It's the sweetest sound in sports, the unmistakable swish of a basketball, arched just so with the proper amount of backspin as it passes through the center of a hoop without even glancing either side of the iron rim. It's the sound of temporary perfection, of the body and mind working in concert to create a harmony that resonates both audibly and visually with those lucky enough to witness it.
It is quite possible that the single greatest example of the beauty and power of the swish came on the evening of Feb. 15, 2006. It was that night that the boys' basketball team from Rochester-area Greece Athena High School was playing rival Spencerport with a division title on the line.
Greece coach Jim Johnson had agreed to get team manager Jason McElwain, J-Mac to his friends, into the game at some point. McElwain, a highly functioning autistic basketball junkie, was a senior, and the Spencerport game was his last chance to know the feeling of checking into a real game and running the court with his teammates.
Johnson waited until there were just five minutes left in the game and his team holding a comfortable lead before giving into the chants of the crowd to get J-Mac on the hardwood. What happened over those next five minutes was magical in a way that is rarely seen outside of a Hollywood script.
J-Mac entered the game and put up a 3-pointer that was a wild air ball. The next trip down the court his teammates fed him the ball again, just wanting him to get a hoop and make the score sheet, and J-Mac missed a lay-up. Cue the magic.
The next possession, J-Mac launched a 3-pointer from the right corner of the court -- swish!
The crowd, along with McElwain's teammates, went ballistic. J-Mac was just getting warmed up, or as he put it, "I got hotter than a pistol."
Boy, did he ever.
In the next four minutes, J-Mac hit five more 3-pointers and a sixth shot that was deemed a 2 because his foot was on the line. The gym rang out with a chorus of swishes that worked the over-flowing crowd into a frenzy.
When all was said and done, J-Mac had put up an unheard-of 20 points in five minutes -- a clip that LeBron and Dirk only dream of achieving. He'd hit a school record, tying six 3-pointers, and the exhilarated crowd stormed the court and carried him off on their shoulders.
J-Mac recalled that special night recently to the delight of an enthusiastic gathering at Niagara Falls High School. The 3-point king was in town at the request of NFHS teacher and basketball coach Mike Esposito. Esposito met McElwain a few years back, and the two have attended some prestigious and intensive basketball camps while bonding as friends over their shared love of the game of roundball.
For me, the opportunity to spend a bit of time in the company of J-Mac was a real thrill. In fact, there is no one in professional or amateur sports that I would rather have met than the young man who did such a fine job of entertaining and enlightening the crowd of students and adults at NFHS that day.
My son, Ryan, is 9 years old. Like J-Mac, he loves basketball. Also like J-Mac, Ryan is a highly functioning autistic.
When J-Mac's story first hit nationally, I cried like a baby when I heard what he'd accomplished. For me, and I am sure I speak for millions of other parents with autistic kids, his 3-point explosion was just one small aspect of what J-Mac represented.
Autism is a maddening condition, maybe more for the families of people afflicted than for the kids themselves. When Ryan was younger, I just prayed that he would have the chance for a "normal" life. I wanted him to be able to make a friend, play with other kids, have independence, and one day fall in love with a girl who would make his heart sing.
Those aren't easy accomplishments for people with autism. Many will never experience even one of those things, let alone all of them. J-Mac's story gave me hope that Ryan could achieve his dreams in life too.
Ryan's mother and I made the decision early on that we were not going to assume any limitations for him. We caught the break of a lifetime when he was accepted into Summit Academy. Located in Getzville, Summit serves all Western New York's school districts and offers a classroom experience for kids with autism and other learning disorders that is unparalleled across the nation.
The amazing staff at Summit works on a kid's behaviors, along with offering traditional classroom work. In Ryan's case, the change in his behaviors and abilities has been astounding.
One of the biggest fears that parents of autistic kids have is how their child will find a way to fit in with other kids. What got me most about J-Mac's story was how beloved he was by his classmates and teachers. Even before he got into that game and made history, the crowd was there, holding up signs with his likeness and name, exhorting Coach Johnson to put their friend into the game.
I'm crying just typing these words now. My tears are born of a thousand stares from strangers, stares that come when my son and I are in public and he makes a noise or a gesture that strays outside the norm.
There was a time when those stares, that silent disapproval, bothered me. J-Mac helped reassure me that we were right in our decision to treat Ryan like any other kid, to push him to be his best and achieve all he can in this lifetime. Just recently, my son has begun talking with far more frequency. He's exceeding all the goals laid out for him by his excellent teaching staff, and I hold out high hopes that he will someday follow in J-Mac's footsteps and transition into a regular high school.
As for J-Mac, his post record-breaking scoring explosion has padded his resume with enough highlights to represent 10 lifetimes. He appeared on a host of national news shows. He went on "Oprah," which he jokingly told the NFHS crowd, "thrilled my mother, but I failed to see what the big deal was."
He hung out with Peyton Manning and appeared in a Gatorade commercial. J-Mac also won an ESPY award, beating out Kobe Bryant for "Best Moment in Sports for 2006." He had a bobblehead doll made in his honor, co-wrote a best-selling book, and currently has a biopic, being executive co-produced by Magic Johnson, in preproduction.
Oh, and then-president Bush swung by in Air Force One to greet J-Mac personally.
"He asked me if he could call me J-Mac," McElwain said, before deadpanning, "I said, 'Sure, can I call you 'W'?"
J-Mac was asked what advice he would have for anyone facing adversity. His answer was simple, but spot-on:
"I'd tell them to never give up," he said. "Whatever they do, never give up."
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||May 31, 2011|