GREECE — The story line was already compelling enough: Autistic team manager makes varsity basketball debut in final home game of senior year. Crowd goes wild as he checks in.
But Jason McElwain’s coach upped the ante, asking God to let the young man come away with one basket.
Apparently, the good Lord was listening.
What happened next, according to Coach Jim Johnson, “was divine intervention. That may never happen again in a million years.”
Jason scored not one, but seven baskets — including six three-pointers — in Greece Athena High School’s 79-43 win over Spencerport on Feb. 15. He led all scorers with 20 points, even though he didn’t enter the game until midway through the fourth quarter. The shocking performance, as well as the wild post-game celebration in which fans and players engulfed him, has been replayed on media outlets everywhere. (The video can still be accessed on Internet news sites by typing “Jason McElwain” into a search engine.)
In the weeks that have followed, the star now known to the world as “J-Mac” has logged numerous television, radio and newspaper appearances. A movie and book deal are brewing. He’s even exchanged hugs, handshakes and banter with President George W. Bush.
“My life changed a lot in four minutes. All the attention is making me a busy man,” the 17-year-old said with a big grin.
The early years
What wasn’t captured on video are the challenges J-Mac has faced while growing up with autism — a brain disorder that hinders one’s ability to communicate, form relationships and respond appropriately to the environment.
J-Mac, like many autistic people, experienced a severe language delay. According to his mother, Debbie, he also is learning disabled. While the general public considers Feb. 15 a watershed night for J-Mac, his mom goes back to an equally important moment — when her boy, already past his sixth birthday, uttered his first words.
“It was on a Thursday afternoon, and he was watching ‘Sesame Street,'” Debbie McElwain said, recalling that the words “Big Bird” slid out of little Jason’s mouth.
She said that he began to rapidly improve, but there was still a great deal to overcome.
“When he was severely autistic, he had no social contact whatsoever,” she noted.
She added that it’s also been a struggle to have J-Mac accepted in various scholastic and social venues. He has often been the target of bullying, and even extended family members have had trouble accepting his condition.
J-Mac now talks quite smoothly, though not at great length. His social circle has expanded greatly, largely due to athletics: He is a fine cross-country runner and takes his role as basketball manager seriously, having served the junior-varsity team as a sophomore and the varsity team as a junior and senior. In the near future J-Mac plans to get his high-school equivalency degree and attend Monroe Community College, majoring in business.
J-Mac and his family — which also includes father, David, and older brother, Josh — are parishioners of St. Mark Church in Greece. Mary Chatterton, pastoral associate, said she has noticed J-Mac’s maturing process since the days when he took part in Children’s Liturgy of the Word and sacramental preparation.
“When he was younger, he wasn’t as outgoing as now. As he’s gotten into high school and into the basketball, he’s gotten more confident,” Chatterton said.
J-Mac obviously knows how to shoot a basketball, but at 5 feet 9 inches tall and a mere 130 pounds, he was cut from a very good Athena team this past fall. He stayed on as manager, practicing with the team all year long and cheering on the Trojans from the bench at every game, always donning a dress shirt and tie.
“When you see a kid that dedicated, you want to see him rewarded,” Johnson said.
Thus, he had J-Mac suit up for the last home game with a possibility — but no guarantee — that he’d play. Word got around to the Athena students, and many showed up that night with cardboard cutouts of J-Mac’s face pasted to wooden sticks.
The fans shrieked and waved their placards en masse as J-Mac entered the game. That moment alone overwhelmed Johnson, causing him to sink down in his chair even though he claims to never sit during a game.
“I got so choked up. I could start feeling the tears well up, and when he made his first basket, then the tears started flowing,” he recalled, leaning forward and talking excitedly even though he had already recounted the story dozens of times. He said he still tears up thinking of the game.
J-Mac started slowly, missing a three-pointer and then a layup. He hit his first three-point basket, from the right corner, setting off ear-splitting screams. Chances are, lots of people had nearly lost their voices by the time his siege ended.
