Eli and his twin sister Emma entered the Steve Lacy Fieldhouse on the Milligan College campus through a tunnel of cheering student athletes and faculty members celebrating the newest addition to the basketball team.
Eli was connected to the Milligan team through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which pairs children with pediatric brain tumors with high school or collegiate sports teams. Coincidentally, Eli was paired with his mother's alma mater.
When he was born, Eli was diagnosed with a juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma, a rare childhood brain tumor. But Eli's father, Josh Roberts, said the link with Milligan comes at an opportune time: Eli turned 5 Monday and his MRI has come back stable. That means he is considered a five-year survivor and is under no treatment.
After his loud welcome to the Milligan College campus, Eli signed a letter of intent with the school and he and Emma received their own basketball jerseys, their own lockers with their names on them, a signed basketball from all the players and boxes of goodies.
At first, Eli and Emma were shy: they'd just returned home to Kingsport Friday morning after the trip to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a trip they make every three months. But after getting a basketball in his hands, Eli lit up, shooting hoops while the team practiced.
"I think he had 17 appointments in 7 hours," his father said. "It just goes from one to the next and although he likes the trips, usually when we go to Memphis we go and visit the Grizzlies (NBA basketball team). Now we don't have to wait every three months to go to games."
And now, Eli will have plenty of opportunities close to home to watch basketball. Bill Robinson, Milligan's basketball coach, said that now he is a member of the team, Eli is welcome to come to any practice, game or event the team has.
"Today we actually signed a letter of intent, which means he's part of our program and we want him to be a part of our program for the rest of the year. As long as he'd be willing to be part of our team. Hopefully someday he'll play for us," said Robinson.
Josh Roberts said he is excited to have the Milligan Buffaloes on their side.
"I liked what one of the players said to him before it ended. He said, 'You know what? All these guys might be bigger, but you're a lot stronger than each of them.' "