Thunder Hosts Special Day for Oklahoma Athletes

Ryan Reid helps coach the athletes
Kevin Cox likes to observe.

He’s usually standing on the sidelines, not running up and down the court.

Cox, 19, is non-verbal autistic. The only person he’ll talk to is his mother, and even then it’s in short whispers. When he communicates with others, it’s through hand signals: raise a wrist means yes, lower a wrist means no. Commotion and loud noises often get to him. It makes him freeze up.

But Cox’s mother wanted to keep him active, so she got him involved with Special Olympics Oklahoma in Sand Springs, where he is on the basketball team. Cox, along with members of the Sand Springs hoops team, got to enjoy a special afternoon recently at the INTEGRIS Health Training Facility for the Oklahoma City Thunder Special Olympics Basketball Clinic.

And for some unexplained reason, Cox couldn’t stand still.

A tall, skinny kid with a mop of dark brown hair and wiry glasses, Cox showed a different side of himself, a side his coach, Mary Antonelli, said isn’t often seen.

“This is, like, a different person,” Antonelli said. “I said that if his mom was here, she would be in tears.”

With the help of Thunder players, coaches and basketball operations staff members, Cox dribbled, shot, passed, rebounded and high-fived. He did so repeatedly, albeit cautiously. But he did it. And by Antonelli’s estimation, he was having fun. Cox even raised his wrist in affirmation.

“He’s really relaxed,” she said. “That’s what is surprising me, because at first I wasn’t going to bring him down here. Well, I’m glad I did.”

By the end of the hour-long clinic, that was the general consensus from every Special Olympics team that participated: they were glad they came.

The Thunder opened its doors to 54 Special Olympics athletes from across the state, from Muskogee, Okmulgee County and Sand Springs to Broken Arrow, Kay County and Edmond.

From the moment the players and coaches were introduced all the way through the various drill stations, the practice facility was buzzing with an energy and noise usually seen during a regular-season practice.

Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks put them through defensive slides. Byron Mullens helped with layups. James Harden was at the free-throw station. Everyone got in on the action.

“It’s important to give back to the city that we live in. Our players love being a part of our community and this was another way we were able to do that,” Brooks said. “These kids, they’re amazing athletes. They come out and give everything they have and give it with enthusiasm. You can see that they love the game and they love the Thunder.”

They love the Thunder so much that when asked what her son, Michael, enjoys the most about the Thunder, Edmond head coach Linda Arnold said, “He really likes the effort. He likes the defensive effort.”

Arnold said that several of her players have a connection to season tickets. They know the name of every Thunder player. And they know their tendencies.

“They’ll try some of the same moves,” Arnold said. “They watch what they do and they’ll try to imitate them. And they’ll always tell you who it is they’re trying to imitate.”

Kay County doesn’t even have a Special Olympics basketball team, but organizers there are thinking about starting one. That’s why head coach Russell Aday found it beneficial to bring some athletes to the camp, including 27-year-old Samantha Cooper, who has competed at the Special Olympics World Games in power lifting.

“For some that we have who didn’t know for sure if they wanted to do basketball or not, I think this is going to be a big plus to get them excited about it and want to do that,” Aday said.

No one seemed quite as excited as the athlete who Brooks nicknamed “Spiderman” for his long limbs and fast footwork in the defensive slide drills. With the camp winding down, Brooks called guard Eric Maynor to the front of the crowd and told the athletes how Maynor is an excellent dribbler. Brooks then invited “Spiderman” to come and defend Maynor one-on-one.

In possibly the perfect ending to a memorable experience, “Spiderman” never gave up after Maynor dribbled past him, and he kept his hands so active that he ended up swatting the ball free from the Thunder point guard’s hands to a rousing applause.

“That was fun,” Maynor said. “He had a lot of energy and he had a lot of fun. That was our main focus: to make sure they have a lot of fun.”

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