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Jason McElwain Still Courting Success

Jan 27, 2010 – 3:00 PM
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Clay Travis

Clay Travis %BloggerTitle%

Jason McElwainGREECE, N.Y. -- It's a winter morning in Rochester, N.Y. Dirty, ice-caked snow rests up against the side of cracked concrete sidewalks. Old buildings, once bustling, are silent, as dim sunlight spills over the windy roads that lead from downtown, 15 miles west, to the suburban town of Greece. It was here, almost four years ago, that a young, autistic basketball player named Jason McElwain, then a senior manager, stepped off the bench and into celebrity.

Then, as so often happens, the attention faded.

Now, it's morning in Greece and outside his home an old basketball hoop where Jason learned to shoot, chipped black paint on the pole revealing the rust underneath, rises into the clear blue sky. The hoop is weathered, the lower left part of the backboard chipped away, and there is no longer any color at all on the backboard, it's faded white, the paint rubbed off from overuse.

Pass the hoop and a two-car garage rises alongside a brick house with a blue-paneled second story. Inside the house a sock-footed Jason McElwain, who as a senior hit six 3-pointers in a little over four minutes, stands with a cantaloupe in hand. "Hi," he says, "I'm eating breakfast."

It has been four years since Jason, "My friends call me J-Mac," won an ESPY and was transported in an instant from a sleepy suburban town to the center of the sports universe. From anonymity to hanging alongside Kobe, LeBron, Shaq and Derek Jeter and back. Now J-Mac is a volunteer assistant coach for the Greece-Athena Junior Varsity sitting in his parents' quiet living room.

"We're 9-2," he says, "but last year we only lost one game."

The team has won two overtime games, "In both of them we were down four with 12 seconds to go," J-Mac says. He's taller than you expect, over six feet, rail thin, with a buzzed haircut. He's sitting in a brown recliner surrounded by the wood-paneled living room walls.

His feet, antsy on the cream carpet, bounce up and down. He's ready to ride to the gym with his father, David, who will drive since J-Mac can't, for morning practice.

"I think he could probably drive," his mom says, "but he gets distracted. He's always on his phone. People call me and say, 'J-Mac wasn't paying attention while he was riding his bike.'"

J-Mac is the second of David and Debbie's two children. Josh, J-Mac's older brother, is 16 months older. Despite their close age, J-Mac was different than his older brother -- for five years he didn't speak.

Then came sports. J-Mac followed his older brother everywhere. Eventually, he started to play basketball too. And he fell in love with the sport.

The old basketball hoop outside had an adjustable height. "We started at six feet," says David, standing over 6-foot-4 and also thin. "As soon as they were tall enough they would dunk on it all the time, hang on the rim."

"He moved it higher with a broom stick," says J-Mac.

"Every boy in the neighborhood came over and played. We were lucky then, all the boys were the same age. Now it's different, but then ..."

Debbie, a short-haired woman who works as a dental hygienist, nods, "So much mud in the spring," she says, "the tracking."

Slowly, as sports suffused his life, J-Mac emerged from his shell.

"Do you know about autism?" Debbie asks.

"No," I say.

"He won't look at you when you talk to him, that's one of the signs," she says.

"I look," says J-Mac.

"You're better," she says. "Jason is a high-functioning autistic."

Jason McElwain at work

J-Mac works at Wegmans, a grocery store chain, a little over a mile from his home. He works in the produce department and specializes in making sure that the breads are stocked adequately.

"You've got to watch them," he says, "some days sourdough is popular."

He's been working at Wegmans for 3 1/2 years.

"How often do you work there?" I ask.

"Not enough," says Debbie, "he needs to work 20 hours to get benefits."

Currently, J-Mac works 14-16 hours. But his dream is to be a high-school basketball coach.

He's proud of the job. "Wegmans is a great place," he says. Occasionally, says his manager Peggy Allen, Jason sings the only song he knows ... "Sweet Caroline."

"He's an awful singer," Peggy Allen will say later.

