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This Alaskan teen hung out with Klay Thompson. He left with one of the Warriors star’s prized possessions.

July 21, 2022 Updated Fri., July 22, 2022 at 6:11 p.m.

By Madeline Kenney Tribune News Service

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. – Joseph Tagaban knew he was going to spend a day with his basketball idol Klay Thompson last week, but it was a moment involving Thompson’s own hoops hero that provided a true surprise.

Shortly after Thompson welcomed the 15-year-old to his offseason workout spot Friday, Thompson slid out of his backpack a crisp matte black folder with “Nike basketball” printed across the front. He carefully opened it to reveal an autographed photo of the late Kobe Bryant and handed it to Joseph.

“I feel like I shouldn’t even be touching this,” Joseph said as he stared at the photo in astonishment.

Whenever Thompson, 32, the former Washington State player, goes through hard times, especially over the past three years as he rehabilitated back-to-back injuries, the now-four-time NBA champion would turn to Bryant for inspiration.

But for the last year and a half, it was Thompson who served as motivation for Joseph as he fought the battle of his life.

“That’s yours, man,” Thompson said. “That’s yours.”

Joseph was in shock. “No, you should keep it,” the teen insisted.

“Frame it, and I want you to have it,” Thompson said with a smile. “That’s classic Kobe right there from Kobe camp, 2007. I want you to have this. That’s my idol right there, he’s the greatest.”

Joseph had been a fan of Thompson since before the Petersburg, Alaska, native started to play basketball in fifth grade. But his admiration for the Warriors star grew stronger when he witnessed the way he handled hardship.

“After I saw what he was able to accomplish, his ability to do that just grew on me quite a lot,” said Joseph, whose day with Thompson was featured on ESPN’s “My Wish” series Wednesday morning. “That’s why he’s my favorite player.”

The Tagaban family lives in a small town nestled between British Columbia and the Gulf of Alaska. Their neighbors know Joseph for his love of basketball and can often hear him playing in the family’s gravel driveway. But the echo of a basketball bouncing stopped last year after Joseph was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, which was detected from a biopsy of a lesion on the young boy’s mouth.

“The whole world turned upside down and changed our life forever,” the boy’s mother, Jessielea, said.

Mom pulled her strength from her son, who faced the rare cancer diagnosis without fear. As she started to break down, Joseph comforted her.

“I told him, ‘I’d rather take over, I’d rather be sick than you, you’re too young and you have so much life left,’ ” Jessielea said. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m younger, I can get through this and if God put me through this, He can help me get through this.’ ”

The toll of the journey weighed heavily on the Tagaban family. Jessielea quit her job so she could travel and stay with Joseph, who underwent treatment at Seattle Children’s Hospital. It was the longest she and her son had been away from 12-year-old Jacob, who struggled with the distance. Meanwhile, dad Ed split time between Seattle and home while their oldest child, Briana, serves in the Air Force.

Joseph remained resilient through everything, but he was itching to play basketball. The closest he could get was dunking on a plastic toy basket meant for young children. He spent most of his time studying Thompson’s highlights, which, at times, served as a temporary escape from the four walls to which he was confined.

Joseph was scheduled to go through five rounds of chemotherapy, which he started early last year. Though he entered remission in January 2021 after the first cycle, doctors continued with the treatment plan for another three rounds before stopping in October because of complications with the medicine.

“It got to the point where we were wondering if the treatments were going to kill him, not the cancer,” his father said.

Joseph reached a breaking point late last August during his fourth round of chemotherapy. His mother had finished preparing him a home-cooked meal at the Ronald McDonald house when she found him sobbing in the hospital bathroom.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Joseph had told her after he contracted a fever and infection again. “I’m tired, I’m done.”

Joseph had a breakthrough shortly after with his team of doctors feeling confident enough to conclude his treatments, though he still travels to Seattle every three months for checkups and tests. He’s doing well, he and his parents said, but doctors are still working to determine the cause of his low platelet counts.

Joseph returned to the basketball court in January after being discharged from the hospital in November following a 108-day stay. In his first game back, Joseph led his high school junior varsity team to victory with a buzzer-beating basket.

Joseph proudly showed Thompson a clip of the winner on an iPhone. The NBA star was impressed by the storybook return.

“That was awesome!” Thompson said.

Joseph and Thompson spent about an hour on the court together, with Thompson rebounding Joseph’s shots – not a hard job when the teenager rarely misses.

“I think we found the best shooter in the gym,” Thompson said at one point.

Joseph picked Thompson’s brain about shooting techniques and Thompson enthusiastically took Joseph and his younger brother Jacob for a spin in his custom Lincoln Continental convertible and some ice cream. Thompson sent Joseph off with a box full of Warriors gear, including several signed jerseys.

“They remind me a lot of my brothers when I was young and just to hang with them,” Thompson said, “it was an incredible day.”

“It really was a dream come true.” Joseph said.

The two exchanged contact information, and Thompson encouraged Joseph to reach out anytime.

His parting wisdom was to focus on the task at hand – whether that be flossing your teeth or making your bed. (Thompson then joked that he didn’t start doing the latter until he was older.) He told Joseph to try to stay present and in the moment every day he can.

Just before they went their separate ways, Thompson tapped Joseph’s father on the shoulder.

“Pops, can I see that one more time?” he asked, gesturing to the black folder. Thompson carefully opened it and slid the autograph photo out of its pocket before holding it up, with the crashing waves of the San Clemente beach as a picturesque backdrop.

“That’s so cool, that’s the G.O.A.T.” Thompson said.

As he walked back to his car, Thompson explained why he was willing to part with one of his most prized possessions.

“I just know he’s going through a hard time and I know he’ll cherish that photo,” Thompson said. “Just such a special photo of mine and I decided to hook him up. He’s a great young man. He deserves it.”

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