NEW ORLEANS — Armand Acrie’s favorite player is Russell Westbrook, so he knows how to talk trash. But maybe he didn’t expect to have to do it with Dikembe Mutombo.
The Special Olympics were in town for their annual Unified basketball game at NBA All-Star Weekend, and they hosted a game Saturday morning at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that was twice as competitive as the All-Star Celebrity Game on the same court the night before. Mutombo and several other NBA legends, WNBA players and more took the court with the Special Olympians for a memorable morning.
Acrie, a 33-year-old from Virginia who has been with the Special Olympics for 25 years, couldn’t wipe the smile from his face as he talked about his favorite opponent.
“I wasn’t expecting Mutombo to block my shot, and there he is talking trash to me and wagging his finger in my face,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Wow!’
“I even got him on the pump fake and he still blocked my shot!”
The Special Olympians came from all around the world. Aimilia Kouliakioti, a 21-year-old from Greece, was beaming after helping her team win the 3-point contest and game. She’s a huge fan of WNBA superstar Candace Parker and WNBA legend Ruth Riley, who both played.
“I think it was the best experience of my life,” she said. “I felt really blessed that I’m here and had a really, really great time.
“It’s pretty much everything. The big stadium, the people were great, the All-Star Weekend. It’s a unique experience that I think I will never live again. But I want to.”
Several NBA rookies worked the game as assistant coaches, including Buddy Hield, the host Pelicans’ guard who has seemingly been at every event this weekend. This one stood out — and the retired players were a big part of that.
“That shows a lot of character they have to come out and do this,” he said. “When they take time to come out and play in an event like this, it makes the players’ day and it makes the fans’ day.”
But this was about the Special Olympians — and the memories made and ball played.
“Coming from where I’m from, we don’t get that much fun,” Acrie said. “Trips like this is almost impossible. My coach came up to me at my job and presented it to me. I was just surprised.
“People like us, it brings an excitement. We don’t expect this. So for it to actually happen, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
Photo: Ben Solomon, Courtesy of Special Olympics