Denver Nuggets host annual Special Olympics Clinic at Pepsi Center

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Over 120 Special Olympics athletes from the Colorado area took to the Pepsi Center court on Tuesday for a day full of activities and basketball drills as the Denver Nuggets hosted their annual Special Olympics Clinic, presented by Cardel Homes.

“We’ve been doing these events for at least 30 years. It was really important to me to introduce this back,” said Lisa Johnson, the Nuggets’ VP of Basketball Administration. “It’s such an important appearance for the community and the athletes. What is so cool is that these athletes always look forward to coming here.”

With all of the Nuggets’ players and coaches in attendance and participating in the activities, the event is one of the marquee community appearances the team makes each year.

“To me, this is my favorite event of the year. I think it’s even more special to have it where we play,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “It’s rewarding for all these athletes, but even more rewarding for myself, my coaches and our players. To be able to give back, interact with them and make their day, it’s amazing. To give back and have a great event like this, everyone benefits and has fun.”

The day began with the athletes being greeted by Nuggets’ President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly and General Manager Artūras Karnišovas, who signed each athlete to a one-day contract to be a part of the Nuggets. The athletes were able to take pictures with the two leading front office members and were also able to participate in a free dental clinic before the basketball activities began.

“This means so much to us and our organization,” said Megan Toohey, the President and CEO of Special Olympics Colorado. “It’s something we look forward to each year. We have 150 athletes out here today and they wait for the sign ups each year. It’s just so amazing to see the players and coaches take time out of their busy schedules to focus on our athletes and give them the opportunity to showcase their amazing skills and abilities.”

With KSE employees and Nuggets staff members cheering them on, the athletes then took to the Pepsi Center court in organized groups to be introduced to the Nuggets players and coaches.

“I think it’s great. We do this every year and I think this is one of those appearances we like and want to do,” Nikola Jokić said. “It’s bigger than basketball and sports, we get to see these athletes smiling.”

What followed was about an hour or so of various drills, from shooting free throws and 3-pointers to passing and dribbling exercises.

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Jeff Clark, who was named the Special Olympics Male Athlete of the Year for Colorado and serves as a Regional Fitness Coordinator, said the shooting drill was his favorite, as that is the best part of his game. Clark was able to take part in Tuesday’s Clinic alongside several of his teammates from the competitive basketball team he plays on in Fort Collins. Jeff made sure to point out that their team is very, very good.

“It’s a good experience for everyone,” Nuggets guard Monte Morris said. “It shows you that these athletes are still so talented and smart and love basketball.”

Clark was also able to job shadow in the Nuggets’ sponsorship department before the Clinic began, which opened his eyes to various behind-the-scene aspects of the Nuggets organization.

“The job shadowing (was my favorite part),” he revealed. “I was on the executive board so I got to sit in on a board meeting for a little bit as they went over sponsors and stuff. It was really cool to see.”

With all of the Nuggets’ players and coaches leading the basketball drills, the event takes on even more meaning for all involved.

“It’s special (to have all of our players and coaches here) and I think it speaks to the culture and group that we have,” Malone said. “It proves that it’s not just wins and losses. It starts from the Kroenkes with the charities they support, down to Tim Connelly and the front office, me and our coaching staff and our players. It’s not just something that we do, we enjoy doing it and I think you can see that.”

Of course, putting on an event like this each year takes plenty of work, with each detail having to be ironed out in advance to ensure that both the Special Olympics athletes and the Nuggets personnel are able to connect and provide meaningful experiences to each other.

“My favorite part is seeing the athlete’s faces and our player’s faces working and interacting with them,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely a job to put things together with so many moving parts, but once you put it all together and see everyone enjoying it, it’s a wonderful feeling. This event brings the best out of everybody.”

Jokić agreed, saying “we appreciate them and they appreciate us. I think there’s a real connection between us (Nuggets players and Special Olympics Athletes). We are going to try to help them be the best they can be.”

“When you have a chance to make someone’s day just by being here and present, you can’t put a dollar sign on that,” Malone added. “This kind of event is invaluable for all involved.”

Johnson perhaps put it best as it relates to the excitement surrounding this annual event, saying “As soon as today’s event is over, they (the Special Olympics athletes) will be preparing for next year’s event.”

One thing is for sure, the entire Nuggets organization will be looking forward to next year’s clinic just as much.

Nuggets.com writer Alex Labidou contributed to this story.

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