Thunder Treats Special Olympics Athletes To Clinic

The basketball clinic was nearing an end and everyone -- Thunder players, coaches, staff and the visiting athletes -- was gathered at center court in the INTEGRIS Health Thunder Training Center for some parting words and a little fun.

Thunder Coach Scott Brooks summoned a teenage boy to front of the group, along with Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, to laud him for a job well done during a drill.

The teen received a nice hand from his peers and was on his way to give Westbrook a high-five. Only it was much more elaborate than that. After slapping hands with Westbrook, the teen playfully head-butted Westbrook in the chest, spun around and performed a split. It had everyone in stitches, and left the young man with a smile from ear to ear.

“That’s one of his little moves, a head-butt and a split,” Westbrook later said. “I didn’t know he was doing splits.”

It was moments like those that made Tuesday’s event such a success. It was a chance for the Thunder to deepen its relationship with the community and vice versa, a chance for the community to get a better sense of what the Thunder stands for.

Shortly after the Thunder’s involvement with the Opening Ceremonies to the Special Olympics in Stillwater in May, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti expressed the desire to host a clinic at the team’s practice facility.

Ayana Clinton, the team’s Manager of Player Appearances and Services, and the Thunder Community Relations department decided to invite Special Olympics athletes in Oklahoma.

So on Tuesday, about 32 Special Olympians ranging in age from 10 to 48 filed into the Thunder's practice facility for a free basketball clinic run by members of the team’s basketball operations staff.

The Thunder roster was well represented, as a handful of them had already been in town for prior commitments and voluntary workouts.

Westbrook and Shaun Livingston arrived in town Monday, while guard Kyle Weaver and forward D.J. White got here on Saturday to welcome draft picks James Harden, B.J. Mullens and Robert Vaden, all of whom were also present on Tuesday.

Centers Serge Ibaka and DeVon Hardin both played overseas this past season and have been working out in Oklahoma City this summer, as has Tulsa 66ers forward Moses Ehambe, who was also present.

Of course, the rest of the basketball operations staff has hardly left town this summer.

There’s a responsibility not just as players, but as people in the community.

“This was another chance for us to give back, but also for our players to be enriched by seeing the impact they can have,” Presti said. “So it’s really a great experience for everybody involved in it, and the great thing is the Thunder and the sport of basketball is bringing these people together.”

The Special Olympics of Oklahoma (SOOK) has more than 9,500 athletes from 14 geographic areas. They compete in 15 different sports, with basketball offering three levels of competition: skills, unified 3v3 and 5-on-5, according to SOOK Public Relations Director Donna Ham.

Typically, most of all the SOOKs facilities are donated either by schools, churches or cities. The organization could run four basketball games at once in the Thunder practice facility alone.

The teams, meanwhile, are all community or parent-run; they don’t have sponsorship.

When SOOK got the call from the Thunder, SOOK Area Services and Sports Director John Seals called various coaches from around the Oklahoma City area who could bring their team to the clinic. Seals’ criteria consisted of proximity to the facility and a mix of age groups.

Four teams made it on Tuesday, including a team from Guthrie, coached by Laura Benham, who also teaches special education at Guthrie Upper Elementary. Her team consists of six players enrolled in the fifth and sixth grades.

“I have one who thinks he’s going to be an NBA player, you know,” she said. “That’s his dream.”

While most of the athletes had their own transportation, Benham brought her team to the practice facility in a small school bus. The ride wasn’t complete without some drama: the bus blew a tire while on Interstate 35. The team waited outside the bus while Benham called for help. The transportation department was out to lunch, so for the moment they were out of luck.

Nonetheless, they made it for the clinic.

“We appreciated the Thunder waiting on us,” Benham said. “I didn’t expect that. The kids were all worried we were going to miss meeting the Thunder. I think this is the opportunity of a lifetime for them. They’ll never forget meeting these NBA players and the time spent with them.”

The time spent was equally fulfilling.

Inside the facility, Brooks was in full swing, leading a team in defensive slide drills with his legs shoulder width apart, hands up and palms outward. He looked each one of them in the eyes as he led the drill, and even paused to give two-handed high-fives to some athletes.

The session started with a game of keepaway with Rumble the Bison and progressed to shooting drills at each basket. Weaver and Mullens conducted passing drills. Westbrook helped with 1-on-1s.

Everyone was involved. Everyone was smiling. And by the end of the clinic, everyone was clapping their hands and chanting “Thunder!” until it was time to go home.

“It’s just part of the process, part of what we do as a team,” Brooks said. “It’s fun. You know, the kids, they make it enjoyable. They make the team. They came in here with a great attitude and they were enthusiastic.

“They had a ball. They loved the Thunder. They knew all of the players. They even knew I was the coach.”

Contact Chris Silva