Ex-MSU basketball player brings his personal story of autism and bullying to the JCC Maccabi Games & ArtsFest.
Anthony Ianni doesn’t get lost in a crowd. Not at 6-foot-9.
But there was another reason why all eyes were focused on him Aug. 6 when he spoke to about 500 teens at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield Township during the JCC Maccabi Games & ArtsFest.
The 30-year-old former Michigan State University basketball player was a keynote speaker for JCC Cares, a program that gets Maccabi participants involved in community projects in the host city and teaches them life lessons to take home.
Ianni brought his “Relentless Tour” speaking series to JCC Cares, which had a theme of “One Community.” The “Relentless Tour” is an initiative of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
He talked for 45 minutes about autism and bullying, how he defied the experts who said his autism would derail his dreams, and how he rose above those who bullied him in elementary school and particularly in middle school growing up in Okemos.
It’s estimated that between 65 and 90 percent of children with autism are bullied, so Ianni’s impassioned speeches resonate with many listeners. That certainly happened at Temple Israel.
“Several Maccabi coaches and athletes came up to me after my speech and said they could relate to what I had to say,” Ianni said. “One of the first athletes I spoke with was a kid from Vancouver who said he was inspired by my presentation.
“Every time I speak, my goal is to make a difference in at least one person’s life. If that happens, I consider it a successful speech.”
Samantha Cohen, vice president of the JCC Association of North America, said Ianni “hit it out of the park.”
“I’m always concerned when you get a room full of teenagers that they won’t listen to a speech, especially one given by an adult,” Cohen said. “But you could hear a pin drop when Anthony spoke.
“I was so happy to see that. The Maccabi Games & ArtsFest is more than about sports and the arts. We want participants to practice the Jewish value of tikkun olam, to go back to their communities as better citizens, and do good work that helps not just Jewish people.”
Looking back, Ianni said, it doesn’t surprise him that middle school was the worst time in his life for bullying.
“Middle school is a time when you don’t know where you fit in,” he said. “And you certainly don’t understand what someone like me on the autism spectrum is going through.”
What made matters worse for Ianni at that time of his life was his height, which was both a blessing and a curse.
“I was 6-feet-tall and wore a size-13 shoe when I was in sixth grade,” he said. “In middle school, I was a freakishly tall kid who was bullied by kids who came up to my hip. At the same time, I dreamed about being a professional basketball player.”
Ianni graduated from MSU in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology after a two-year basketball career with the Spartans that included being a member of the 2010 Final Four team and winning two Big Ten regular-season championships and a Big Ten tournament title.
He’s the first known Division I college basketball player diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.
Now a high-functioning autistic person, and a husband and father of two boys ages 4 and 1, Ianni speaks year-round at schools, universities, businesses, conferences and summer camps. He’s become one of the most sought-after motivational speakers in the country.
Read More: Maccabi ArtsFest Final Showcase