Trinity Christian basketball player, cancer survivor gets his wish granted by James, Miami Heat
By CHRIS GOLTERMANN
For a moment in a sports fan’s fairy-tale-come-true, the 17-year-old named Thiago — a name that translates to James in the language of his native Brazil — stood alone in a massive gym next to the NBA giant. Basketball was the bond that united them on this special Saturday afternoon in April.
Following one special request to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Thiago D’Elia and LeBron James were now both kings of the basketball world together.
On one side was the towering superstar with the surname on his familiar No. 6 jersey matching the one in Heat color being worn by the 6-foot-1 high school junior, who had made this one-of-a-kind journey from his Georgia home.
For a while it was James and “James” all to themselves on the court.
In awe, the teen stood in his matching, officially-stitched Heat jersey with his name and No. 32, the same number he wore all season on the court for Trinity Christian School’s basketball team last winter.
But he wasn’t in Sharpsburg anymore.
Thiago D’Elia never expected his Make-A-Wish request this month to become a reality, even after so many other cancer patients had received theirs. He had made the wish years earlier, not long after the disease had been diagnosed, when he was a high school freshman.
“At first they were like, the wish could take a couple of months,” Thiago said. “After a while, I kinda just forgot about it.”
His initial reaction to his testicular cancer was to shrug it off just as casually.
“You really don’t listen when you’re a teenager,” D’Elia admitted, who has been cancer-free nearly a year and half after three sets of chemotherapy. “I’m sitting in the doctor’s office and they told me, ‘Yeah Thiago, it’s positive,’ and I just kept flipping through the magazines not really listening to it.”
The news came a dozen years after arriving in the United States as the adopted son of Laura Roig D’Elia, who took Thiago from Brazil to a better life in Peachtree City, joining a family with two older sisters. A bad reaction to a polio vaccine had damaged nerve endings and stunted the growth in his right leg, but he grew up loving sports like most young boys.
Thiago played almost all of them as a boy. Soccer, baseball, even hockey in the deep South. But there was something about basketball, even with a teeter in his step that’s now unnoticeable through the use of orthotics, that sparked his interest.
“Basketball was the one that spoke to me, I guess,” he said. “It was more of an emotional thing than a physical thing. The blood and sweat was just the icing on the cake.”
His love of the game blossomed around fifth grade, though it took several years to develop his skills.
“I wasn’t that good at first. Seventh grade I got more athletic. My eighth grade at Trinity, I think I made one out of ten 3’s. I’ve been working on my shots, so I can be more versatile.”
Thiago, who transfered to McIntosh and then returned to Trinity shortly after the arrival of current head coach Anthony Lamb, eventually grew into a 6-foot-1 frame that had him among this year’s top scorers with the Lions this season. The team struggled during the 2011-12 season, going 5-20.
“I think basketball is more life lessons,” he said. “You get to be a teammate and you get to be responsible. It doesn’t build character; it shows character.”
Like Trinity’s football program, basketball teams found the jump to the Georgia Independent Schools Association daunting, but not futile. The Lions played Region 2-AAA champion Griffin Christian within 5 and 7 points. The team split the season series with The Heritage School.
“I told them about midway through this season that in all my 25 years of teams, they were one of my favorites,” said Lamb, putting them with a group that included a state title winner in Tennessee. “They played hard, they practiced hard. Gosh, for a coach that’s all you can ask. We just weren’t as big and talented as some of the other teams we played.”
Not long after the season ended, Thiago found himself the biggest winner of all.
While punching the code to his garage, his usual entrance, one afternoon after arriving home from school this month, D’Elia was dismayed to find out his remote control wasn’t working.
Send. Send. Send.
“I’m like, aww, this is broken. Now I have to go change the battery,” he said. “So then I go through the front door and I go, ‘Hey,’ and I haven’t even looked up yet. And I see three or four camera people whispering ‘we’re rolling’. I’m never speechless, but I was speechless.”
The cameramen were from ESPN’s “My Wish” series for a segment that will air in mid-July.