Slowly, the talk turns to the February night when J-Mac, student manager for the basketball team, suited up and entered the final home game of the season.

"We had a huge snowstorm the night before, it was a Wednesday," David says.

The parents watched their son's performance from the crowd, jaws agape, as J-Mac rained in basket after basket. Entering the game with just over four minutes remaining, J-Mac, channeling his inner Pete Maravich, would take 13 shots, hitting six 3s and one two-point basket, en route to a team-high 20 points.

Greece-Athena head basketball coach Jim Johnson says the most remarkable thing of all was this fact, "No one told the kids to get J the ball or told them not to shoot. They did it all on their own."

Coach Johnson pauses for a moment, grins. "I tell J-Mac we're still looking for his first assist."

On Friday after the game, the local CBS affiliate ran J-Mac's story, featuring game footage shot from inside the gym. By Sunday, the national CBS reporters were in Greece-Athena and when the story ran on CBS' national news, the onslaught was officially on.

So many calls arrived for Debbie at the dentist's office that eventually Dr. Spinelli, seeing how overwhelmed his hygienist was, instituted a rule. "Unless it's the president or Oprah," he said, "she doesn't talk to them."

Shortly thereafter Oprah and the president called.


Downstairs in the family basement are J-Mac's treasures. His silver ESPY trophy, and a wallboard filled with pictures. There's J-Mac with Peyton Manning. The Colts quarterback invited him to preseason camp, and for the past four seasons J-Mac has worked the event, living in the dorms alongside the team at Rose-Hulman college.

"Peyton's really serious," says J-Mac in his husky voice.

"Every year in fantasy football he has to have Peyton and Adam Vinatieri," David says. "Every year."

Last year as soon as he drafted Vinatieri, J-Mac texted the Colts kicker to let him know about the draft. Vinatieri texted J-Mac back immediately and the other drafters swooned.

"He said, 'Good,'" says J-Mac.

As part of his duties with the Colts, J-Mac is not supposed to travel, but that doesn't mean he's not willing to pull a fast one on his parents.

As David and Debbie sat down to watch the Hall of Fame game to look for Jason on the sideline, Debbie suddenly sprang from her seat. "This game's from Ohio," she said, "he didn't tell me he was traveling outside the state."

"No big deal," deadpans J-Mac.

J-Mac and his dad travel to one Colts game every season, and a couple of weeks ago they went to Buffalo and stood on the sideline in the snow. The Colts, resting their starters for much of the game, lost.

"It was freezing," says David.

"It wasn't that cold," says J-Mac.

Back in the basement a collage of photos of J-Mac with athletes of every shape and size cover the wallboard in front of him. But also, J-Mac with President George W. Bush and Oprah, J-Mac with Jessica Simpson and the Olsen twins. Now, four years later, he's unimpressed as a visitor looks over his pictures.

"Dad," he says, "can we get to the practice?"

"Look at this," says David, handing me a binder from a Gatorade commercial shoot. J-Mac and his father traveled to Orlando to film the "What's G?" ad. Just before they arrived, Tiger Woods filmed his commercial.

"Nice guy," says David, "but he didn't have a lot to say."

"Dad, can we go now?" asks J-Mac, clutching his red basketball shoes, with the inscription "RIP Tom Batzold" on the right sneaker. Batzold, previously a sports editor for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, died suddenly last season.

"He was a really good guy," J-Mac says later.

J-Mac climbs the basement stairs, ready to leave for practice.

David continues to speak, "Gilbert Arenas called and asked for one of J-Mac's jerseys. But we only had one. I guess Gilbert collects jerseys. So I had them make a new one and we sent it to him."

Arenas returned the favor and signed a jersey for J-Mac.

David is silent as we climb the stairs. Finally, he speaks. "That story was better before the guns," he says.


Jason and players

The Greece-Athena junior varsity practice is in full flow by the time we arrive. Immediately J-Mac (above), wearing a white T-shirt, black basketball shorts, and a long, dangling whistle around his neck begins to stalk the sideline.

