In the last four minutes of a February 2006 basketball game between Greece Athena and Spencerport High Schools, coach Jim Johnson made a life-changing decision. He sent the team’s manager, Jason McElwain, into the game.
McElwain, known as J-Mac to his friends, had never worn a jersey or been in a game. But the Greece Athena team was well ahead. Coach Johnson knew how much it would mean to McElwain to have a chance to play.
The young athlete missed his first two shots. Then he sank a three-pointer and caught fire. By game’s end he had scored 20 points, six three-pointers and a two-pointer. The crowd exploded, swarming the young hero, lifting him on their shoulders and giving him a hero’s tribute.
What made the story so moving was the road McElwain had traveled from his birth on October 1, 1987, to his basketball triumph. Diagnosed at three as high-functioning autistic, he did not learn to speak until he was five. Social interactions were challenging for him.
In a January 2010 piece, AOL News reporter Clay Travis wrote that sports, particularly basketball, made the difference. Shooting baskets with his brother and the neighborhood boys, McElwain gradually gained confidence. Basketball was his passion, and it was the sport that brought him to international fame on that February day.
Suddenly he and his family were the center of a media frenzy, with appearances on ESPN, Oprah, Good Morning America, Larry King Live and many other talk shows. President George Bush made a special trip to his home town on the north side of Rochester, New York. So did topnotch athletes like Peyton Manning and Magic Johnson.
His book, The Game Of My Life, appeared in 2008. Columbia Pictures bought the film rights to his story (though the movie has yet to appear).
In an April 2012 follow-up on McElwain, NBC’s Lou Dubois and Dr. Allison Brucker wrote that he holds down two jobs, at a local grocery store and as assistant coach for his old high school team, and that he frequently travels to speaking engagements. In September 2012 he completed his first marathon and began making plans for the 2014 Boston Marathon.
So this is more than a story about a four-minute miracle. It is the story of parents who believed in their son, classmates who accepted the boy, a coach who gave him a chance, and team members who supported him in the crunch. It is also about a young man with drive and determination, a young man who speaks openly and confidently about living with autism and overcoming odds. It is about shooting for the basket with whatever life sends our way.
Thanks to Lester & Charlie, two of my favourite satirists, for telling me about Jason McElwain. He gives me hope.