J-MAC and the Miracle: Everything Sport Should Be

The story of Jason McElwain is going to be a legendary one in American sport. (Legends don’t take as long to build as they used to, nor do they have the same staying power as they once did. So call it a fast-food legend if you must, but don’t miss the story.) The video of the CBS News piece is making the Internet rounds, cheek by jowl with a million profoundly unworthy things. But the “Miracle at Greece Athena High” (miracles may not be what they used to be, either) will receive and deserve a gazillion downloads, because so much of the best of sport is there. So much of the best in life is there.

It happened in February. An upstate New York high school was playing its final home basketball game of the season, a traditional night to honour the graduating players. This is school sport taken seriously and done well. As someone who coached high school hoops for nearly 20 years, the signs are clear in the video, which incorporates large chunks of locally shot game film. It’s a gorgeous gymnasium, full of many hundreds of enthusiastic and knowledgeable fans. Shots of practice make it clear that this is a well-organized, sweat-soaked, excellence-in-education approach to sport. And in the middle of that practice is a slender blonde boy, the team’s manager but obviously much more. His name is Jason.

If you don’t yet know Jason’s story, and especially if you do, here is the condensed version. Autistic boy loves basketball. Coach makes him varsity manager – water, rebounding for practice drills – but doesn’t count on fierce enthusiasm and dedication. Gives Jason a uniform for final home game, hopes to get him in for a minute or two. Gets him nearly four minutes, his team being comfortably ahead. Teammates pass to Jason. He misses badly. And again. And then he hits one, a long three-point heave, and the home team and its fans are wild with excitement. Jason scored! And then he hits FIVE MORE THREES, finishing with 20 points and a perch on the shoulders of a surging hometown crowd that has rushed the floor. Within days, it is a national event, a hopeful, deeply human story and an American dream come true.

And, like every media-celebrated good thing, there are some worrisome elements. Jason McElwain not only had his shining moment on the hometown stage after working in the wings, but now he’s a national, even an international flavour of the week. Apparently a movie deal is in the works. (Shudder.) Beyond the genuine joy that so many feel in his startling accomplishment, there is a real smell of kitsch and opportunism, not only in the media’s ravenous (and brief) glare but also in the indirect aren’t we altogether wonderful? glow of public self-congratulation. There were, no doubt, students among the cheering throng who had previously shunned or harassed this odd boy in school hallways. Too, there is a tendency to dredge up the old “anything is possible in America” mantra and ignore how difficult it is for special-needs kids and their families. It’s worth remembering that this nearly incredible incident does not change how difficult it is for the mentally ill, for the excluded of all kinds, for the poor in a country where it is notoriously painful for those who “don’t make the team” in one respect or another.

That’s enough of the dark side. (But don’t forget it’s there.) I didn’t think about any of those things when I first saw the video, or the fourth time. I got tight in the throat. I watered my cheeks. Understand: I am a True Believer in the beauty and beneficence of sport, and I don’t expect to ever mature enough that I would fail to be moved by athletics at its purest and best. What’s more, I’ve spent thousands of hours on high school courts (almost) like that one. I live there still. So when I saw Jason lighting up his home gym, I enjoyed the Underdog Makes Good theme, like most other people, but there was much more.

That evening encapsulated everything I always wanted high school basketball to be. There was the coach, Jim Johnson, obviously a skilled and dedicated one but also somebody who saw in his sport an unusual chance to do some good for the kind of boy that would never make one of his teams. I don’t know how long Jason has been Johnson’s manager, but his ability to deliver the pre-practice pep talk suggests that he’s been observing Coach Johnson carefully. For an autistic kid to have a coach’s trust and the players’ ears speaks to a long relationship. However many times Jason had been picked on in school, my guess is that this had come to an end once he was adopted by Johnson and the school’s alpha-male athletes. And let’s not forget what else the “miracle”, as told in four minutes, underplays: the old jock adage that “the harder I work, the luckier I get!” Jason had to have used his time in the gym to shoot thousands of shots, whenever his duties allowed him the chance.

There was also a school community that was well aware of Jason’s contributions, and loved him for them before he ever hit the floor that night. In the video, when Coach Johnson signals for his erstwhile manager to enter the game, the crowd is already roaring and his teammates are clapping as he heads for the scorer’s table. The starting players, on the bench by now, rise as one for Jason’s first (missed) shot, and they leap for genuine joy when he hits that first one. Each successive bomb finds these talented young men jumping and cheering deliriously for their “little buddy”, their good-luck charm, their teammate. The Trojan fans’ united ecstasy over “J-MAC” and his miracle run had been preceded by his having earned their respect and admiration; some had come to the game with Jason’s face on a mini-poster, sort of a personalized table tennis paddle. Finally, few have remarked on the opponent on that magic night. I was sure on first seeing the video, and had it confirmed in a later interview given by Mr. Johnson, that he had spoken to the other coach about the possibility of Jason playing. Jason’s big night could not have happened the way it did without the respectful stance of the opponents – not that they “let” him score (6 for 7 from three-point land is hard for a good player shooting in an empty gym), but that they honoured his opportunity to play. That’s great coaching on both sides of the centre stripe.

Who knows what awaited Greece-Athena High School in its playoff run? You’d have to be living there to care much. But for me, the pinnacle of sport had already been reached in the joyful friendship, the respectful regard, and the widespread spirit of hopefulness and wonder that are still rippling outward from one local high school.