Mike Setzer, chemistry teacher, and Greece-Athena junior varsity coach, welcomes him.

"What's up J?" he asks. "Ready to coach?"

J-Mac blows his hands, the gym is cold because the heat is turned off on weekends. Gold and black pads, alternating colored stripes, ring the small gym. A large divider is down to close off one side of the court, the other sideline runs into a red line, and then, almost immediately, the folded-up bleachers.

(Editor's Note: The following is video of Jason coaching. More video can be found at the bottom of the page.)

It is a not a set-up that encourages diving saves.

Every week before the Trojans' games, J-Mac gives a speech to the team to fire them up. He finds the speeches on the internet and so far this season he's given speeches by Tony Dungy, Billy Donovan, and Jim Caldwell. Asked what J-Mac brings to the team, sophomore Jordan Vacca says, "Lots of intensity." Fellow sophomore Brian Lotempio nods, "He's real intense."

On the court, J-Mac sees a missed lay-up and exclaims, "You're making me an old man."

Junior center Lou Colon is not buying it, "J. you just turned 21, how are you an old man?"

Throughout practice, J-Mac is a whirling dervish, offering instruction critique and fiery talk. "They say I'm like Bobby Knight," he says.

J-Mac tosses no chairs, and near the end of practice comes his chance to shine as a coach, the JV team is divided up, black and gold, and J-Mac gets to coach the black team.

The teams begin the game tied at 60, a nod to the difficulty of adjusting the scoring clock to zero, and with a two-minute clock, stopping on fouls just like a real game, J-Mac's team falls behind 68-66 with just a minute remaining.

J-Mac takes his first timeout. "No need to rush," he instructs his team, "we've got plenty of time."

But the black team falls behind 71-68 on a made basket. The black team runs their offense and finds a wide-open player for 3.

On the sideline, every muscle in J-Mac's body tenses as the ball arcs through the air.

A tie game is nigh.

But the ball clangs off the rim and ricochets out of bounds with 18 seconds remaining in the game.

J-Mac groans, sprints down the sideline, screaming, "Timeout!"

His timeout is granted and his team gathers. "Trap, then foul," he says. "Don't worry, that was a good look."

As the game begins anew, J-Mac is questioning his strategy. "I took the timeout too early," he says to himself.

The Black team will not rally and the Gold team wins, 73-68.

"The kid eats and sleeps basketball," Coach Setzer says as J-Mac offers instruction to a player shooting free throws. "Eats and sleeps it."


Over lunch at a local diner, J-Mac is talking about the upcoming New York Jets-Indianapolis Colts playoff game.

"There are lots of Jet fans here," he says, eating a huge bowl of beets.

Earlier, at Wegman's some of J-Mac's coworkers teased him with a "Go Jets" cheer.

"When did you start eating beets?" asks David.

"I love beets," J-Mac says, "and the Colts should win."

"You just think that because you worked there," his dad teases.

J-Mac denies it. "I did work hard, though. I'd spot Dwight Freeney in the weight room."

"You spotted Dwight Freeney?" David McElwain asks, incredulous. "With 400 pounds? How?"

"He doesn't do 400," says J-Mac. "Low weights, high rep."

J-Mac is on to a grilled cheese sandwich, the same meal that he has before every JV game. He bikes to the diner, a short distance from his home. He's superstitious, doesn't want to change his routine.

It's Saturday, sunny in Rochester for the first time in months, and J-Mac will be heading to the YMCA soon to play basketball for the next several hours. He plays almost every day.

How much different would J-Mac's life be if he'd never stepped on that court and made those six 3s?

"Probably not a lot different," his dad says. "Which is fine. He's happy."

J-Mac, the coach-in-waiting, is less interested in reflection, "I took that timeout way too early," he says, "way too early."

He shakes his head.

"Gotta learn," he says, "gotta keep learning."

(All photos and video shot by Clay Travis and FanHouse.)
Filed under: Sports