Teammates kept passing off to him, enabling him to launch 13 shots. He made seven, going 6-for-10 from three-point land as he tied the school record for three-pointers in a game — in just half a quarter.
“I know I’m a good shooter. I just never shot that well,” he said.
Killjoys will point out that J-Mac’s performance occurred with second-stringers on the floor, when the game’s outcome had already been decided. But let’s face it, going 6-for-10 from long range is quite a feat even if you’re completely unguarded.
The surge happened so quickly that J-Mac can’t recall any specific shots: “I just remember making them all.”
J-Mac’s final basket came just before the game-ending buzzer. Seconds later, he was mobbed by a sea of people who hoisted him on their shoulders.
“It was like we won the national championship in college basketball,” he said.
These precious moments were captured by an Athena student videographer, Marcus Luciano. The footage was shown on Rochester television stations and then made the climb to national news outlets, enabling the J-Mac story to take on a life of its own.
On one morning alone, he was featured on ESPN, CNN and “Good Morning America.” His feat was shown two nights in a row on the CBS Evening News.
From there, a meeting was arranged between J-Mac and Bush during a scheduled presidential trip to Canandaigua on March 14. Bush greeted J-Mac and his parents at the Greater Rochester International Airport as well as Johnson, who handed him a J-Mac placard from the big game.
“He said ‘Can I call you J-Mac? You can call me George W.,'” J-Mac recalled, laughing.
How quickly things can change: Ironically, Bush had made an appearance at Greece Athena less than 10 months earlier, and neither Johnson nor J-Mac had been able to gain access to the auditorium.
A rap song has been made about J-Mac that’s been a hot play on local radio. He and Johnson have been guests on dozens of radio shows. National TV talk shows have expressed interest. Among the siege of e-mails and phone calls received by Johnson was a call from NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who expressed interest in being a part of any movie project about J-Mac. Coach Johnson said he has retained an attorney, and so has J-Mac’s family, since a movie and book deal appear quite likely.
Johnson acknowledged that although his world has been turned upside down — he even had to take time off from his physical-education teaching duties at Athena to handle the publicity blitz — “We’ve got to embrace this,” he said.
Debbie McElwain has similarly mixed feelings about the J-Mac phenomenon, remarking that “it’s destroyed our private lives.” But she said it’s worth the disruptions to know her son will reap a sizable financial reward to have his story told on film and in print.
Meanwhile, J-Mac is loving every bit of the spotlight as he willingly signs autographs for anyone who asks.
“This is the best time of my life, right here,” he emphasized.
The magic of Feb. 15 carried over for Athena into the Section 5 Class AA playoffs, as J-Mac’s pleas for his teammate to “stay focused” became a catchphrase. Indeed, Athena won the sectional championship, which was just as exciting to J-Mac as his individual success.
“That was my No. 1 dream, to get a Section 5 title,” he said.
It was a fitting ending to a dreamlike experience that began as a simple, thoughtful gesture by J-Mac’s coach, not a publicity stunt. It ended up touching the world, even prompting Bush to say he had been moved to tears by the video.
“It does teach a lesson. If you keep doing good things, good things will happen to you,” Johnson said.
For Johnson, 46, this marked his first sectional title in 20 years of varsity coaching (his career record is 249-173). He said he doesn’t mind one bit that the furor over J-Mac has overshadowed this feat for him and the rest of the Athena team.
“I think that was a message from God to me,” said Johnson, who attends Greece’s Our Mother of Sorrows Parish. “I had to wait a long time (for the sectional crown), and yet he gave me something that’s even more special.”
For J-Mac, his monumental accomplishment joins him to a world from which he has often been excluded.
“He walked through the door. He showed he can excel as a normal person,” Debbie McElwain said. “This is something Jason can be proud of for the rest of his life.”