UNC Dream Team grants child’s basketball wish

Student volunteers rolled out the Carolina Blue carpet for Colburn Dean, 9, who wowed the Tar Heel men’s team.

The UNC men's basketball team taking a team photo on the court of the Dean E. Smith Center with a 9-year-old boy, Colburn Dean.
Colburn Dean made a lasting impression on the Carolina men's basketball team with his good shot and stellar dance moves. (Photo courtesy of Chris Maloney)

Meeting Carolina basketball royalty would make many people starstruck. But when 9-year-old Colburn Dean spent a weekend with the Tar Heels earlier this month, he was the star.

He landed a backward trick shot during a game of H-O-R-S-E with Armando Bacot, wowed the men’s basketball team with his dance moves and joined the Tar Heels’ locker room celebration after beating Syracuse.

Colburn, who has Down syndrome, is energetic and outgoing — a “pretty typical kid,” according to his dad. He loves sports and does well in school. And like many young sports fans in the area, he’s wild about Carolina basketball.

Colburn got the chance to meet his hoops heroes because of the UNC Dream Team, a chapter of national nonprofit Dream on 3. These 27 Carolina students volunteer their time and raise money to make Tar Heel sports dreams come true for children with life-altering conditions.

“For Colburn, that’s just another weekend. He thinks he’s the celebrity, and everybody there is lucky to meet him,” said Andrew Dean, a Carolina alumnus, University Libraries employee and Colburn’s father.

Two-photo collage: A 9-year-old boy, Colburn Dean, preparing to take a shot on the floor of the Dean E. Smith Center with the Carolina men's basketball team looking on; and Dean and the team celebrating his made shot.

Colburn Dean shot around with the men’s basketball team following its practice on Jan. 12. (Photos courtesy of Chris Maloney )

The group rolls out the Carolina Blue carpet for one child each year. Once Dream Team leaders Gabe Cherniss and LewLew Whayne, both seniors, met Colburn and his family over Zoom, they knew they had their dream kid.

“The instant that we saw him, his smile was infectious,” Cherniss said. “That kid is the happiest kid on the planet, and you just can’t help but smile and be happy when you’re around him.”

The planning and fundraising soon began. Cherniss said the national Dream on 3 parent organization has national partners that help, but Dream Team members work hard to raise much of the money on social media.

A group of eight college students posing for a photo with 9-year-old Colburn Dean in front of his school. The students are holding up signs that read "Dream It, Do It #Colburn," a No. 23 Colburn basketball jersey and "It's Go Time".

Colburn Dean’s dream weekend began with the UNC Dream Team surprising him at Southwest Elementary in Durham. (Photo courtesy of Chris Maloney)

Colburn’s dream weekend was about much more than a game. The festivities began with the Dream Team’s surprise visit to Colburn at Southwest Elementary in Durham. Amid cheers from his classmates, they gave him a pair of Air Jordan shoes and escorted him to a limousine for the ride to Chapel Hill.

At the Dean E. Smith Center, they took a tour and watched the team practice. Afterward, Coach Hubert Davis called Colburn and his family down to the court. The rarely bashful Colburn quickly made a lasting impression on the players, whose names and numbers he’s memorized. His successful shots drew cheers — “He’s got a great shot,” Cherniss said — and his Griddy dance brought happiness and joy to the group.

“So many people deserve so much credit for putting something together like this,” Andrew Dean said. “Everyone was amazing, but Armando really spent the extra time and attention on Colburn and focused on him in a way that made it that much more special.”

Thanks to the Dream Team, Colburn and his family spent the weekend on Franklin Street and witnessed a 103-67 Carolina win. Colburn danced along to his favorite song, “Jump Around,” enthusiastically counted down the points as Carolina eclipsed 100 and celebrated the Tar Heel victory with the team in the locker room.

Two-photo collage: UNC men's basketball coach Hubert Davis giving a 9-year-old boy, Colburn Dean, a hug; and Colburn Dean dancing in front of joyous members of the UNC basketball team.

Men’s basketball coach Hubert Davis invited Colburn Dean to celebrate with the Tar Heels after their win against Syracuse. (Maggie Hobson/UNC Athletics)

“You watch the weekend, and you go, ‘Man, I can’t believe I was a part of this and got to watch his dream come true,’” Cherniss said.

Colburn’s family clearly appreciates the Carolina students that made the weekend possible.

“The amount of passion, energy and love that they brought really stood out,” Andrew Dean said. “It’s one of those things that makes you remember what it means when you tell someone you’re a part of a Carolina family.”