It seemed only fitting that Frankie Antonelli took the final free throw of the day. After all, this day, this 24-hour free throw marathon, was all about him.
When Frankie’s free throw swished through the net, he turned to the 50 or so spectators on hand at the Mount Pleasant Town Hall gym Sunday morning, raised a triumphant fist and took a victory lap, exchanging high fives with everyone within reach.
Standing just a few feet away was Debbie Antonelli. The college basketball anaylyst for ESPN and CBS laughed as she wiped a tear from her eye, brimming with pride as she watched her son.
A year ago, Debbie Antonelli came up with the concept of ‘24 Hours of Nothing But Net’ as a way to raise money and awareness for South Carolina Special Olympics. She vowed to make 2,400 free throws – or 100 shots every hour – for 24 straight hours.
Frankie is a Special Olympic athlete whose mother has competed alongside him as a unified athlete in golf and basketball. Frankie, 21, just completed his sophomore year in Clemson University’s LifeProgram.
As promised, Antonelli made 2,400 of 2,553 free throws from noon Saturday until 11:47 a.m. Sunday morning. For those keeping score at home, that’s a 94% shooting accuracy. By comparison, Golden State’s two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry, who is always among the league’s top free throw shooters, makes just 90% of his attempts. At one point, Antonelli made 75 straight.
“I got a little emotional thinking about how hard I trained and how long I spent in the gym and all the money we raised,” said Antonelli, who lives in Mount Pleasant. “It struck me in that moment watching Frankie and seeing how excited and happy everyone was. I’m motivated by a higher purpose.
“This was never about me, it was about Special Olympics. I think when you think about that and how it can impact people, it made me emotional. Frankie made the first shot and he was going to make the last shot. He is my motivation.”
It was an exhausting 24 hours for Antonelli, who somehow managed to get 15 minutes of sleep over the weekend. The former North Carolina State basketball standout brought a few creature comforts from home to the gym, which included a tent and an air mattress, but once her adrenaline kicked in she wasn’t stopping for anyone.
“I tried to lay down between three and four (Sunday morning), but I couldn’t get any sleep,” Antonelli said. “After I shot at four, I took a shower and then missed 12 free throws, so I knew I had to get some sleep before people started getting here later in the morning. I think I slept for about 15 minutes at five.”
When the gym was all but empty late Saturday night, Bob and Lori Snider from Mount Pleasant stopped by to see Antonelli shoot her free throws at 1 a.m. They wrote a check on the spot.
“They were big Kentucky basketball fans and we talked hoops for a while,” Antonelli said. “People like that stopped by all day.”
The weekend was about a lot more than just free throws. There was a Special Olympics and Unified Partner Dance Saturday night, along with music provided by “DJ Frankie Smooth” (yes, that Frankie) and basketball games between first responders (firefighters and police). College of Charleston head basketball coach Earl Grant and former Chicago Cubs minor-leaguer Chris Singleton spoke during the Breakfast of Champions Sunday morning.
“It was a team effort,” Antonelli said. “I couldn’t have done it by myself.”
The event raised more than $75,000 for Special Olympics.
“I never imagined that we would get that kind of response,” Antonelli said. “For a first-time event, I think that shows the incredible support we have for Special Olympics in the area.”
Sue Maner, executive vice president for South Carolina Special Olympics, was on hand both days and said the event could not have been a bigger success.
“We have raised a lot more money than we anticipated and that’s awesome,” Maner said. “The event was so much fun and it brought a lot of awareness to people that don’t necessarily come out for Special Olympics. It’s different than anything we normally do. Debbie is so enthusiastic about it and that’s contagious.”
Matt Bell, a neighbor of Antonelli’s, came out with his family to show support.
“We’ve known Frankie for a while and he’s got a heart of gold,” Bell said. “To raise the kind of money that Debbie has raised for Special Olympics is incredible.”