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 comprised of two UNC players and three Special Olympics athletes.
“You’ll get a chance to pass to our guys and guard them and, hopefully, dunk on them,” assistant coach C.B. McGrath told the Special Olympians.
“This is something they’ll remember the rest of their lives,” said Keith Fishburne, president and CEO of Special Olympics North Carolina. “Our strongest emphasis right now is on integrating our athletes into the community at large. It’s clinics like this that allow us to do that.”
“It makes our athletes feel important,” he added. “It gives them a great sense of pride.”
Roy Williams, in the middle of his tenth season coaching the Tar Heels, initiated the Special Olympics clinics during his first season here. He also conducted Special Olympics clinics throughout his 15 seasons of coaching the University of Kansas Jayhawks.
“We’re trying to teach our guys not just how to rebound and shoot,” Williams said. “We’re trying to teach them things that are important in life.”
Working with the Special Olympics athletes also helps the team cope with the stress of ACC conference play, Williams said.
Last year, for example, the clinic was held the day after the UNC team suffered a devastating 33-point loss to Florida State – and helped take the players’ minds off their disappointment.
“It’s been a great escape for us,” Williams said.
“I enjoy it every single year,” said Dexter Strickland, a senior guard. “You get a chance to give back to people that (aren’t) as fortunate as us.”
“I don’t know how anybody couldn’t smile or be happy being out here,” Robinson, the 6-foot-4 forward, said midway through the clinic. “It is one of those things that can bring a tear to your eye and also make you smile and laugh real hard.”