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As coach and player, Towson’s Pat Skerry, Kent State’s Kalin Bennett bring autism awareness to college basketball

They make an odd couple — the 19-year-old African American freshman center who stands at 6 feet 11 and weighs 300 pounds and the 49-year-old Caucasian coach who is not as tall or as stout.

But Kalin Bennett, the center, and Pat Skerry, the coach, are linked by basketball and autism, and the two met Monday night when Bennett and his Kent State teammates visited Skerry and his Towson players at SECU Arena.

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The final score — an 84-80 loss for the host Tigers, who relied on 20 points and eight rebounds from senior guard Brian Fobbs but failed to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2013 — was almost inconsequential in light of Bennett’s achievement. He is believed to be the first person diagnosed with autism to sign a letter of intent to play an NCAA Division I team sport.

Bennett, who had two points, two rebounds and one block in nearly six minutes in the Flashes’ 97-58 season-opening win against Division III’s Hiram on Wednesday, did not make an appearance Monday. But Bennett’s presence was applauded by Skerry.

“As a parent, it’s pretty impressive that a guy could overcome those types of obstacles and play Division I basketball at a pretty high level,” said Skerry, who prioritized meeting Bennett on Sunday. “That’s what sports is, right? Overcoming adversity and perseverance. I told him, ‘We’re going to try to kick your tail, but after that, I’ll be rooting like heck for you and Kent State.’ ”

Skerry has sought tirelessly to raise awareness about the developmental disorder, which includes a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, since his youngest son, Owen, was diagnosed with autism at 18 months in 2011. Skerry and former Marshall coach and current South Florida assistant Tom Herrion founded Coaches Powering Forward for Autism, which boasted more than 375 NCAA coaches wearing a blue puzzle piece pin on their suit jackets during games, usually on the first weekend of February.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of every 59 children is diagnosed with autism, and boys are four times more likely than girls to be identified. Autism has affected more than 3,000 Americans and tens of millions internationally, and government statistics indicate that autism cases have risen 10% to 17% annually in recent years.

Owen Skerry, a 10-year-old who attends The Trellis School in Sparks, was at the game, sitting in the second row behind the Tigers bench as his father prowled in front of it. Afterward, Pat Skerry said his son was a little preoccupied about meeting Bennett.

“My guy likes the Kindle, and we’re hot on Disney movies right now like ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Toy Story 4,’ and I think the WiFi was on the fritz a little bit,” he said. “So we had to deal with that. That’s worse than Fobbs missing some 3s for my wife.”

Skerry has a certain connection with Bennett, who did not sit up on his own until he was 2 and did not talk until he was 7. But he has been encouraged and supported by his mother, Sonja, who moved from Little Rock, Arkansas, to a home about five minutes away from Kent State’s campus in Ohio.

Bennett’s performance in the Flashes’ victory last week was noted by CNN, Sports Illustrated and People, but the freshman tried to downplay his feat.

“I’m just one person, but I think from now on, everything I do and every step I take, I have to make sure it’s with order and it’s with resolve,” he said after that game. “So I have to pay attention to what I do from now on, and it’s good to know that people look up to me. But the real thing is, everybody’s capable of doing whatever they want to do in life. I hope I created a thing that’s going to transcend to more kids so they believe in themselves first and foremost.”

Against Towson, Bennett’s teammate, sophomore guard Anthony Roberts, led Kent State (2-0) with a game-best 21 points, seven rebounds and three assists, but senior forward Philip Whittington’s offensive rebound and putback tied the score at 72. The Tigers had two chances to win the game in regulation, but Fobbs’ layup attempt was blocked by senior guard Mitch Peterson, and freshman guard Allen Betrand’s long jump shot was off the mark.

In the extra session, the Tigers suddenly got cold, missing every shot from the floor except for redshirt junior forward Juwan Gray’s 3-pointer as time expired. Freshman guard Jason Gibson, a Severna Park native, added 18 points for Towson.

“We got the ball to Fobbs,” Skerry said. “If we’re going to get beat, we’re going to get beat with the ball in his hands. … He’s a guy we believe in.”

Despite the setback, Flashes coach Rob Senderoff — who reached out to Skerry about scheduling a home-and-home series about a month after Bennett had signed on the dotted line with Kent State in November 2018 — praised Skerry’s efforts to open more doors for Bennett and others trying to defy autism’s limitations.

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“The whole reason that we chose to do this series was because of Pat and his family and the work that he’s done and knowing that Kalin is a part of our team,” Senderoff said. “I wish I were able to play him tonight, but with the flow of the game and the way it was, I’m not going to sit here and say that he’s not ready. I think he potentially is ready for this, but the way Phil and [junior forward] Danny [Pippen] were playing for us, our frontcourt guys, we just wanted to stick with those guys.”

Skerry returned the favor.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Rob Senderoff and the program,” he said. “They weren’t hung up on what someone’s differences were. They took him and believed in him and are working with him. So it’s a pretty cool thing.”

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