CHICAGO – A sea of red "authentic fan" posters washed over the lower bowl of the United Center as Bulls forward Denzel Valentine stood hunched over midcourt dribbling basketballs with both hands.
In about 45 minutes, the St. Charles East and West Chicago Special Olympics basketball teams would take the floor for a scrimmage against each other – the same court some of the most accomplished basketball players in the world grace on a nightly basis.
Bulls guard Justin Holiday hoisted 3-pointers in the left corner, while prized rookie Lauri Markkanen later emerged for free throw work leading up to tipoff versus the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 1. Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson sat courtside donning a charcoal gray pinstripe suit while fans rained down his name from above.
Memories of the 2011 "See Red" playoffs promotion felt quite literal, enveloping the space that had once been home to NBA legends Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Chicago-great, Derrick Rose.
It was business as usual – just another basketball game – for the professional players. For some East special Olympians, it was the very first time they had been to the United Center, so it was anything but ordinary.
Likely unbeknownst to Valentine, St. Charles East Special Olympics basketball player, Zach Petrick, was inspired to play basketball by the former Michigan State star. Petrick soon shared at least one thing in common with his basketball hero: Swishing the ball for points through those same nets.
Because of Valentine's 3-point shooting ability, Petrick likes to shoot threes, too.
"Will we be on TV?" one East player was overheard asking in the tunnel before the scrimmage.
"Are those cheerleaders [Luvabulls] going to dance during our game?" another chimed in.
East player Ben Skruka appeared to enjoy another cheer group's warmup music, as he bounced his feet side-to-side while rowing his arms with the beat.
East, who has gone to the state basketball tournament twice, was invited by the West Chicago team who had done a scrimmage at the 'Madhouse on Madison' twice before.
While each team had players with varying disabilities, the collective joy and affection for their respective teammates – and the game itself – far outweighed whatever limitations life handed them.
While waiting to be taken to the floor, East's Annie Erwin cupped her hands over her mouth in excitement exclaiming, "This is so amazing."
Following their public address announcement to the floor, both teams were greeted with warm cheers and well-wishes from the Bulls fans.
The two teams scrimmaged for about 12 minutes. While West Chicago ultimately won 14-6, one wouldn't know who won or lost judging by the crowd enthusiasm.
Missed shots were followed with supportive groans. Coast-to-coast layups and rebounds brought ample applause and encouragement. East's Anthony Sbarra and Petrick paced the Saints' four points before Skruka returned an offensive rebound for two points in the paint to close out the game
[It's] an experience [the athletes] will talk about for a long time," West Chicago Special Olympics coach Dave Hempe said. Hempe, Dirk Gunderson and Dick Doremus all volunteer coach the West Chicago team.
As for what Petrick will remember most about his experience playing on the floor, he quickly cited the big [Bulls] logo at center court, qualifying the question with a "yes" – If it's almost like he's a Bull himself.
The Illinois Special Olympics program offers 17 Olympic-type opportunities for over 22,000 athletes, per the organization's website. The global-reaching Special Olympics organization reaches 4.5 million athletes in 170 countries.
The organization's oath is: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
As for the dual St. Charles East and North overall Special Olympics program, it competes in four sports: Basketball, track and field, bowling and bocce ball – a new addition to the team this year.
Jamie Veyette has head coached the basketball team for five years, and is joined by Andrea Winiarski, Donna Wisely, Sharon Young and Debbie Austin as coaches in the program.
"Special Olympics is an amazing organization, but it's the kids – the kids make it amazing," Veyette said. "I've watched so many of them grow into amazing athletes."