NBA All-Star weekend is one of the biggest events in all of sports, filled with celebrities and fans galore. It’s a celebration of basketball. This year, it also included a celebration that was bigger than basketball. Today, at NBA Jam Session Center Court in front of lights, cameras and a cheering crowd, NBA All-Star celebrated that what we have in common is bigger than what divides us. For the first time ever, NBA Cares presented the Special Olympics Unity Sports basketball game that put athletes with and without intellectual disabilities on the court together as teammates. NBA legends and WNBA pros played alongside Special Olympics athletes to demonstrate the unifying power of sports.
It was the culminating event of an incredible weekend where Special Olympics athletes were able to show their talents to the world. Today, 12 Special Olympics athletes from NBA markets across North America proudly stepped into the same locker rooms that the likes of Kobe and LeBron were in, just the day before, for NBA All-Star East/West practice. Yesterday, they sat up in the stands and watched their favorite stars run drills. Today, they took to the same hardwood to show their own talents.
Last night, at NBA All-Star Saturday night, before the 3-point and slam dunk contests, all 12 athletes were introduced and honored on-court at Amway Arena in Orlando to rousing cheers of support. Today, they justified those congratulatory words with their actions.
They stepped out on to the court for today’s Unity Sports game and played their hearts out. There were incredible passing sets, and quick drives through the lane. Three-pointers nailed and chest bumps with NBA legends. The East team, coached by Charlotte Bobcats’ star Kemba Walker, included highlights by six Special Olympics athletes: Kerri Gilroy (Massachusetts), Andre Larry (Florida), Marc Campbell (Toronto), Tony Payne (Tennessee), Rickie Kelly (Wisconsin) and Keyuana Davis (Florida) who had teammates in NBA legends Dikembe Mutumbo and Sam Perkins, as well as WNBA stars Lindsey Harding and Ruth Riley. The West team, coached by Minnesota Timberwolves star Derrick Williams, featured six more Special Olympics athletes: Jesse Burnett (Colorado), Anthony Nunn (Minnesota), Sean Vigil (Utah), Steve Lynn (Oklahoma), Jackie Buxton (Oregon), and Jennifer Wardlow (North Carolina) whose teammates included NBA legends Chris Mullin and Clyde Drexler, and WNBA stars Sophia Young and Marie Ferdinand-Harris.
The game went down to the wire: Andre Larry (FL) of the East team sunk a 3-pointer with just 40 seconds left to tie it up at 57 all. Despite a last second attempt by the West squad to pull ahead, the game, fittingly, ended in a tie – which subtly, yet symbolically, reverberated the unity felt throughout the game.
“This game proved that Special Olympics is about real sports,” said NBA legend and Special Olympics board member Sam Perkins. “Our athletes should never be looked down upon. Today proved that we should all look up to Special Olympics athletes and aspire to carry their spirit of determination. It should make people want to play Special Olympics Unified Sports and have our athletes as their teammates.”
The 12 Special Olympics athletes who showed their talents on behalf of the nearly 4 million Special Olympics athletes worldwide were all proud of their accomplishments. Special Olympics athlete Jennifer Wardlow said, “I’m an all-star, baby. I’m an all-star! Then she exclaimed emphatically, “We just made those NBA players say ‘whoa’, look at their skills. People with intellectual disabilities, we can work, we can drive cars, we can play basketball – we can do anything. At the end of the day Special Olympics gives us so many opportunities to do more than just sports. Mrs. Eunice Kennedy Shriver started all of this, and so where would we be without her? She planted the seed and now we’re her flower garden.”
After the game everyone headed over to the court on the other side of Jam Session where NBA and WNBA stars led a skills clinic for more than 70 local Special Olympics athletes from across Central Florida. As they walked from one side of the vast Jam Session expanse at Orange County Convention Center to another, several of the Special Olympics athletes who had just played in the Unity Sports game were stopped by fans asking for autographs. Staff ushered them along. Had to keep it moving, had to get over to the clinic. Wait, one more sharpie, just one more fan wanting their shirt signed. Just as any basketball star, they had to accommodate their fans.
At the skills clinic, Special Olympics athlete Kerri Gilroy reflected on what being a part of Special Olympics has meant to her life; what having people with and without intellectual disabilities as teammates and friends on her Unified Sports teams has meant to her: “Special Olympics has always been a huge part of my life. It’s the first place I actually felt like I belonged. They’ve made me feel like I’m a part of a team, that I was important.” She plainly said, “You know, I like the fact that I can just be who I am without worrying about what people think.”
The athletes had one last stop on the schedule to hurry off to, as they were VIP guests of the NBA at the NBA All-star Game itself. As the clinic came to an end, the 12 Special Olympics athletes who had just spent the day bringing to NBA All-Star weekend an overwhelming sense that sports is a common thread that unites us all, walked off not worried that they were being stared at for being different. Those who noticed them leaving recognized them from the highlight reel of skills they had just displayed on Center Court a few hours earlier. They might have intellectual disabilities, but they are also just basketball stars who graciously nodded their heads in appreciation to passing fans as they had somewhere to be.