Thiago’s request to the NBA superstar known as “King James” was in the process of becoming a reality. The popular summer segments on SportsCenter have centered on many major sports celebrities — Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Tim Tebow and even NBA stars Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and James’ teammate Dwyane Wade.
But never with LeBron.
A knock on the door was greeted by Miami Heat dancers with a DVD message.
“On it is LeBron and he said, ‘Hey Thiago,” come down here to Miami and play baskeball with me and watch a game,” said D’Elia. “It was awesome.”
In a mere two days, one of them dominated with interviews both in English and Spanish led by ESPN’s Chris Connelly, Thiago was flying to Miami as the guest of the Heat and LeBron James. The trip included a trip to the Heat’s practice that Saturday and then a courtside seat next to the team’s bench for what became a home victory over the Pistons on a Sunday afternoon.
“I’ll never watch an NBA game the same way again,” Thiago said.
When Thiago made his wish, James was in the midst of making his extended decision on free agency. But it wouldn’t have mattered if James had picked an NBA team in Siberia with his famous “choice” two summers ago.
“If LeBron had stayed in Cleveland, I would have said I want to go play with LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers,” he said. “I’ve always been a LeBron fan.”
Miami, though, brought added bonuses. Besides getting a chance to watch last year’s NBA finalists and the odds-on favorite to claim this year’s title, Thiago got to do it surrounded by family. His grandmother, aunt and cousins all live within the vicinity.
As for his family in Peachtree City, Thiago’s mom and sisters had successfully kept one of the toughest secrets they’ve ever held, reacting with their own tears of joy.
“My mom says she knew three months before I did. First time I met Lebron and hugged him, they started crying. When I made the wish, even my mom was happy for me,” Thiago said. “This whole period that I’ve been sick she knew that was the number one thing I wanted to do. The whole experience from when I got sick till now, everything, has been emotional for my mom. She’s been my soldier.”
A single mom, Laura D’Elia slept in the cramped bed next to her son for the entire week he spent at Children’s at Scottish Rite during his cancer treatment. Entering the hospital in Atlanta had been the first time Thiago felt the reality of his diagnosis.
“My mom has problems with her hip and her back and she’s staying on this uncomfortable bed with me,” he said. “She stayed with me the whole time. Just seeing that showed me how she sacrifices herself.”
The emotions he hadn’t been feeling until then were almost always absorbed by his mother, especially after receiving the initial news.
“I saw my mom crying while leaving as she was talking to the doctor while we were still in the waiting room, and I turned to one of my sisters and asked ‘why is mom crying?’ She’s like, ‘It’s cancer.’ And I was like, ‘Am I going to die?’ and she goes, ‘No,’ and I went, ‘Well, alright,’ and kept looking at the magazine, not thinking anything of it,” Thiago said.
While there, however, he learned of others even more stricken than he. The same chemotherapy treatment that led to a 17-hour night of sleep for Thiago put a neighboring teenage patient in a coma for a week. The boy, a former football player from Atlanta, had broken his leg on a tackle that revealed bone cancer and arguably saved his life.
“He said to me that he was truly thankful that it happened because he wouldn’t even be alive today,” Thiago said. “You really see other people out there that are a lot worse off than you. It definitely gives you a different outlook on life.”
His own recovery wasn’t easy, either. Despite being declared cancer-free by May of his sophomore season and done with treatments, he was routinely out of breath just shooting around on his own.
“I’d go outside and shoot on a six-foot goal and I’d get tired of carrying the basketball,” he said. “So obviously it was a tough struggle to see if I was going to come back and play as well as I had before. I’d be out of breath. I took a good eight or nine months to get back into form. I’d run laps before or after practice, but I’d get weazy. It was weird. I feel stronger and faster now.”
The long alley inside the American Airlines Arena that leads to the Miami Heat’s practice gym still wasn’t long enough for Thiago D’Elia to answer all the questions that were rattling through his head.
