воскресенье, 3 марта 2013 г.

The J-Mac Attack

By Jim Johnson with Mike Latona

Some pursue happiness. Others create it.
~Ann Landers

All the students in the bleachers rose to their feet, cheering wildly and jumping up and down. All I could do was sit down and start crying.

Never had I felt such emotion in my career. It wasn't a buzzer-beating basket; it wasn't a heave from half court; in fact, it wasn't even a play. All I had done was turn toward the player with uniform number 52, point my index finger at him, and say "J-Mac."

Up bounced seventeen-year-old Jason McElwain. My team manager's dream finally came true on February 15, 2006, the last home game of his senior year. Jason — or J-Mac, a tag I had hung on him early in his sophomore year — was about to see his first varsity action ever.

He was small, skinny, autistic, and learning-disabled. He'd been cut three straight years from his teams. But he lived and breathed basketball, and was so dedicated that I had planned for months to give him a special treat on Senior Night — suiting him up in uniform, and perhaps even finding him some playing time.

Jason had taken substantial grief over the years because of his disability. Go to any high school and the kid who's a little different gets singled out for ridicule. In Jason's case, he was an easy target with his unusually loud voice, tendency to laugh at inappropriate times, and habit of repeating things he heard other people say.

Basketball was his salvation, a constant bright light. It kept him enthusiastic and filled his mind with pleasant thoughts. He was a bona fide hoops junkie — loved watching the game on television, loved Kobe Bryant, memorized Final Four rosters, scouted our high school opponents, you name it. Above all, he burned with passion for Greece Athena, the high school for which I'm head coach and he proudly served as manager. I saw how, gradually, the kids on the team started to develop an appreciation for Jason's infectious attitude. As much as some of his autistic tendencies would drive them nuts, he was one of us.

I held to my promise and gave Jason his uniform for our regular-season finale against Spencerport. We moved out to a big lead in that game, and with just over four minutes remaining I felt, "I think it's the right time now." All the players started clapping for Jason as he checked in, and shrieking fans began furiously waving placards with blown-up photos of J-Mac attached. Some students also held oversized letters, forming a row to spell "J M A C." That just blew me away. I got so choked up that I had to sit down, even though I never sit down during games.

Jason's varsity career began with an air-ball and missed short jumper. All I could do was put my head in my hands and say "Please God, let him make just one basket."

Fortunately, God is a basketball fan.

It began with Jason rattling home a three-point basket, creating complete bedlam. From there he went on a hot streak beyond imagination, unless you've seen the game video that's still available on the Internet.

With his teammates looking to feed him the ball at every opportunity, Jason launched thirteen shots in all and made seven — including six three-pointers. That's twenty points in half a quarter, making him the game's high scorer as we won 79-43.

I remember very little about those crazy moments because I was in too much shock. I do recall that in the game's final seconds, Jason's mother, Debbie, came up to me with tears in her eyes, gave me a kiss and thanked me for giving her son this opportunity.

For a grand finale, J-Mac swished in his last shot at the buzzer from NBA range. Then he was mobbed by hundreds of joyous teammates and fans who stormed our court, hoisting him on their shoulders.

News of his feat spread like wildfire and, before you knew it, Jason and I were being pelted with countless media requests and movie offers. It was almost a bit of a side note that our Greece Athena team went on to win the Section Five championship, the first in my twenty-five-year coaching career.

Since then J-Mac and I have made numerous radio and TV appearances, my public-speaking schedule continues to take me all over the country, and a major motion picture is in the works on Jason's life. We've both met celebrities ranging from President Bush to Oprah Winfrey. Some of the top figures in sports — from Billy Donovan to John Calipari, from Dick Vitale to Jim Nantz — have told me how awed and moved they were by J-Mac's accomplishment. In fact, Coach Donovan predicts that thirty years from now, the general public will remember that better than his University of Florida teams having won back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.

I've especially enjoyed feedback from strangers — the hundreds and hundreds of letters, e-mails and phone calls with heartwarming messages. Many have come from folks who have a loved one affected by autism or some other disability, saying how the J-Mac story provided such a vital dose of hope.

I've retold the story probably thousands of times by now, and don't think I'll ever get tired of it. I just feel like I was so blessed to be a part of something that special, that powerful. It almost defies being put into perspective.

Maybe the best way is to view it as a part of God's plan. I absolutely believe this was a miracle — maybe not like Moses parting the Red Sea, but God was definitely smiling on us. You wonder why terrible things happen like September eleventh and Hurricane Katrina. I think God's message with J-Mac is that he just wanted to give people a breath of hope.

There's also a strong message in there about goal-setting and perseverance. What people don't realize is how hard Jason worked for that one opportunity, all the hours and hours he spent working on his game.

Finally, this tale offers a huge life lesson about teamwork. Consider that on his big night J-Mac's teammates kept feeding him the ball, even though I hadn't instructed them to do so. Meanwhile, Jason will tell you to this day that his top thrill was not scoring twenty points in a game, but that our team won a sectional title.

I had always thought winning sectionals would be my own end of the rainbow. But now, it will always be the evening that J-Mac made history. Knowing I played a part in somebody's dream coming true — that's about the most satisfying accomplishment I could ever imagine.

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