Two minutes’ walk to the south of UNC’s Rams Head Recreation Center sits the Dean E. Smith Center, home to some of the greatest athletic competition in the country. Two minutes’ walk to the north is Carmichael Arena, stage for UNC women’s basketball home games and where the echoes of legendary basketball feats still rattle through the rafters.
On Saturday afternoon, it was the Rams Head that had the competitive spirit to rival any.
Maybe the dunks were rarer and three-point prowess was scarcer than in the other venerable campus venues, but the heart, determination and sportsmanship at Saturday’s Special Olympics of Orange County Basketball Tournament were undeniable – perhaps even enviable.
Including 20 local squads and drawing more than 20 other teams from areas as far away as Forysth and Cumberland counties, the SOOC event showcased both 3-on-3 team competitions as well as individual skills contests.
Durham County also hosted a 5-on-5 tournament at Northern High School and Edison Johnson Community Center on Saturday afternoon.
Putting competition into proper perspective, the day’s events culminated with a glow-in-the-dark-themed potluck dinner and dance party at the Student and Academic Services Building on the campus, staged by UNC’s Phi Sigma Pi honors fraternity.
Sponsored by Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation, SOOC follows Special Olympics’ mission to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
Coordinated by Colleen Lanigan, SOOC’s community-based programs run generally on Sunday afternoons and evenings, with games scheduled through the season, the organization’s website (http://sooc.org) stated. Sports include soccer, bocce, golf, tennis, basketball, skiing, softball, track, cycling, equestrian activities and swimming.
School-based programming is offered to students in special education classrooms in Orange County and Chapel Hill/Carrboro City Schools. With the guidance of adapted-physical-education instructors, teachers may elect to have students participate outside the classroom with swimming each fall and with bowling in the spring.
Lanigan said Saturday’s tournament filled a vacant spot in the winter schedule after a change in the Special Olympics calendar
“In the fall, we hosted a tournament for the fall sports like tennis, bocce, golf and soccer,” she said, “and in the spring we’ll host a softball regional and track, but we wanted to have something in the winter.”
The challenge was to put together an event of this size on a local level and to keep it manageable.
“We wanted this to be a half-day event,” Lanigan said. “So we stuck with teams that are virtually the same for every sport and made it an invitational event. Once we had our numbers (from Orange County), I went to the other counties. They had teams that fit into what we were looking for, so we hand-selected competitors.”
But Lanigan said there was no way to pull off the tournament without huge help from parents and volunteers, including volunteer event director Ron Reeves and volunteer Taylor Treacy, a UNC senior and member of the UNC volleyball team. Both offered unprecedented help organizing the tournament.
There were many volunteers who helped make this event happen, a SOOC release stated, including members Phi Sigma Pi, plus brothers and sisters of other UNC fraternities and sororities, local high school students, UNC student-athletes like Treacy, and individuals who have dedicated years of service in to give these athletes unforgettable experiences.
Unfazed by the organizational challenges, Treacy said she was pleased with the tournament.
“Actually, it’s been pretty smooth,” she said.
“We have the volunteers we need here today – hundreds of people helping out,” Lanigan added. “Our county has the resources to dig deep and do this.”
The potluck dinner following the tournament was geared up to feed up to 400 athletes and coaches.
“Our baby is the dinner tonight,” Phi Sigma Pi’s Lily Jones said. “It’s a potluck, so we’ve gotten the parents to bring food, but we’ve also gotten restaurants to donate.”
Jones said the event was just one on the fraternity’s busy schedule.
“We just finished our rush,” she said, “and we also do scholarship events, where we’ve brought in Zumba instructors, we’ve had spoken-word poetry, and (local) artists have come in and discussed their work.”
Throughout the course of the day’s many games, clocks ran, referee’s whistled, baskets were scored, and fans cheered. But don’t ask for game results. The truest results weren’t counted on the scoreboards, but on the faces of participants and their friends family members.
“It was fun,” competitor Max Gitterman said. “I shot a lot; I made long baskets.”
For participant Jason Bethea, the paint was his domain.
“I like getting in closed. I did good,” said Bethea, who added he will try bowling next. “I like training hard.”
For athlete Jared Pascarelli, however, a love for dunks, a pair of Air Jordan shoes, and a “23” on his light-blue jersey may have given a false impression of his real hero.
“The best part was being with my dad,” he said.
While it remains to be seen whether Carolina’s basketball teams will fare versus national powerhouses in the post-season this year, there’s no doubt that the Orange County Special Olympics rates with any in the country.
“We moved here about about ... three years ago from upstate New York, and we were even in New Jersey for a while,” said Jared Pascarelli’s father, Chuck Pascarelli, “But I can honestly say that there’s just nothing I’ve seen that even compares with this program.”
For more information on Special Olympics of Orange County, call Colleen Lanigan at the Chapel Hill Parks & Recreation offices: 919-968-2810.