A Mother’s Love in Free Throws
Former NC State women's basketball player and prominent television analyst Debbie Antonelli will spend a grueling 24 hours in her driveway making free throws to raise money for the Special Olympics.
Debbie Antonelli’s family is off the hook this year. Her husband and three sons won’t have to take her to a fork-and-cloth-napkin restaurant to celebrate Mother’s Day — the only thing the accomplished television analyst and former NC State women’s basketball player ever really wants her all-male tribe to give her on that day.
She’ll be way too tired for fancy food.
“Usually, the only thing I ask for is to go eat in a place where you have to use utensils,” Antonelli says. “No nuggets, no pizza, nothing you eat with your hands.
“I told them they won’t have to worry about that this year.”
That’s because, for the fifth year in a row, Antonelli will be aiming to make 100 free throws for 24 consecutive hours in the driveway of her home in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, in her “24 Hours of Nothing But Net” fundraiser for the state’s Special Olympics organization.
That charity holds a special place in Antontelli’s heart because of what it has done for her middle son, Frankie, who was diagnosed at an early age with Down syndrome. Many have explored the path Antonelli’s family traveled during Frankie’s formative years, particularly as told by Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post.
Frankie’s diagnosis could easily have broken Antonelli’s heart. Parenting a child with intellectual disabilities entails uncounted hours of questioning, fear and sleeplessness — along with unbounded love.
“It’s different for our kids in this community,” says Antonelli, who has spent the last 34 years as a nationally known analyst and broadcaster for men’s and women’s basketball games for multiple networks. “When Frankie was in high school, not one time did some kid call and ask if he wanted to go to the movies, to go to dinner or to go play ball.
“It was sad.”
Joining teams and events sponsored by Special Olympics changed that. It lifted Frankie out of his unhealthy isolation and into a future that Antonelli and her husband Frank never worried about for oldest son Joey and youngest son Patrick, both of whom played high school and college basketball.
Special Olympics also enabled Frankie to learn the game his mother played under Hall of Fame head coach Kay Yow during Antonelli’s Wolfpack career (1982-86), when the Cary, North Carolina, native was a three-year starter while pursuing dual degrees in business management and economics. She later earned a master’s degree in sports management at Ohio University before embarking on a career in sports marketing and television broadcasting, during which she has earned two Emmys. In 2020, Antonelli was enshrined in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and, in 2022, she was enshrined into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
Frankie’s sporting experience helped land him a spot in Clemson’s College of Education ClemsonLIFE program, a two-year postsecondary residential studies experience for students with intellectual disabilities. While there, he became best friends with Tigers football coach Dabo Swinney and learned functional academics, independent living and social skills while surrounded by students with similar abilities.
Now 25, Frankie Antonelli lives alone — by choice — in Clemson and works two jobs, one in a hotel on campus and another at a local pizza restaurant.
His experience through Special Olympics is what motivates Antonelli, especially when she enters the early morning hours of her free-throw marathon, which has raised some $625,000 in its first four years.
She hopes this year’s event, which begins Saturday at noon, will get her five-year total close to $1 million, a mark that was unfathomable when she first challenged herself to make 2,400 free throws in 24 hours at a Lowcountry community gym. The inaugural effort netted $85,000 and has increased every year since, with a record $220,000 in 2022.
Antonelli doesn’t have corporate donors, but she does have a handful of people who give $5,000 and a few others who give as much as $10,000. All she ever asks is for donors to give a penny per made free throw, or a total of $24. She’ll happily accept more.
There’s lots of information about this year and past events on Antonelli’s twitter account (@debbieantonelli), on Facebook (@24HoursNothingButNet) and on her website (www.24HoursNBN.com). Every hour of the event, including interviews, live music and even a few golf tips from NC State women’s golf coach Page Marsh, will be available on the YouTube livestream (@24HoursNothingButNet).
Antonelli moved the event outdoors to her driveway when COVID hit in 2020, and has remained there ever since, even when a tropical storm threatened the Lowcountry and the winds that came with it knocked her shooting percentage down to 89 percent.
Previously, she’s marked a free throw line in chalk on her family’s concrete driveway, but this year a national company, Praters Flooring, has donated a portable basketball court for the event, complete with Antonelli’s branding.
She’s livestreamed the event every year, but this year’s show will be the most heavily produced yet, with four cameras capturing her every shot and taped interviews from nationally prominent basketball and television personalities, including NC State football coach Dave Doeren, men’s basketball coach Kevin Keatts, women’s basketball coach Wes Moore and Marsh. Also in the lineup are retired Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, broadcaster Robin Roberts, coaches Kim Mulkey and Tara Vanderveer, as well as virtual live music from two guitarists in Texas and a band in Arkansas.
“It’s pretty cool,” she says.
There will be one new addition this year: Antonelli will have to make all 2,400 free throws with a broken finger. She fractured her left index finger while training in Iowa last month as part of her rigorous workout regimen in which she mixes free throws and modified burpees (an exercise that combines a jump, a squat, a pushup and a return to a standing position). Since the college basketball season ended six weeks ago, she’s done her workouts at UNC-Asheville’s Kimmel Arena, Tennessee’s Pratt Pavilion, NC State’s Dail Practice Center and at Iowa.
The training is critical to keeping Antonelli’s free throw percentage high: Last year, she made a personal best 94.5 percent of her shots. That included making all 100 attempts without a miss between 4 and 5 a.m.
While most of the money Antonelli has raised has gone to Special Olympics South Carolina, chapters in North Carolina, Rhode Island, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Texas are also taking part, with all money raised staying in those states.
Antonelli is supportive of Dave and Sara Doeren’s recent donation of $1.25 million to launch the OnePack Empowered program for NC State students on the autism spectrum and with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who face challenges with organization, planning, priority setting, task completion and decision making.
She has also reached out to NC State’s leadership about bringing a similar version of the ClemsonLIFE program to her alma mater.
“I could not be more proud of what Dave and Sara have done,” Antonelli says. “What they are doing is something that is helpful but completely different for what someone like Frankie and others with intellectual disabilities need.
“The whole idea is to create awareness.”
At noon on Sunday, when Antonelli makes her final free throw, she will ask the Special Olympians she has invited to be spectators to cut down the net on her driveway basketball goal, an unintended tribute to late NC State men’s basketball coach Everett Case, who introduced the tradition to college basketball in 1947.
Frankie will cut the last strand of the net and Debbie will head inside for some rest.
And maybe dream about a nice meal out with her family.