CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina forward Deon Thompson never thought he’d get dunked on so many times in the span an hour. “But it was great,’’ the senior said, laughing. “It was so just much fun doing it.”
“It” was the UNC’s annual clinic for Special Olympics, a two-hour event at the Smith Center on Sunday afternoon that put as many smiles on the faces of Tar Heels players and coaches as it did the 100 athletes from across the state.
Carolina, which will certainly tumble Monday from its 12th spot in the Associated Press poll, has lost two straight games, and three of its last four — but the Special Olympians didn’t care. Not as they dribbled around 7-footer Tyler Zeller, who was helping out at the ballhandling station even though he’s in a walking boot to protect his fractured foot.
Not when 6-10 forward John Henson lifted some of the shorter athletes -- such as 11-year-old Alisha Dey, above, who plays for the Orange County team – up to the hoop so they could score at a shooting station.
Not as athlete after athlete lined up to try to jam on an 8-foot basketball goal, which was manned by Thompson and freshman Dexter Strickland (each of whom know a bit about dunking).
“On a day off, like today, usually everyone just wants to chill – especially coming off a tough loss,’’ Strickland said. “But to get out there, work out with the kids, it brightened all of our days. It puts everything into perspective. … And I think we’re all appreciative of that.”
And the timing couldn’t be better. Coach Roy Williams hosted a similar skills camp for Special Olympians at Kansas, and he brought the practice to UNC. The first time it was held at the Smith Center, in 2003-04, the Tar Heels were coming off a tough 61-56 loss at Kentucky. Working with the Special Olympians then helped bring that Tar Heel team together – although that’s not Williams’ first goal.
“I think about what it does for these kids -- and that helps us, but I don’t think of it in terms of basketball,’’ he said. “I think of it in terms of being kind to different individuals and doing things we should be doing.”
Each year, a rotation of roughly 20 teams from different counties across the state participate in the event. Special Olympics North Carolina offers year-round sports training and competition for more than 38,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities. And the Tar Heels were impressed by the participants' skills and competitiveness.
“About three times, they made a last-second shot on this goal right there,’’ Williams said, nodding to the basket nearest the tunnel where the players run onto the court as he described his favorite moment of the afternoon. “I wish we would’ve had that shot yesterday [when UNC lost to Georgia Tech 73-71].”
The Special Olympians, in turn, said they appreciate the opportunity to play and learn from players on such a high-profile team.
John Hughes, a 50-year-old athlete from Wilmington, has always been a Tar Heel fan and said he enjoyed getting to interact with the likes Ed Davis, Marcus Ginyard and Thompson.
Linda Branch, 19, plays for the Wake County team – and wore her N.C. State jacket to the event. But after playing against Zeller in a 5-on-5 half-court scrimmage (each Tar Heel got to pick Special Olympians for halfcourt mini-games) she said she might be a “little bit” more of a UNC fan.
The most important thing she took away from the day: “How not to pass it to somebody that’s not on my team,” she said, laughing.
When the Tar Heels return to practice Monday, they’ll likely be focusing on that, as well. But on Sunday, Thompson said it was great to see so much enjoyment, from both his teammates and Special Olympians, after dealing with so much disappointment lately.
“After every huddle with Coach, he tells us, ‘Even at times like this, realize that we’re more fortunate than others,’” he said. “This is a perfect example of that.”