GREECE — Much has changed for Greece Athena High School varsity basketball coach Jim Johnson and former team manager Jason "J-Mac" McElwain since Feb. 15, 2006.
That was the night Johnson put McElwain into the game, and the teen — who is autistic — went on to score 20 points in the final 3:11 of the only varsity match he ever played. The story of what Johnson terms a miraculous night was picked up by news media locally and around the country.
In the five years following that game, the pair shook hands with President George W. Bush and exchanged autographs with celebrities at the 2006 NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis, Ind., the ESPN Espy Awards and the Teen Choice Awards. A movie being made about the game features Magic Johnson as an executive producer.
Johnson and McElwain also are fixtures on the inspirational speaking circuit, sharing their stories of the game with everyone from educators to executives.
And with the release of a new book, Johnson is now a published author. In A Coach and a Miracle: Life Lessons from a Man who Believed in an Autistic Boy, he frames the game and season within his Catholic faith and reveals how he nearly quit coaching at the beginning of the 2005-06 season due to internal team strife.
Johnson, a parishioner of Our Mother of Sorrows Parish in Greece, cowrote the book with Catholic Courier senior staff writer Mike Latona. The book is being published by Beacon Publishing, the publishing house of well-known Catholic author Matthew Kelly.
A Coach and a Miracle is being released on a limited basis Feb. 15 and can be preordered at www.acoachandamiracle.com. The book will go on sale to the general public March 15.
"When I had a vision of this book after the story exploded, I felt there were so many wonderful life lessons throughout that season," Johnson said during a break in basketball practice Feb. 7. "This was a way I could share the things I’ve learned."
The book invites readers at the beginning and end of each chapter to try such self-improvement tasks as setting goals, writing a personal mission statement and serving others.
"Jim is at his very core a coach, and thus a teacher," Kelly noted in an e-mail. "So, I think the format is true to who he is as a person and allows him to coach us in the most important game — life."
The book also puts the game in perspective through reflections from sports celebrities and experts, including a foreword by University of Florida Coach Billy Donovan, and reactions from families who have struggled with disabilities and acceptance.
It also explains why McElwain didn’t see more playing time during the season. In the book, Johnson contends that McElwain’s performance that night was miraculous; if any team were able to maintain his scoring pace throughout a game, that team would top 200 points.
In the book, Johnson recalls that his whispered prayer for "J-Mac" to make a single basket was answered sevenfold. The manager-turned-player made seven baskets, including six three-pointers, and he became the team’s high scorer for the game.
"I walk into the gym, and I still get chills," said McElwain, now 22, who has chronicled his personal story in his own 2008 book The Game of My Life: A True Story of Challenge, Triumph, and Growing Up Autistic. Today, McElwain works part time and volunteers as a program assistant with the Greece Athena varsity basketball team.
Yet McElwain said that the Feb. 15 game was not the highlight of the team’s season, in his opinion. That came days later, when the team captured the Section 5 championship.
That title had always eluded Johnson, but the coach notes in his book that the personal thrill of that win was eclipsed by the joy of helping make someone else’s dream come true. Johnson said the key to McElwain’s success was his total perseverance to reach his dream.
"He is the only student-athlete that has actually tried out for our program three years in a row," said Johnson, noting that McElwain agreed to be team manager even after having been cut three times.
Nearly every day, McElwain reminded Johnson of a preseason promise to find him a jersey and a few minutes of playing time.
"Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought he would have scored 20 points," Johnson said.
The coach also pointed out sacrifices made by the other substitutes on the court, who passed the ball to McElwain even though their own playing time had been limited during the season. Those actions showed how much McElwain’s teammates cared for him, Johnson said.
When he replays video from the game, Johnson said he loves to watch the reactions of teammates on the bench, and the jubilation of students in the crowd, who held up placards of McElwain’s face in a gesture of support.
"The atmosphere was really electric," recalled Athena’s junior varsity basketball coach Mike Setzer, who was on the bench that night as Johnson’s assistant. "You almost knew something was going to happen."
But does McElwain consider what happened that night to have been a miracle?
"Every shot went in," McElwain replied. "I was hotter than a pistol that night."
After they have paused to remember the night when McElwain was triumphantly hoisted onto the shoulders of his classmates, the coach and the one-time player go back to being who they are every day: basketball lovers, teachers and inspirers.
During a team meeting in an empty classroom before the Feb. 7 practice, Johnson gave a scouting report on an upcoming opponent and ran through his team’s goals ranging from limiting turnovers to maximizing rebounds and layups.
Then, he got a little philosophical.
"The important thing about sports, like life, is every day is different," he told the players.
And some days — like Feb. 15, 2006 — are extraordinary.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A Coach and a Miracle coauthors Jim Johnson and Mike Latona will appear at Sacred Heart Cathedral on Sunday, April 10, and will be available for signings during coffee hour following the 9:15 a.m. Mass. The book also will be available for purchase at that time (cash or check only).