J-Mac's story still resonates 10 years later

Sal Maiorana, Democrat and Chronicle, February 15, 2016

On the five-year anniversary of the night when Jason McElwain became a worldwide phenomenon, he stood in a hallway outside the gym at Greece Athena High School and reflectively told me, “It’s amazing how time really flies.”

Time is still flying, yet what J-Mac did that night — now a nearly unfathomable 10 years ago as of Monday — remains burned in his memory, right where it always will be.

The sights and sounds, the emotions and the excitement, it’s all as vivid as, well, “as if it was yesterday,” McElwain said the other day when we sat down prior to an awards banquet where he and retiring Athena boys’ basketball coach Jim Johnson were being honored by the local organization AutismUp.

Ten years. How can it be? The high functioning autistic kid who set the sports world aflame when he scored 20 points in less than four somewhat miraculous minutes is now 27 years old.

Twenty-seven.

He still works at Wegmans, still spends many of his days and nights at Athena in his role as an assistant hoops coach under Johnson, and still lights up a room with his infectious enthusiasm.

And yes, his story still resonates because it remains not only one of the coolest sports achievements you’ll ever come across, but also one of enduring inspiration that has probably helped countless people — children and adults — realize that anything is possible, no matter what the odds or obstacles.

You know the story, but to recap: J-Mac had been dutifully serving as Athena’s team manager for three years, and as a way to honor him for his hard work and dedication, Johnson hatched a plan. He gave him a uniform to wear (No. 52, which is now retired alongside the jersey of former Syracuse and NBA star John Wallace’s No. 44) for the Trojans’ final regular-season home game against Spencerport on Feb. 15, 2006.

Johnson told J-Mac if the opportunity arose, he’d send him in. Sure enough, with Athena comfortably in front, J-Mac trotted onto the court, and his life, as well as Johnson’s, has never been the same.

The gym was completely packed in excited anticipation because word had spread around school that day of what Johnson was going to try to do. Many of the students were armed with placards with a picture of J-Mac’s face, and they leapt to their feet and waved them when he entered the game. They could not have possibly foreseen what was about to happen.

If it was a motion picture or made-for-TV special, you might have thought it was all too much, but J-Mac, then just 5-foot-7 and 120 pounds and wearing a white headband, proceeded to make six three-point baskets and one two-pointer, 20 points in all, and it was captured on video — thankfully — by a student in the stands.

There are probably Hollywood movies that haven’t been viewed on Netflix as often as that video has been replayed, be it on local and/or national television, YouTube, at various sports banquets, or on social media. For all we know, J-Mac may have invented viral video.

“People play the video on Facebook, I go to events and they play it, so it’s unbelievable that people are still talking about it 10 years later,” said McElwain, who watched it yet again at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center last week when keynote speaker Roy Firestone played it during the AutismUp awards luncheon. “The fans, the way the benches were up and down, the way (coach) Josh Harter and that Spencerport team were great sports that night, it was a perfect storm.”

The storm was just beginning. In the days and weeks after that night, J-Mac was hotter than a pistol, to borrow the catch phrase he always uses to describe his performance whenever asked to talk about it.

J-Mac made appearances on Today, Good Morning America, Oprah, and Larry King; he won an ESPY from ESPN for the best sports moment of 2006; a book was written by a New York Times writer; Johnson wrote his own book a few years later; and Magic Johnson expressed interest in producing a movie about J-Mac’s life, though that never came to fruition.

He has hung out with superstar athletes, most notably Peyton Manning who in 2006 was honored by the Rochester Press-Radio Club and met J-Mac a few months after his big game. Manning invited J-Mac to come to Indianapolis for a couple days during the Colts training camp that summer, and a friendship was born.

Even President Bush took time out of his schedule to meet J-Mac before a speaking engagement in Canandaigua. “Our country was captivated by your amazing story on the basketball court,” Bush told him. “I think it's a story of  coach Johnson's willingness to give a person a chance. It's a story of (Jason’s parents) Dave and Debbie's deep love for their son, and it's a story of a young man who found his touch on the basketball court, which in turn, touched the hearts of citizens all across the country.”

Things have certainly settled down since, and J-Mac has gone about living his life and challenging himself in new ways. He still hopes to someday be a head basketball coach, and his new passion is marathon running. He will compete in his third Boston Marathon in April. But for the most part, he’s still J-Mac.

“It’s been a remarkable run looking back on the last 10 years, I’ve had wonderful opportunities,” he said. “I had great teammates in basketball and in cross country; nobody really knew about that (that he was on the cross country team for five years). I played for a legend and got to coach with a legend.”

That would be Johnson, the “mayor of Greece Athena” as J-Mac calls him. After 35 years of teaching and coaching, Johnson is calling it quits following this season. The Trojans have won three straight Section V championships and six in the past 10 years, but this season they have a chance to take it up a notch; they are No. 1 in the state in Class A and hope to send Johnson off into the sunset with his first state crown.

Of course, this run of dominance all began in 2006, three weeks after J-Mac’s breakout performance, and this is not lost on Johnson. Something magical happened on the court that night, but more important to Johnson is the bond he will forever share with his former team manager.

“I do a lot of speaking and I kind of relive it all the time, but it’s hard to believe it has been 10 years,” Johnson said. “The neat thing is we were pretty close when he was our manager, and I’m proud that we’ve been able to grow that in the years since. He has been like a second son to me, without question.”