore, he’s ready to discuss it for all to hear and to learn.
For anyone who ever hated that they didn’t look like everybody else, listen to Jaylen Fisher.
“Embrace it,” he said. “Everybody is different.”
Living with albinism is not Fisher’s preference, but he’s OK with it. He doesn’t have a lot of say in the matter, and now he is comfortable in his own skin.
“There are worse things,” he said. “I’m pretty blessed to be even talking about this.”
At first, his mother told him this is just how he was made. As he grew older, he read about albinism to understand. Albinism is simply luck of the draw.
For one, both of his parents are African-American.
Albinism is an inherited genetic condition that reduces the amount of melanin pigment formed in the skin, hair and/or eyes, according to the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation.
People with albinism are expected to have normal lifespans. Vision problems are typically associated with albinism and people with the condition are more sensitive to sun exposure.
Fisher said the only symptoms he has are his white skin and hair.
By the time he was a freshman in high school, he accepted that he simply does not look like his peers. At first glance, a lot of people think he’s white.
“Then they hear me talk,” he said. “I really don’t know how I came about [being at peace with it]. I was so nervous going into high school. I didn’t know the reaction I’d get. I’m the only one. But in the ninth grade, I had the confidence that nobody would say anything wrong, so I don’t see anything wrong. I didn’t want to be the center of attention. I would just do what I do.”
Making this transition easier is the fact that Fisher has been an outstanding basketball player since he was a little kid. The guys who might make fun of him were not laughing when he lit them up on the court.
Before an AAU game in Arkansas, he heard an opposing player say, “They’ve got an albino — he can’t play!”
“I heard that and thought, ‘I’m fixin’ to kill this guy,’ ” he said. “It’s just a chip on my shoulder.”
He was the highest-ranked recruit to ever sign with TCU. He has basically been a starter since he arrived. Now that the Frogs are a Top 20 team, his story is going to be in demand.
ESPN, CBS and others have called. A few organizations that work with albinos have sent direct messages on Twitter.
Fisher is starting to recognize that as an athlete, he has a larger platform to tell his story, a story that could be inspirational to others.
He’s ready for everyone to hear it now.
“I do want to lay low,” Fisher said, “but how can you miss a black guy who is blond?”
Mac Engel: @macengelprof
No. 16 TCU vs. No. 10 Kansas
8:15 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2