Published: Jan 15, 2013 07:00 PM
Modified: Jan 15, 2013 04:53 PM
CHAPEL HILL - It wasn’t the kind of assist you usually see at the Dean Dome.
As a diminutive 12-year-old Special Olympics athlete approached the basket, UNC forward Denzel Robinson swooped in and lifted him up so he could do what every basketball player who ever stepped onto the court at the Dean Smith Center dreams of doing – dunk a basketball.
“That was my first-ever dunk I ever done!” exclaimed a delighted Levi Earley, who lives in Surry County.
It didn’t matter to Levi, or anyone else at the Dean Dome Sunday afternoon, that the basket had been lowered to seven feet for the occasion. A dunk is a dunk.
One hundred lucky Special Olympians from across the state, male and female athletes with intellectual disabilities ranging from age 8 to adult, participated in the annual clinic hosted by the UNC men’s basketball team. The two-hour session featured UNC coaching staff and players working with small groups of Special Olympians on basketball skills, followed by half-court scrimmages between teams composed of two UNC players and three Special Olympics athletes.
Each year, 20 different counties get to bring five athletes to the clinic.
Colleen Lanigan, Orange County’s director of Special Olympics, said the selection process is a random draw from a pool of about 130 athletes already participating in basketball programs.
“If they’ve had it ten times, I’ve done it ten times. And it never stops to be a truly amazing event,” said Lanigan who recently won Chapel Hill’s top employee honor, the Cal Horton Service Award.
“It brings so much excitement to them and the families that are here are all super excited. And the coaches – I also rotate my coaches, too – this is a reward for them as well.”
This year, Dan Costa and Lee Barnes were the coaches from Orange County and they both enjoyed the opportunity to watch their athletes with the Tar Heels and other athletes from across the state.
“I think this is terrific,” Costa said. “It’s a great experience for the kids and it’s a great experience for us.”
Orange County Special Olympics has 12 sports, and though many of those sports have partnerships with other UNC programs, none of their athletes participate in clinics like the one that Williams puts on every year.
On a state-wide scale, the Special Olympics has other similar basketball clinics. Next month the Charlotte Bobcats will host a clinic of their own but Keith Fishburne, president and CEO of Special Olympics for North Carolina considers the Smith Center event unmatched.
“It’s a unique opportunity because our athletes don’t necessarily get to interact with collegiate players and when you have a school the caliber of North Carolina its even more unique for our guys to be able to come in,” Fishburne said. “And it says a lot, the fact that Carolina wants to also interact with Special Olympics.”
The idea of a Special Olympics clinic was presented to Williams in his first year at Kansas and Williams said he, his players and the athletes all really enjoyed the event so it kept going. He brought the idea with him to Chapel Hill when he was hired at UNC 10 years ago.
Last year the event took place after the Tar Heels came back from a 33-point loss at Florida State, and Williams said that his players “jumped right in just like we’d won the day before.”
But this year, UNC was coming off a victory at Florida State.
“(Winning) makes us all feel better before but during the thing you gotta lose yourself in what you’re doing,” Williams said. “That’s what I tell my guys about the game and about anything they’re doing. And I think they did lose themselves out there getting involved.”
Williams added that many of his players, even those who played for him more than 20 years ago, are still involved with the Special Olympics.
For the current Tar Heels, interacting with the athletes and working with them on the fundamentals was inspiring, freshman forward Joel James said.
“They were having a ball. They showed it with their enthusiasm and effort in every drill we did. Just the smiles they had on their faces throughout the whole camp — it was great,” James said.
“You realize if they can come out here and have fun and put in effort, there’s no reason why I can’t have fun putting in effort every day in practice.”
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