Thursday, 26 May 2011

An Inspiring Story

I got it by mail :

My son called me not long after the game ended. He
sounded out of breath, and I soon understood why. After witnessing
perhaps the most compelling sports performance he will ever see at any
level, he and scores of other Greece Athena students flooded the
basketball court and hoisted Jason McElwain onto their shoulders.

"Dad, you wouldn’t believe what happened," he shouted into his cell
phone. "J-Mac got into the game and hit six 3-pointers. It was wild. It
was like a scene out of a movie."

My son couldn’t have been more excited if he had drained those 3’s
himself. He was hardly alone in his joy and incredulity. All it took
was four minutes and change for one of the most popular kids in the
school to shoot himself into our hearts and onto ESPN’s SportsCenter.

In the nine days that have followed, the national media (ESPN, CNN
Headline News’ Prime News T onight, Paul Harvey, Inside Edition, Good
Morning America and the CBS Early Show, among others) have picked up on
the story of J-Mac — a story that could travel from a little gymnasium
to the big screen.

Disney officials called Jason’s parents, Dave and Debbie McElwain, on
Thursday afternoon to inquire about the possibility of doing a movie.

And why not?

When it comes to drama and inspiration, Rudy has nothing on J-Mac. This is Rocky times six.

Hey, it isn’t every day when a student manager with autism suits up for his first varsity game and scores 20 points.

It isn’t every day when a school rallies around a special education student the way Athena has.

"I thought it might be a hard sell (with Hollywood) because people
would think it was embellished," says Jim Johnson, the big-hearted
Athena basketball coach who decided to give Jason a chance. "I’m glad I
was wrong."

As Johnson prepares his team to host crosstown rival Arcadia in its
Section V tournament opener tomorrow, he’s still shaking his head in

"I wake up each morning, asking myself, ‘Did that really happen?’" he says. "’Did I really witness that?’"

They are questions many continue to ask. Even Jason, the engaging
17-year-old senior who hasn’t allowed autism to undercut his dreams, is
having a difficult time grasping the impact of his inspiring

"That game went beyond what I ever expected," he says. "I felt like I had just won the national championship."

He may not have won a national championship, but he did win our hearts.

"I would have been happy with one point," he says. "I didn’t expect to get hotter than a pistol."

A high-functioning autistic student, Jason has been forced to deal with
the ostracism that special-needs children often face. There have even
been road games this season when ignorant students have heckled him and
made fun of him.

But students, teachers and administrators at Athena have come to love
him. Jason has galvanized the student body. He has achieved almost
cult-hero status at his school.

That love for him was never more obvious than during his shining
basketball moment. The Athena cheering section, known as The Sixth Man,
held up pictures of Jason that parent Jay Shelofsky had distributed
before the game.

When Jason entered with 4:02 left, the students put the photos, which
were affixed to paint-stirring sticks, in front of their faces and
began chanting his name.

"I never sit during a game," Johnson says. "But when I saw that scene,
I had to sit down because I was overcome with emotion. The tears were
welling up big-time."

He was hardly alone.

After Jason hit the last of his 3’s with two seconds to go, the
students streamed onto the court and hoisted their improbable hero onto
their shoulders.

"It was crazy, man," says Athena junior guard Terrance McCutchen. "Everybody wanted a piece of J-Mac."

They eventually carried him over to the stands, where he signed autographs for several minutes.

No one was more moved than Jason’s mom, who with a minute remaining
came down from the stands and planted a kiss on Johnson’s tear-streaked

"Thank you," she told him.

Later, McElwain told reporters that the barriers her son faced had been torn down.

"This was his Berlin Wall tumbling to the ground," she says. "For the
first time in his life he got an opportunity to be in the spotlight,
and it couldn’t have been brighter."

The seed for this unforgettable night was planted three years ago,
when, as a sophomore, Jason dressed for a junior varsity game. He was
fouled on a 3-point attempt and wound up sinking all three free throws.

At the banquet after that season, Jason received a plaque acknowledging
him as the most accurate free-throw shooter in school history.

"He ate that up," says Johnson.

After cutting Jason before the season, Johnson asked the young man to
stay on as manager and hinted that he might get an opportunity to suit
up for a game. Before the Athena home finale on Feb. 15, Johnson told
Spencerport coach Josh Harter that he might try to get "a special ed
kid" some playing time on Senior Night, and Harter was all for it.

Jason was so excited when Johnson motioned for him to enter the game
that the manager-turned-player had to be reminded to report to the
scorer’s table.

His varsity debut did not begin auspiciously. He tossed up an airball
from the corner on his first shot, then barely missed a running

"I groaned and put my head in my hands," Johnson recalls. "I said,
‘Please, God, let him score.’" The next time Athena brought the ball
down the floor, Johnson’s prayers were answered. Swish. Nothing but
net. The crowd went wild.

Little did anyone know that Jason was merely warming up.

"He turned into a machine," says reserve center Brian Benson, who was
on the floor for Jason’s heroics. "It wasn’t just one. It wasn’t just
two. It wasn’t just three … he was on fire."

And his teammates were only too pleased to keep feeding him the ball.

"We weren’t even looking to shoot," says McCutchen, who assisted on
five of Jason’s baskets. "Jason had sacrificed so much for us as a
manager. We wanted him to have a night where he could shine."

It should be noted that, unlike other publicized incidents involving
special-needs athletes playing varsity sports, Spencerport did not sit
back and allow Jason to score.

"They may not have been all over him on defense, but for the most part
they tried to keep him outside," says Devin DePoint, a junior forward
for Athena who also was out there during Jason’s scoring barrage. "The
bottom line is that he still had to put the ball through the basket
from beyond the arc."

DePoint says he could sense something special was unfolding as soon as they took the court for warm-ups.

"I knew he could shoot, but wow," he says. "We did whatever we could to
get him the ball. We knew it was his one chance. We wanted him to have
a good memory that he could carry for the rest of his life. We wanted
to make it something he would remember."

As he returns to his role as student manager, Jason will remember this
game, all right. And so will his teammates, his coaches and the student
cheering section that has embraced him.

"It just goes to show that if you keep working hard, good things will
happen to you," Benson says. "J-Mac works his butt off every day in
practice, every game. It was nice to see him get a night where he could
be a hero." His coaches, teammates and fans gave him a present, and he

"Those are four minutes," McCutchen says, "that I’ll never, ever
forget." Four minutes that one day may be immortalized by Disney.

1 comment:

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