Bullying was tall hurdle for former NCAA basketball player
At 6 foot 9 inches tall and wearing a size 18 shoe, former Big 10 Spartan Anthony Ianni said the only obstacle taller than him was being bullied.
Ianni was a guest speaker Friday, July 22, at an anti-bullying rally at Riverfront Plaza in Allegan. The event was hosted by Bryce Frost, an Allegan teen who founded the “Stop the Bullying Now” campaign after he was bullied for being on the autism spectrum.
Ianni said somewhere between 65 and 90 percent of all kids with autism are targeted by bullies. Growing up, he was not only bullied by classmates because of his height but also for being autistic.
“I was diagnosed at the age of 4,” he said. “At that time in the early 1990s, no one knew what it was and others had been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.”
Doctors told his parents, he would not amount to much in life, wouldn’t go to high school and would probably be put in an institution with other autistics. His parents didn’t tell him of the doctor’s prognosis until he was a freshman in high school.
While Ianni had a tough time understanding nouns, verbs and especially sarcasm, he worked hard every day and with the support of his family, teachers, friends, coaches and teammates, he overcame his obstacles, earned a bachelor’s degree at Michigan State University and become the first autistic basketball player in NCAA history.
After winning a Big 10 title, one of Ianni’s worst bullies from grade school was waiting after the game with a Sharpie and a basketball for an autograph for his “little brother,” which the bully didn’t have.
Ianni didn’t say anything; he just signed the ball, shook his hand and refused to stoop to his bully’s level by saying something sarcastic and hurtful.
“Actions speak louder than words,” he said. “I let my talent do the talking.”
He now works for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission giving motivational speeches in nearly every city in the state. One place he hasn’t been yet is Owosso, and that’s where 15-year-old Matthew Post traveled from to see his idol for the first time.
Like Ianni, Post is also a child of autism who is enduring bullying and found acceptance in athletics.
Formerly of Allegan, Post’s mother Candie Flatter spoke of how she was also told her son would never amount to anything, never get a diploma or even attend high school.
At 8 years old, he was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder on the autism spectrum. Brushing his teeth and taking showers are difficult, because the feelings can be overwhelming. Large crowds and loud noises overload his senses.
Today, Matthew is not only on track to receive his high school diploma, he’s on the honor roll, and if the freshman continues on path, he will letter in cross country—hoping to beat his 23.08-minute 5K.
“Be careful what you say to people in life; you never know what they are going through,” Flatter said.
Erin Hurley of Allegan County Suicide Prevention Coalition also spoke. She said signs of depression and suicide are connected to bullying and those on the autism spectrum are 4 to 9 percent times more likely to be linked to suicide.
Hurley’s message was to stand up for yourself by telling someone you feel unsafe and for everyone to use respectful and responsible language in the real and cyber world instead of making fun of someone you don’t understand.
Bryce’s message was to stand up to bullying by refusing to stand by and let it happen in the community.
Ianni said to treat people with kindness and respect because you never know what people will become.
“They could become the greatest athlete, someone who invents something greater than the iPhone or iPad, or your boss at a job,” he said. “Or a celebrity like Eminem, Justin Timberlake, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Phelps, Tiger Woods...”
Ianni has become so popular as a motivational speaker he is now sought across the nation on his “Relentless Tour” to eradicate bullying.
“I want to go and make an impact and leave an impact but I’m not the one who is making a change,” he said. “The change is you.”
He said to make one little change and see how far it goes.
“Everyone matters,” he said. “We are all the same family.”
For more about Ianni’s tour, visit www.relentlesstour.com.
For more on Bryce’s “Stop the Bullying Now” campaign, visit him on Facebook.