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Practice is winding down inside the Greece Athena High School gymnasium when Jason McElwain, the young man known to everyone as J-Mac, picks up a stray basketball. He dribbles it three times, then flings it toward the hoop. As it swishes through the cylinder, J-Mac bellows: "Nothing but net." Several of the players he coaches on the Trojans varsity basketball team hoot and holler. "I still got it," J-Mac says, beaming. "I still got it."
Hard to believe, but it's been nearly eight years since a charismatic kid with autism went from being an anonymous student manager to an internationally known sports celebrity. Nearly eight years since his generous coach, Jim Johnson, gave him the nickname "J-Mac" and an opportunity to shoot his way into our hearts. Nearly eight years since his 20 points in just over four minutes prompted scores of joyous students to flood the court and hoist him onto their shoulders-a triumphant scene captured on a video that went viral.
Neither his life, nor the life of his kind-hearted coach, would ever be the same.
How big was the J-Mac story? Big enough to garner a handshake and praise from the president of the United States. Big enough to merit an interview with Oprah. Big enough to attract the attention of several Hollywood film studios. Big enough to earn him an ESPY Award for most inspirational sports story of the year. Big enough to inspire coaches at all levels to afford kids facing challenges with opportunities to experience their own shining moment.
"I think that's one of the most gratifying things to come from this," says Johnson, now in his 27th season as a high school varsity basketball coach. "I think it opened people's eyes about giving opportunities to all kids. I'm a softie for these kinds of stories. Every time I hear about an act of kindness in sports, I feel really good inside."
The J-Mac story never gets old, and it's sure to be retold throughout the country and the world Friday evening, Dec. 20, when the school officially retires the No. 52 jersey J-Mac wore when he sank six three-pointers in that Feb. 15, 2006, game against Spencerport.
"It's going to be a very emotional night for me," says J-Mac, whose jersey will be displayed alongside the jersey of John Wallace, who led the Trojans to a state championship before starring at Syracuse University and in the NBA. "I was practicing the acceptance speech my brother Josh wrote for me and I got choked up halfway through it. I can't thank Coach Johnson enough for doing this. To me, it's the ultimate honor."
Johnson has spoken to groups all over the country. Before each talk, he shows a brief video about J-Mac. "I lived it and I've seen that video at least a couple hundred times and it still gets to me," says Johnson, a member of a professional speakers' bureau who hopes to pursue a career as a motivational speaker after retiring from teaching. "There are more times than not when I have to compose myself before I start speaking because that video makes me so emotional."
The J-Mac story resonates so powerfully because it teaches us that no obstacle is too big and that all kids, regardless of the challenges, deserve a chance. This story was not only about autism, but also about dealing with the stigma attached to it, which led to him being ostracized, bullied and excluded.
"That game helped me believe that anything is possible," J-Mac says. "You just have to set your mind to it. You establish goals and a game plan for how to achieve them. That's true in sports."
And in life.
J-Mac's next goal is to run in the Boston Marathon. A member of the Athena cross country program for six years, he returned to running a few years ago, and in the fall qualified for Boston by running the Rochester Marathon in three hours and 47 seconds.
"It's funny because I only ran cross country to get into shape for basketball," he says. "But a few years ago, I was coaching at a basketball camp when one of the coaches noticed I had listed cross country on my resume. He suggested I take up running again. I thought he was crazy, but I followed up on it and now I'm about to cross off an item on my bucket list."
The 26-year-old works part time at Wegmans and Red Fedele's Brook House in Greece. But his true passion remains basketball. He is in his sixth season as an assistant coach at Athena. His enthusiasm and knowledge of the game are obvious as he works players through individual drills and serves as a role model for the current student manager, Dillon Watkins, who also has autism.
"One of the reasons I wanted to get Jason into a game as a player was to reward him for his commitment and loyalty to the program," Johnson says. "Even as a manager, he was as committed as any player we've ever had. He was there for everything, even things he didn't have to be there for."
J-Mac has coached at numerous basketball camps around the country. He hopes his work for Coach Johnson and at the various camps will help him reach his ultimate goal-a job coaching on the college level. That might sound far-fetched, but I wouldn't bet against him.
Nearly eight years after he shocked the world, J-Mac is still swishing shots, still breaking down barriers, still achieving goals, still showing us that he's got it.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock 'n' roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores. He provides analysis following Bills games on WROC-TV and is a correspondent for USA Today SportsWeekly.
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