Two days later, and it’s still hard for Anthony Nunn to get the words out in anything less than a breathless tumult. It was just too much, the scoreboards and the monitors and the crowds and the fans and the celebrities and the court …
Nunn, who participates in the Special Olympics program in Maple Grove, flew to Orlando last weekend to participate in the Unity Sports basketball game, an event at NBA All-Star weekend in which Special Olympics athletes are paired with and coached by NBA players. Timberwolves rookie forward Derrick Williams also participated with Nunn at the game.
When asked what his favorite part of the weekend was, Nunn said playing in his own game topped everything, including meeting celebrities and watching the various skill competitions and All-Star Game. It was the opportunity to play with a group of other Special Olympics athletes who were just as excited as he was that Nunn appreciated the most about the event.
“It was like I was in the NBA at the Staples Center,” Nunn said.
For Nunn, 22, and his coach, Mitch Ringe, it was the chance of a lifetime. They got to watch and meet the players who they see on television each night, to go to all the All-Star events that would otherwise cost a fortune to attend. Nunn said that the athlete he was most excited to meet was Scottie Pippen, and the Special Olympians also got to mingle with Kevin Durant, Sam Perkins, Clyde Drexler, Dikembe Mutombo and other current and retired NBA players. But for both Ringe and Williams, the event provided something more than just a fun, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was a dose of perspective.
“The nicest thing was getting all the kids together to play and learning,” Ringe said. “With kids from all over the country thrown together in a situation where they have to get to know each other, they only have one practice.”
It didn’t matter, though. As much as it was about basketball, it was about something more. It was about people getting a chance they otherwise wouldn’t, about modifying expectations and predictions. Williams, who said he participated in the event because he feels like he has a duty to give back to the community, was amazed at what he saw on the court, which shattered his idea of what a Special Olympics game should look like.
“It was pretty cool,” Williams said. “I think people in their minds have an idea of Special Olympics and things like that. But you know, they know exactly what they’re doing out there on the court.”
Williams also enjoyed the chance to stay on the sideline as a coach, a role reversal that he welcomed. From the bench, he could not only see how much the players enjoyed themselves. He could also take in the crowd – which he said must have numbered in the hundreds – and appreciate the atmosphere that must have wowed the players infinitely more.
It’s something that Williams has always taken for granted, not only being able to play basketball but also being one of the very best. And though it’s easy to rationalize talent – some have it, some don’t – it’s hard to remain unmoved by the Special Olympics players and their love of the sport.
“I think the best part was when they announced all the starters, and you could just see the smiles on their face when they got called,” Williams said. “The experience was just pretty cool, being on the other side.”
It wasn’t on television, and the Amway Center wasn’t packed. It was amateur at its essence, nothing flashy or jaw-dropping. But step back a minute, and Nunn’s experience might just have been better basketball than anything else that happened last weekend.