Nobody was supposed to wear Kobe Bryant’s No. 24 at the All-Star festivities in Chicago this weekend. But Chris Carter got to wear his favorite player’s number Friday night, and he did his hero proud.
Carter, of Fairfax, Virginia, took the court Friday night with legends from the NBA and WNBA, but when the final buzzer sounded, he was the clutch star of the NBA Cares Unified Basketball Game.
A George Mason University Special Olympics athlete, Carter capped what he called “a serious comeback” by stealing an inbounds pass and nailing a short jumper with 11.4 seconds left to bring his East team a 44-43 victory.
The unified game brought current and former professional players together with Special Olympics athletes from all over the world.
Carter’s teammates included Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc and Cappie Pondexter. The West squad included Dikembe Mutombo, Chelsea Gray and Muggsy Bogues.
After a Grant tip-in brought the East within one point, “I stole [the ball], made the game-winning shot, and I literally almost cried on the floor,” Carter, a Williamsburg native, told WTOP from Chicago on Sunday.
The celebrations don’t stop there. Carter and his coach, Emilio Alonso, got third-row seats to Saturday night’s slam-dunk contest, 3-point shooting contest and skills competition.
And they’ll be in the house for the All-Star Game proper on Sunday.
“I’m star-struck now,” Carter said. “It’s just been an amazing, amazing, amazing experience.”
‘You’re part of the NBA’
After Friday night’s game, “I woke up at 5 o’clock in the morning and I couldn’t go back to sleep,” Alonso said. “The way everything’s gone down, I couldn’t believe it.”
The two have been blown away by the NBA’s treatment of the players in the unified game all weekend, starting with a chauffeur at the airport and going on from there.
“They treated him like an NBA athlete,” Alonso said. “And they told us that: ‘When you’re here this weekend, you’re part of the NBA.’ And they really have made him feel that way.”
Carter, 30, said that in his family, “Basketball was our love and passion.” He learned the game from his father and uncles.
“If it weren’t for those men, I would not be where I’m at now,” he said.
He’s a 2016 graduate of George Mason’s Life Program, which gives people with disabilities the college experience, complete with classes, dorms, internships and independent living skills. That’s where he got involved with Special Olympics and met Alonso.
“When I started coaching Special Olympics, I thought I was only going to do it for a few months to help out,” Alonso said. “And it’s been 13 years.”
He said he’s even more impressed by the Special Olympians than by athletes such as LeBron James.
“They actually figure out ways to overcome these disabilities and focus on what abilities they have,” Alonso said.
Alonso focuses on abilities too. He said people routinely ask him what Carter’s disability is, and after eight years of working with him, he still doesn’t know.
“I don’t ask him. … I was more interested in what his abilities were. When you’re forming a team, you want to know ‘What can you bring to the table?,’ not ‘What can you not bring to the table?’ I find a way for everyone to contribute to the team.”
Carter cites his favorite player’s trademark toughness when he explains what it takes to accomplish anything important: “You’ve gotta have the Mamba mentality to do whatever you want to do in life.”
And on Sunday, he can watch the All-Star Game knowing he’s already been a hero on the court — just like Kobe.
“You just can’t make this stuff up,” Carter said. “You just can’t.”
You can watch the video of the game on the NBA Cares Facebook page.
WTOP’s Kristi King contributed to this report.