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Memphis Special Olympian works for Grizzlies, appears in movie

Alex Hannah is often pumping up the crowd in FedExForum, but he also stars in the movie 'Champions.'

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Memphis Grizzlies face the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday in a crucial Game 5. It’s win or go home, so this game is critical to the Grizzlies chances at advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals, which means they will need the crowd to be a big support.

To keep the crowd engaged, they rely on the Claw Crew, the Grizzlies official hype squad, who have a very special member.

Alex Hannah is in his fourth year with the Claw Crew. He has Asperger's syndrome on the autism spectrum. He's high functioning, meaning he can do plenty on his own, but some things cognitively don't click. It doesn't stop him from getting the fan energized in FedExForum.

"My favorite part is getting the fans all pumped up," Alex said. "When we have hype music, when you have a pump up moment, then I'll be up on the stands getting my signs up and woooh!"

Hannah was practically born a Grizzlies fan. He and his dad, Rio, recall "sitting up in the nosebleeds" with Alex sitting on Rio's shoulders. When Alex is not working, often he and Rio are still in the stands.

"I'm a huge, huge fan. I've been a Grizzlies fan since I was a little baby," Alex said.

Between t-shirt tosses and pumping up fans, he’s a ball of energy in the Forum, but it wasn’t the Grizz that helped him come out of his shell.

"Special Olympics brought him out. There was a time he wouldn't even speak and Special Olympics was a huge part of it," Rio said.

Alex has been participating in Special Olympics since he was seven-years-old. He participates in basketball, track and field, and his new found love is bowling. He's participated in the USA games and won bronze medals as an individual and in doubles in bowling.

Memphis Special Olympics director Lisa Taylor saw Alex's acting potential, pointing him to a commercial for the organization. He's used to being on the Jumbotron in FedEx Forum, but that commercial gave him a shot at an even bigger screen – the Silver Screen.

Alex’s 15 seconds of fame are a cameo in the Woody Harrelson film “Champions,” about a group of misfit Special Olympian basketball players who get Harrelson’s character as coach.

"When I saw myself on the big screen I was like so tickled. I was so excited. I was so proud," Alex said.

The movie filmed in Winnipeg, Canada. Seeing his son film and then be on the big screen was a very emotional and proud moment for Rio.

"I didn't cry a lot," Rio jokes. "But it was it was very, it was very emotional."

"Having a child with special needs and not having opportunities, it is a great opportunity for him and they gave it to him and we're really grateful for it. Because a lot of times they don't get those chances."

Rio credits Alex's mother, Wendy, for getting their son the proper help and attention he needed to correctly diagnose his disability. The family is also very appreciative of Millington Elementary School, which Rio says was one of the most supportive schools the family had navigating Alex's disability.

From filming in movies to dancing in FedExForum, Alex proves if you put your mind to it, you can do it.

"So to all those naysayers, yes, (people with disabilities) can. When they say you can't, (Alex) always proves that he can," Rio said.

Rio believes Alex is the first autistic member of the Claw Crew. He inspired a second autistic member to audition and join.


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