Friedlander: Debbie Antonelli's free-throw marathon is her Mother's Day gift to her son
Free-throw shooting has become a lost art in basketball.
Players these days would rather spend their time hoisting 3-pointers or working on perfecting their SportsCenter highlight reel dunks than putting up with the monotony of standing flat footed 15 feet from the basket and taking shot after shot after shot after shot to perfect their craft.
Debbie Antonelli is an exception. And she’s proving the old adage that practice makes perfect.
At least almost perfect.
For the past 4 years, the former NC State star and current ACC Network and ESPN college basketball analyst has held a charity free-throw marathon to raise money for Special Olympics. Her goal has been to make 100 foul shots per hour for 24 hours during Mother’s Day weekend.
To date, her efforts have raised $625,000. Last year’s donations totaled better than $200,000 alone. In the process, she made 94.5% of her attempts to reach her goal.
That’s an even higher percentage than the one she posted during her 3 seasons playing for coach Kay Yow and NC State from 1982-86.
“I don’t have the same range I used to have,” said Antonelli, who described herself as a good shooter who didn’t get to the line much during her playing career. “But I can still shoot it.”
That ability, combined with her love for the 2nd of her 3 sons and his involvement with Special Olympics, became the inspiration for what has become known as “24 Hours of Nothing But Net.”
BREAKING NEWS: We have even more ways for you to watch this year! We are thrilled to announce that @WomensSports_TV will broadcast portions of this year's marathon!! @debbieantonelli its almost time!
Where to find WSN: https://t.co/AWvUGV49kI
Donate: https://t.co/JiyRdBYkYU pic.twitter.com/bLEUH1fO5K
— 24 Hours of Nothing But Net (@24HoursNBN) May 11, 2023
This year’s marathon, which is taking place in Antonelli’s driveway in Mount Pleasant, S.C., began at noon on Saturday and runs through noon Sunday. All 24 hours are being live streamed on the event’s website and includes cameos and interviews with numerous Special Olympics athletes and sports celebrities, including Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney.
The seeds for what Antonelli describes as “a crazy idea” were planted a decade ago. It began with her annual mid-summer ritual of shooting 100 15-foot jumpers every day in the month of July.
She’d do it no matter where she was, even on vacation at the beach.
At some point, she started wearing a different school’s t-shirt while shooting and she’d challenge the players to do the same. If they beat her time in making their 100 15-footers, she’d send them a medal she created as a reward.
After a few years, things started getting stale. So she started looking for something new to do. And perhaps raise a few dollars for charity in the process.
A friend suggested running in the New York Marathon.
“I was like, that can’t be it,” she said. “I can’t run in the marathon. But I liked the idea of a marathon. What could I do that would be a marathon? What if I could make 100 free throws every hour for 24 hours?”
While deciding what to do took a little thought and creativity, choosing the charity to benefit from the exercise was a no-brainer.
Antonelli’s middle son Frankie was born with Down Syndrome and Special Olympics has been instrumental in helping him grow, thrive, complete college in the ClemsonLife program and develop the skills necessary to live independently.
Every dollar raised by 24 Hours of Nothing But Net goes directly to athletes. Not only those in South Carolina, but also North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and other states.
It’s a labor of love for the entire Antonelli family.
“People tell you that ‘you can’t, you won’t, you’re never going to.’ And then you have this place where you can go with sport where you can learn, you can play, you can compete and nobody judges you,” said Debbie, who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2022. “My son has incredible confidence. That’s what Special Olympics has meant to us. There are so many families like mine that need a place to go. That’s where the emotion comes in for me.”
Antonelli wasn’t sure how much money she could raise with her free-throw shooting venture. Or if anyone would even notice.
She raised $85,000 the 1st year while shooting in a local school gym. The event moved outdoors to her driveway in 2020 because of the COVID pandemic and has grown exponentially every year since.
She’s added a Dr. Dish rebounding machine, a present from her husband Frank on her 50th birthday, to help her shooting rhythm.
The local police and fire departments do a torch relay that will end in the lighting of a Special Olympics cauldron that burns throughout the 24 hours of the marathon.
This year, a sponsor is installing a custom wood floor, complete with the 24 Hours of Nothing But Net logo, over the driveway pavement.
“We keep raising the elevation of the event,” she said. “All hours of the night, people just keep coming to my house. We’ve created quite the party, I guess.”
The fun is not without its sacrifices, though.
Antonelli trains to get ready for the event, not only by shooting the basketball but by going through a series of exercises to prepare for the physical rigor of staying up for 24 straight hours.
It’s a pursuit not without its hazards. She recently suffered a broken finger while preparing for this weekend’s event.
Injury and all, she remains confident in her stroke.
“I interviewed Coach K (on Thursday) and he was like ‘no excuses.’” she said. “He was giving it to me. I felt like I was in the locker room. But I think I’ll be OK. It’s my guide hand. I already feel some pressure to shoot at a high level, because nobody wants to tune in and watch some old lady miss a lot of free throws in her driveway.”
That’s a tough standard to match, especially considering the fact that she went 100-for-100 between 4-5 a.m. last year.
While fatigue does factor into the equation, Antonelli said that support from those watching on site and online, along with the sound of donations coming in, keep her adrenaline going and help her make it through the night.
The goal for this year is to get close to the $1 million mark in money raised in the event’s 5-year history.
“When the donations come in and the number keeps rising, it’s emotional,” she said. “When I get to the last 100, especially this year being Mother’s Day, there’s something really powerful about that. Those last 100 are going to be probably my toughest 100 because my mother’s going to be here, my 3 boys are going to be here. It’s that personal to me.”
Photos courtesy of Debbie Antonelli