Beliefnet
Jason McElwain, or J-Mac, is an autistic young man from the Rochester, NY area, who captured the nation's heart in 2006 when he scored 20 points in four minutes during the last home basketball game of the season at his high school, Greece Athena. McElwain was a finalist for Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person of the Year Award that year. The following is an excerpt from the new book, "The Game of My Life: A True Story of Challenge, Triumph, and Growing Up Autistic," by Jason "J-Mac" McElwain with Daniel Paisner. Used with permission of New American Library.



For the seventeen years leading up to this one night, Jason McElwain wasn't looking to stand out so much as to fit in. He was thinking big, but he wasn't thinking about winning championships. All he wanted, really, was to be in the running, to be going through the same motions as the other kids his age, to be a part of something that was bigger than himself. He could not articulate these things, but that didn't make them any less meaningful.
 
And yet what he couldn't say he could somehow accomplish. He had gotten past a childhood diagnosis of severe autism to where he could function at a moderate level. He could get himself to and from school, follow directions, interact appropriately with his teachers and peers, and focus on simple tasks at hand. He could let himself into an empty house at the end of his school day and complete a few simple chores before his mother came home from work. He could read at about the fourth-grade level. He wasn't "mainstreamed" in any kind of traditional sense, but he took gym and sometimes music with the other kids, beginning in elementary school. By his senior year of high school, he took shop and auto mechanics at Greece Athena as well.
 
Most important, he had friends. Sure, he was sometimes the object of various taunts and pranks. Once, a few of the players tried to stuff him into a gym locker, but that wasn't so bad, Jason said. Another time, they hid his jacket and some of his things, but the guys were just kidding around. On still another occasion, they encouraged him to hide beneath the bottom bench step of the gymnasium bleachers, so that they could close him up inside. They did this as a joke, with Jason happy to be included in the prank, but then they turned off the lights to the gym and allowed Jason to think he had been abandoned there, stuck in the folds of the wooden bleachers.
 
Gradually, Jason learned to distinguish the good-natured teasing from the cruelty and fit himself into the elaborate social network of Greece Athena High School. He went from being a tagalong kid whose constant presence was grudgingly accepted by his older brother's friends to someone able to pursue appropriate social relationships on his own. He went from being the butt of these school-yard jokes to being in on them. At the end of his senior year, he had over a hundred numbers stored in his cell phone directory—about a hundred more than his mother could have imagined.
 
Along the way, his interest in sports had continued. As a freshman, he went out for the cross-country team, with the stipulation that the coach would make sure there was someone to help him tie his shoes before practices and meets. As a five-foot six-inch sophomore, he tried out for the junior varsity basketball team, and when he didn't make the cut the coach asked him to stay on as team manager. His mother pushed hard for his. She actually called the coach and told him what it would mean. She didn't care that Jason wouldn't play in a single game. She just wanted him to feel a part of something that was important to him, to have something to look forward to at the end of each school day, to find an outlet for his obsession.

Jason thrived in this role. He took his job as team manager seriously. He dressed in shorts and sneakers for practice and wore a shirt and tie for games. He collected rebounds during free throw drills. He helped run the clock. He filled the team water bottles before each game, and passed out towels to players as they came off the court for a breather. He even got into a game. This was a surprise. It was the last game of the season, the junior varsity version of Senior Night. Coach Jeff Amoroso had handed him a uniform the night before. The coach had told Jason he would try to let him play, but Debbie McElwain warned her son not to get his hopes up. She hated to see him disappointed, but Coach Amoroso kept his word. With just under two minutes to go in the game and his team up 48-35 against Irondequoit, Jason McElwain crossed from the bench to the scorer's table. The Greece Athena gymnasium was starting to fill for the varsity game that would follow, and the crowd went a little crazy when Jason stepped onto the floor. He was such a joyful, animated, outgoing presence at games, cheering on his teammates, that he was impossible to miss. He was almost like the team mascot. Everybody wanted to see him do well.
 
A collection of thirty of so students sat in a special cheering section in the corner of the gym, beneath a banner marked "The 6th Man," and they led the crowd in a rhythmic chant: "J-Mac!" Clap, clap. "J-Mac" Clap, clap. It was a nicknamed borrowed from Syracuse University's Gerry McNamara, who was known to die-hard college hoops fans throughout upstate New York as G-Mac. Coach Johnson pinned the name on Jason one afternoon at a summer basketball clinic. He figured if Syracuse would have a G-Mac, Greece could have a J-Mac. Soon Jason was calling himself J-Mac as well. He did this without the bluster of professional athletes, like Allen Iverson, who referred to themselves by their nicknames ("I am the Answer!"), but with the charm and innocence of a kid who was merely thrilled to have a nickname.
 
With about forty seconds left on the clock, Jason took the ball at the top of the key. He was the smallest kid on the court, his uniform about two sizes too big, and yet you looked on and just knew Jason would attempt a three. That's one of the things about autism. Those who suffer from it are typically fearless, and unable to anticipate any downside to any action, and that certainly described Jason McElwain on the basketball court. There was a swagger to his movement, a confidence that came from picturing himself in just this spot, over and over in his head. He was Gerry McNamara, Kobe Bryant, and John Wallace, all rolled into one, A lot of kids, you put them out there in that kind of situation, they'd be too timid to take the ball to the basket or attempt at outside shot, but not Jason. He's lived this moment in his driveway, so there was every reason to be confident. There was no downside. The first time he touched the ball, he dished it off to a teammate, but he followed his pass and called for the ball. As soon as he got it, he fired up a three-point shot. It fell short of the rim, but the defender had brushed up against Jason as he was releasing the ball and was called for a foul.
 
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