Splitter Draws Inspiration From His Late Sister

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Tiago Splitter
(Alissa Hollimon/NBAE/Getty Images)

She was the strong one, the courageous one, the athletic younger sister who fought leukemia with faith and unflinching determination. In the low post, Michelle Splitter stood 6-feet-6. In Brazil’s heart, she stood taller, so tall her big brother -- 6-foot -11 Tiago Spliter -- will forever look up to her.

How could anyone, stricken at age 15, laugh and joke and cut up with friends? How could anyone rise above the disease and dominate a game? Michelle did. Her adolescence was heartbreak and hallelujah. Chemotherapy and nausea at the hospital, baskets and applause in the gym.

How did she do it?

The wonder of a life lived so remarkably -- perhaps miraculously -- leaves Tiago in awe. He lost Michelle in February 2009, and a stab of grief remains. You can see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice. “We were close,” says Tiago. “She fought every day to be healthy. When I’m tired and I think of her and what she went through, what I’m going through is nothing.”

Life in the Splitter family revolved around a ball and a hoop. Cassio, the father, was a player in his day. He taught the game to his children – Tiago, Marcelo and Michelle – in Blumenau, a city of 300,000 in Southern Brazil, which more than doubles in size when visitors pour in for Oktoberfest, an annual beer festival.

The siblings, each tall and athletic, scrapped against each other at home. Tiago’s mother, Elisabeth, recalls the games were lively and reflected the family’s passion."Our house," Elisabeth says in an e-mail, written in Portuguese, "was always filled with balls and pictures of players – NBA, of course."

When Tiago left home at 15 to pursue a pro career in Europe, he became Michelle’s role model. She worked hard on her game, and as the years passed, blossomed into an unstoppable force. Then came the diagnosis and the family fell to its knees. At an appointed time each day, the Splitters prayed. Elisabeth and Marcelo in a hospital in Sao Paulo. Cassio in Blumenau. Tiago in Spain.

Michelle drew strength from prayer and passages in the Bible. She also drew strength from people. "Michelle had fun with her friends," Elisabeth says. "She laughed with them and pretended she had no problems. But as I was always with her, I can say I couldn’t handle all that."

After the chemotherapy began, more bad news. Michelle needed a bone marrow transplant. Cassio and Tiago launched a campaign in Blumenau to find a donor. No one emerged there. But a donor surfaced in Rio de Janeiro. The recovery was excruciating. Across the Atlantic, Tiago suffered quietly, wishing he could be near.

"For me," Tiago says, "the best thing to do was to be on the court and play basketball."

Back home, Michelle fought through the pain with rigorous exercise and daily therapy, willing herself to an accelerated recovery. “Every day was like a championship, a game won, a hard battle,” Elisabeth says. “But she didn’t want anybody to know about this, mainly Tiago, because he was so far away.”

The distance wore on Tiago until, suddenly, the prognosis changed. Doctors cleared Michelle to play ball. Michelle pronounced herself healed. Tiago rejoiced. Little sister returned to the court and made the Brazilian junior national team. One international story described Michelle as “winning a three-year battle with leukemia.”

Defeating the disease was one thing. But returning to hoops on a world stage? “I couldn’t imagine,” Michelle told an international reporter, “that this was going to happen.”

Tiago couldn’t imagine the next report. The leukemia returned. Michelle entered intensive care with a bleeding lung. On the same day, Tiago suffered an injury and was released to fly to Brazil. The trip home ended with a funeral. “God wanted our Michelle closer to him,” Elisabeth says.

As Michelle once drew strength from her brother, Tiago now drew strength from her. Weeks after her passing, Tiago led Tau Ceramica to the Spanish King’s Cup championship. He followed with a succession of strong games, and in September, propelled by the memory of Michelle, led Brazil to the gold medal at the FIBA Americas Championship.

He told Euroleague.net, “I dedicated this gold medal to her, just as I did our victory at last season’s Spanish King’s Cup. Everything I win from now on will be for her.”

One year later, Tiago remains as devoted to her memory as ever. He is sitting at the Spurs practice facility, eyes closed, head in his hands, recalling a radiance that gave no hint of approaching death.

She had an ability to look past her pain, past the disease, past everything that stood between her and eternity. In her Bible, Michelle underlined Romans 8:18: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

Cassio and Elisabeth placed the verse in Michelle’s grave and said goodbye. On YouTube, Michelle says “hello” in a montage of still photos. In one, these words appear: “Don’t look any further ... Here I am.” In another, her smiling face beams through clouds.

Brother and sister, born five years apart, remain connected in spirit. He plays in one world, she lives in another. “When I go through difficult times,” Tiago says, “she inspires me.”