It was a few months after the 2009--10 basketball season had ended, but Jason McElwain was raving about the 1-3-1 scheme that Bob Huggins used in taking West Virginia to the Final Four. "I love that defense," said McElwain. "If you're a long and athletic team, you can use it, and we're going to be long next year."
No, McElwain won't be taking a team of his own to the Final Four in 2011, but he is making a name for himself in coaching circles. He was recently promoted from junior varsity to varsity assistant at Greece (N.Y.) Athena High. He is in his fifth year of assisting coach Joe Tisa with the East Coast Fusion AAU program. He has also worked at the respected Snow Valley Basketball School in Waverly, Iowa. McElwain dreams of becoming a college basketball coach.
If you don't remember Jason McElwain's name, surely you remember his story. McElwain, who has autism, was a senior basketball manager at Athena in February 2006 when coach Jim Johnson sent him in for the first time in a varsity game. Four minutes and six three-pointers later "J-Mac" was a star. "It's amazing, going from being an ordinary kid to trying to inspire others," says the now 21-year-old.
In addition to his coaching duties, McElwain works three to four days a week at Wegman's Food Market and at an Italian restaurant on Saturdays. And while basketball is his love, he has coached middle school football and this past spring threw himself into his second season as an assistant for Athena's seventh-and-eighth-grade baseball team. "He's getting better at it every day," says head coach Bill Fedele, who also owns the restaurant, Red Fedele's Brookhouse, where McElwain works. "And the kids love him. He's kind of a celebrity around here."
He certainly is. He's appeared on Oprah. He has greeted Air Force One. He's won an ESPY Award. And, yes, Jason McElwain still signs autographs. ("Yesterday a young lady asked me for one.") In 2008 he published a memoir with writer Daniel Paisner, The Game of My Life: A True Story of Challenge, Triumph, and Growing Up Autistic. And for the past four years he has worked at the Indianapolis Colts' training camp, where he's become friendly with Peyton Manning and Adam Vinatieri. He also gives inspirational speeches at corporations and schools.
The young man who didn't speak until he was five years old has a message: Sometimes dreams do come true. "Hopefully it's brought more awareness of autism," says McElwain, "and inspired others that you don't give up."
One of the people he did inspire was new Boston College coach Steve Donahue, who was the coach at Cornell when he heard about McElwain. "My wife and I have a 12-year-old autistic son," says Donahue, "and when we saw that piece [on The Today Show], we were amazed at what a great story it was and how accepted J-Mac was by his teammates and the student body."
Donahue corresponded with Athena's Jim Johnson and often repeated McElwain's story to his Cornell team. Before the Big Red began its unlikely march to the Sweet 16 this year, Donahue invited Johnson and McElwain to attend the NCAA tournament selection show party at the school's gymnasium. Now, rarely a day goes by when Donahue and McElwain don't exchange text messages.
It started before the team's first-round match-up with Temple. "He knew their personnel," says Donahue. "I was watching game film and he was pretty much on the money with what we had to do to win the game." And before Cornell played Wisconsin in the second round? "J-Mac was very confident that we would get the open shots because, he said, 'no one in the Big Ten shoots like you.' He was right."
McElwain sent one last text before that Wisconsin game. "Remember, to be a champion, you have to dream the dream first," it read. "The last thing I said to the guys [before the game] was that J-Mac just texted me and said we've got to believe that we can do this," says Donahue. "Let's take his advice," he told his team. "Let's live this dream."
At Athena, McElwain is never afraid to approach Johnson for instruction and advice. "He's really gotten a better understanding of the X's and O's," says Johnson. "He's always throwing ideas at me."
McElwain gets his ideas from watching college and NBA games on television, breaking down game film and working at basketball camps. "There's a lot more about basketball that I have to learn," he says. Spoken like a true student of the game.
Photograph by DAVID BERGMAN
LIFE'S A BALL Though hoops remains his first love, McElwain has thrown himself into coaching baseball at Athena, where he's clearly a hit with his players.
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