Nicole Kirkner

For The Diamondback

Special Olympics athletes joined Terrapins men's and women's basketball players on the court at Friday's Maryland Madness, participating in skills competitions to fire up a crowded Xfinity Center.

The event has been a university tradition since the 1970s, and is held on the first day basketball teams can begin practices for the season. This year, however, is the first time Special Olympics Maryland has participated.

About 30 athletes stood at center court with Testudo and introduced the Terps players. They then teamed up in skills competitions, with four groups made up of a men's and women's basketball player, along with a Special Olympics athlete.

James Thomas, 23, has competed in the Special Olympics playing basketball and football for two years. At Maryland Madness, he played on the winning skills challenge team alongside guard Jaylen Brantley.

"I'm really excited to get a chance to play with the college players since basketball is my favorite sport," Thomas said. "It's a lot of fun."

Another athlete from the Special Olympics team, 23-year-old Thomas Smith, was chosen to judge the slam dunk contest alongside former Terrapins basketball players Walt Williams, Tom McMillen, Byron Mouton and Vicki Brick.

Smith, a national bronze-medalist in powerlifting, said he was excited to hang out with the players and meet coach Mark Turgeon.

Chick Hernandez, a university alumna and Comcast SportsNet broadcaster, also participated in the event.

Hernandez has been involved with Maryland Madness since he was a student at this university in the 1980s, and said he was excited to have Special Olympics athletes present.

"The Special Olympics came to College Park back in the day when I was a student here, and I became a hugger, which is when you pair up with a Special Olympics athlete during their meet and you hug them after," Hernandez said. "That experience will never leave me."

This isn't the first time the basketball teams have invited Special Olympics athletes to this university for events. They have joined up during some practices and held basketball clinics.

"It's exciting. We love to do that type of stuff with them," men's basketball guard Andrew Terrell said. "It's one of Coach Turgeon's biggest things."

Turgeon said he is proud of the relationship the team has with the Special Olympics team, which includes 7,311 athletes in the state of Maryland.

Guard Melo Trimble hopes to have the opportunity to play with them again.

"It's exciting to see those guys get out there and play basketball," Trimble said. "They're always so excited to play, and I really enjoy playing with them."