Thiago’s trip to Miami had began with such a whirlwind of excitement. A day to meet with family and friends upon arrival was followed by a near three-hour tour of the Arena that went beyond the “Behind the Scenes” ride at most tours. Thiago found himself awed at the 10-foot high chin-up bar for players, snapping pictures of the players' dirty laundry and inside every crevice of the locker room.
Not far from the one belonging to LeBron James, Thiago found his official No. 32 Heat jersey under his nameplate in a locker of his own, a pair of James’ new Nike Elite Series in D’Elia’s size. After suiting up, he was asked by Miami team representatives if he’d like to go meet the team.
“Right there, that’s when my heart started pounding,” Thiago said. “What am I going to say? What am I going to do? Am I going to embarrass myself? Every step, I was starting to sweat.”
Finally turning left at the end of the tunnel, the reality hit when he spied 6-11 center Chris Bosh up close. As the team began its shootaround, players began noticing a new face wearing a team jersey.
“I’m thinking aww, no, they already hate me,” Thiago said.
A few moments later, he was called to coach Eric Spoelstra’s huddle, where the coach let the Heat know of their new acquisition for that Saturday’s practice.
“He’s a great kid, from the story we’ve gotten to know about him, and it was a joy to have him with us today,” Spoelstra told the Associated Press. “Not only for him, but also coming off a night like [last night’s loss] it certainly keeps everything in perspective for all of us. We are in the toy department of human affairs.”
Ending their workout with a half-court shooting contest, D’Elia found himself surrounded by a group not so unlike his teammates at Trinity. They poked fun at the “old man,” 39-year-old Juwan Howard, when his shot carried well over the backboard, and cheered Thiago on as his shot caromed off the front of the rim.
“I was surprised because the night before, they lost, and how happy they still were to see me,” he said. “They kinda resemble my own teammates, cause they knew how to make each other laugh.”
What felt like 10 minutes had been more than 20 as a massive huddle had dwindled to just two Miami Heat players that Saturday afternoon — LeBron James and newcomer Thiago D’Elia. And as the two went off on their own, shooting free throws and 3-pointers together at the end of practice, the “rookie” even managed to make an impression.
He sank a set of five straight free throws and made more than his share of 3-pointers from NBA range, enough to prompt Bosh watching with Spoelstra and Laura D’Elia from afar to “sign this kid.”
Finally as James and Thiago shared moves to the baskets, D’Elia made his most comfortable approach, taking the ball back out between his legs, making a studder step and a final crabwalk before heading in for a layup.
LeBron’s reply? “Do it again.”
The next trip to the hoop, the move was even more swift with a finger roll, enough for James to say he’d like to try that in a game. The two spent the rest of that day together, even answering questions together in the post-practice interviews.
“If I see him do it, I’m going to be like, ‘I taught him that,’” Thiago said, laughing.
Before returning home following the April 8 against the Detroit Pistons, Thiago had nearly forgotten one of his most important souvenirs — and it wasn’t even one he was going to keep. Besides the shoes and jersey, James gave him one of his own headbands and was presented with one of LeBron’s first issued Heat jerseys signed by the All-Star. Thiago also received a pair of Nike’s that won’t be released until later next month. But he couldn’t leave without one more autograph.
Thiago had promised someone back home that was in the hospital after surgery with a bruised kidney that he’d bring him back something “special.”
“Right as I was about to walk about from getting interviewed, I turned around and ran back to Dwyane Wade and asked, ‘Is it ok if I get an autograph? It’s just not for me.’”
Back in Georgia, Thiago slipped the piece of paper into a Miami Heat folder and took it to his friend’s room, telling him the folder was the only thing he was able to bring back.
Once the friend opened it, however, he quickly spied the piece of paper. On it read “To Reid, much love. Feel better. Dwyane Wade.”
The smile may have been identical to the one D’Elia wore throughout his Make-A-Wish trip to Miami.
“I was just trying to share it with him,” Thiago said. “It was awesome.”
(Editor’s Note: ESPN will return to Trinity Christian in May to finish filming the segment. The My Wish series begins on SportsCenter starting July 15.)