As 5-year old Gavin Heileman stood at the foot of the stage, minutes from his turn in the spotlight, Isaiah Thomas took Gavin's hand and held it tightly while the pair awaited their cue. Thomas was Gavin's chaperone at the Cleveland Cavaliers' annual "Big Shots and Little Stars" fundraiser for the Flashes of Hope charity, and though each player was randomly matched with a child for the evening, there was something about the two that just fit.
"I got little boys, so I know how that is," Thomas says. "He held his hand out, and I just grabbed it."
Thomas, generously listed at 5-foot-9 and playing a sport that sends scouts literally all over the world to find the tallest athletes, inexplicably found a way to thrive in the NBA's spotlight after being selected with the last pick, No. 60, in the 2011 draft.
After a career year with the Boston Celtics last season -- averaging 28.9 points and 5.9 assists in the regular season, then 23.3 points and 6.7 assists in a postseason run that ended with a loss to the Cavs in the conference finals -- Thomas wasn't supposed to be here. Not in Cleveland. Not with a hurt hip. Not in a contract year with millions of dollars on the line.
Gavin wasn't supposed to be here, either. Not with anaplastic astrocytoma. Not two years removed from the discovery of a grade III brain tumor when he was just 3 years old. Not having overcome seizures and chemotherapy and loss of feeling in the right side of his body all before enrolling in elementary school.
Flashes of Hope brought them together. Since it began in Cleveland in 2001, the organization has photographed tens of thousands of kids fighting cancer, capturing a still image of each child to help serve as a confidence booster while they cope with the disease.
This year's "Big Shots and Little Stars" -- in Thomas' case, the "big" wasn't quite as literal -- raised a record $1.15 million, with 150 volunteers helping to bring the "Alice in Wonderland" theme to life. Actors came dressed as characters such as the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts, and the night marked the first time Gavin dressed in a bowtie to complement his three-piece suit. Thomas chided Gavin a bit for his white socks and black shoes combo giving him a Michael Jackson look.
Aside from Thomas' relationship with his sons -- 5-year-old Jaiden and 7-year-old James -- naturally drawing him to Gavin, there was another commonality between the two.
"I'm one of the shortest kids in my class, but that's fine with me," Gavin said. "I like it."
"You like it?" Thomas said, his face lighting up. "Being small is so cool. I'm the smallest guy in the NBA. I'm the smallest guy in basketball, so we're like the same guy."
"Yeah," Gavin said, nodding his head.
"It's not always fun to be tall," Thomas said.
What was fun was their time together, talking about Gavin's favorite movie ("Cars") and making their way down a fashion runway that spanned the floor of Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs' court usually is, as the 1,300 guests snapped photos.
After the runway, Thomas and Gavin were interviewed by Cavs play-by-play announcer Fred McLeod. Thomas stood behind Gavin with his hands on the boy's shoulders. While Thomas was speaking, Gavin reached up and wrapped his hand around one of Thomas' fingers.
"I'm not a huge crier, and I just started bawling because you could just tell that Gavin felt so comfortable with Isaiah," said Cameron Heileman, Gavin's mother.
The experience left an impression on Gavin.
"The entire car ride home, he was just super, super ... I don't even know how to explain it. Just like a kid I've never seen before," Cameron said. "He was just so excited about everything."
After the event, Gavin's kindergarten class greeted him at school with a sign that read "Swishes come true." The Heileman family hosts parties to watch Cavs games, and Gavin dutifully puts on a headband like the one Thomas wears when he plays. Even though Thomas hasn't played in a game for the Cavs because of his hip injury, Gavin gazes at the television, hoping to get a glimpse of the point guard on the bench.
"Ever since that night, it's been, 'My friend Isaiah. I have to watch my friend Isaiah on TV,'" Cameron said. "It's just been the cutest thing. It's a time where he can just watch his friend, and we don't think about anything."
Gavin's final chemo session is Dec. 18. The tumor has been completely removed. The seizures have ceased. He's the appropriate height and weight for a healthy 5-year-old boy (even if he says he's short for his class). The feeling has returned to the right side of his body. He doesn't show any signs of trouble with his fine motor skills, nor has he struggled with any learning disabilities.
When Cameron told her son he'd be an honored guest at "Big Shots and Little Stars," he reasoned, "Well, mom, it's because I'm the bravest boy in the world."
She wasn't about to argue with him.
"When this whole thing started, he was 3, and he was swallowing pills whole," she said. "He was sitting completely still while he was getting radiation. I mean, completely still. When he's on chemo, he's very sick, and I think none of that has gotten him down, and you would have no idea that he's sick at all. He's just so brave."
And he's happy, too.
"Ever since that night, it's been, 'My friend Isaiah. I have to watch my friend Isaiah on TV.'" Cameron Heileman, Gavin's mother
"People like the Cavs and Isaiah taking time out to help him, I truly think that his happiness and his joy [helps him] just as much as the chemo and the radiation," said Cameron, who also credited the Cleveland Clinic for their treatment of Gavin.
Meanwhile, the 5-year-old helped the 28-year-old realize that as much as he's itching to get back on the court, being a dad to Jaiden and James while they're still carefree is about as good as it gets.
"These kids come here so happy, and they've been through so much in their lives when you wouldn't even think they have," Thomas said. "These events are always special to me because they're smiling, they're happy where they've been through tough times. Like, I have half the worries they have, and they're still smiling. That helps me out when I'm going through tough times. It's like, people are going through worse things than I am, and they're still pushing through. So these kids are everything. These kids are what keep me going."