From a young age, all Thiago D'Elia wanted to do was play basketball. He would watch clips of his favorite players, head outside to his driveway to imitate them, then head back inside to rewind and watch again, until he got the moves just right.
Thiago's hard work paid off at 15, when he made the team at McIntosh High School in Peachtree City, Ga. But just as his dream was within reach, everything he'd worked for was nearly taken away. Thiago was diagnosed with cancer in January 2010, and his world was turned upside down.
"I think that was one of the hardest things for him," Thiago's mother, Laura Roig, said. "He had worked really hard to prepare for the season; making the school team isn't always an easy task. He'd done all the practices and been part of the team, so to not really play, that was tough."
Though Thiago's cancer treatments sapped him of his strength and stamina, he still mustered the energy to go to his team's games and sit on the bench when he could. When he was at home, he spent most of his time watching basketball, focusing on his favorite player: LeBron James.
Thiago was drawn to James' talent early on, and he followed the three-time MVP's career from the time he entered the league with Cleveland. Thiago stayed loyal to his favorite player when James joined the Miami Heat but never anticipated that he'd get a chance to meet his idol.
Following his successful treatments, Thiago had had no reoccurrences of his illness and was able to return to playing basketball. But he was still waiting on his "cancer-free" diagnosis, and still hopeful his wish to meet the Miami Heat would be granted.
In April 2012, he answered the door at his Georgia home and was greeted by two Miami Heat dancers. They presented the now 17-year-old Thiago with a DVD. When Thiago played the message, he saw James inviting him to spend time with the Heat in Miami.
"Thiago rarely is speechless," Laura said. "I know my son well, and he gets to a point where he's not only speechless, but he has to say something just to say something. He was so beyond himself that night."
When Thiago and his family arrived in Miami, they were given a private tour of AmericanAirlines Arena, including areas that few people outside the Heat organization see. They walked through the Heat's "Championship Alley" where images of the 2006 title-winning team are displayed to inspire the players. But on this day, it was Thiago providing the inspiration.
The 6-foot-3 guard played last season at Trinity Christian School, the school he'd attended growing up, and averaged 17.5 points per game. But he never expected to see his name on a jersey hanging right next to James' in the Heat locker room. Thiago suited up and headed out to the practice floor, where coach Erik Spoelstra led him onto the court and introduced him to the team, which was coming off a loss to the Grizzlies the previous day, a loss that snapped the Heat's 17-game home win streak.
The players' moods lightened considerably upon meeting Thiago, and the Heat wrapped up practice with a halfcourt-shooting contest -- with Thiago playing alongside athletes he'd watched so many times before. As the practice ended, James gave Thiago one of his trademark headbands for good luck and introduced him to star teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. James and Thiago stayed on the court after practice to have a shooting contest, which Laura said rattled her more than Thiago.
"They were doing all kinds of things, and I was sitting there so nervous, saying, 'Lord, please let him get his shots in,' and he did," Laura said. "He kept hitting one shot after another."
While Thiago was playing on the court, James brought over a backpack full of gear for Thiago to take home, including a pair of LeBron's signature shoes and a signed basketball and jersey.
The next day, Thiago was sitting courtside for the Heat's game against the Pistons, right next to Miami's coaching staff.
"As [the players] were going into huddles, they were giving him high-fives," Laura said.
After the game -- which the Heat won in blowout fashion -- James came over to Thiago one last time. The Heat superstar took off his shoes, grabbed a Sharpie and signed the sneakers for Thiago before the two said their goodbyes. Laura said the players went out of their way to make Thiago feel like part of the team.
"When they were leaving, they all gave him a really strong hug," Laura said. "LeBron was very humble; he really embraced Thiago more than once -- several times throughout the game, as he was being interviewed postgame. It was really warm and touching."
During Miami's playoff run, Thiago reached a milestone in his recovery. He's now officially considered a cancer survivor, having been cancer-free for two years. Yet Thiago already knew he was a survivor. He was more interested in the Heat's progress, and he persuaded his mother to let him go to the championship parade if the Heat won the title.
As the family watched the final seconds of Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Laura knew that her work schedule wouldn't let her go to Miami that week, but Thiago's older sister agreed to accompany him to the parade. When Thiago arrived in Miami, his mother had another surprise for him.
"I called him and said I had really bad news for him," Laura said. "'Son, I hate to tell you this, but Ancel Pratt [the Heat's community affairs coordinator] is giving you tickets for the arena celebration, so you'll have to be inside watching the team celebrate.' He was running around the airport screaming and celebrating."
Less than three years earlier, cancer had threatened to take basketball from Thiago. Now, he was celebrating an NBA title with the Miami Heat ... cancer-free.