A moment seized motivates: YouTube basketball sensation to speak at autism fundraiserFour minutes, 19 seconds is not a lot of time, but that is exactly how long Jason McElwain needed to prove that sometimes dreams do come true. Six years ago, McElwain — who has high-functioning autism — was a senior student manager for the Greece Athena boys basketball team in Greece, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester. He could be seen at every game wearing a white dress shirt and a black tie, patrolling the team’s bench dispensing cups of water and cheers to the players.
By: By Tom Mix, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
FARGO — Four minutes, 19 seconds is not a lot of time, but that is exactly how long Jason McElwain needed to prove that sometimes dreams do come true.
Six years ago, McElwain — who has high-functioning autism — was a senior student manager for the Greece Athena boys basketball team in Greece, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester. He could be seen at every game wearing a white dress shirt and a black tie, patrolling the team’s bench dispensing cups of water and cheers to the players.
Just knowing he was a part of the team made him content with his duties, but on Feb. 15, 2006, McElwain showed he had a lot more to contribute when he exchanged his shirt and tie for a game jersey. That night, Greece Athena coach Jim Johnson subbed in McElwain — who had no previous high school basketball playing experience — in the final 4:19 of a varsity game.
What followed would forever alter his life.
McElwain, now 23, proceeded to score 20 points, hitting six 3-pointers, with each made shot sending the crowd into a frenzy. When the final buzzer sounded, fans stormed the court and McElwain’s status as folk hero was cemented.
He instantly went from the end of the bench to a national feel-good story. The performance garnered McElwain — nicknamed “J-Mac” — the ESPY Award from ESPN for the year’s best sports moment. He has since used his celebrity to become a spokesman for autism. McElwain’s father David said his son speaks at about four events a year.
His next stop is Fargo. McElwain is scheduled to be the keynote speaker for the third annual “An AuSome Evening” event Friday at the Ramada Plaza Suites. The fundraiser for the North Dakota Autism Center caps off the organization’s festivities in April, which is autism awareness month.
“I’m excited to come motivate the children, the adults and try to inspire others,” McElwain said. “I want to express my life story, the 2006 story and what I’m doing now.”
NDAC president Sandy Smith hopes the event brings increased awareness about autism and helps raise money for the NDAC, which is in its sixth year of existence. The NDAC is a nonprofit Smith created to help her 10-year-old son, Tyler, who has autism, as well as other children affected by autism spectrum disorders, reach their full potential through care, instruction and support.
Every case of autism is different and requires specific care, which Smith discovered when Tyler was diagnosed at 19 months. At the time, there were minimal care options to help children and families affected by autism in North Dakota. Smith has been on mission ever since to make sure children with autism get the help they need.
“I just have a huge passion to try to help anyone in the community that has a child with autism,” said Smith, who anticipates about 200-plus people will attend Friday’s event. “I think we are on our way now, and I think this event is a big part of that … I’m hoping that things really take off from here.”
Smith began planning the event last summer and inquired about booking McElwain to appear and spark more community interest in the event.
“It’s going to create a huge amount of awareness for autism in our area,” Smith said of McElwain’s visit. “That’s really what we’re about is making sure people understand what kids with autism can do.”
“Jason is an amazing example of what a child with autism can achieve.”
In addition to the keynote address, McElwain will visit the NDAC and speak at West Fargo High School and Bennett Elementary.
McElwain’s popularity spread like wildfire following his highlight-reel night and was something that surprised his father.
“I was really amazed of how many people were so proud of Jason,” David McElwain said. “They are very happy Jason got the spotlight, and it gives them hope, too.”
His notoriety still remains intact, but even Jason remains amazed by his story’s staying power.
“I’m surprised it’s gone on this long,” McElwain said. “It has been an amazing six years … Winning the ESPY was the icing on the cake. Going around the country and meeting all sorts of interesting people and helping those who need a helping hand has been fun.”
McElwain has gone on to author a book titled “The Game of My Life — A True Story of Challenge, Triumph and Growing Up Autistic.” He’s appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the NBA Finals and a Super Bowl commercial.
Six years after his 20-point night grabbed national attention, McElwain is leading a busy life. He works two part-time jobs at a grocery store and a restaurant, but his true passion remains basketball.
McElwain serves as an assistant coach on the junior varsity boys basketball team at Greece Athena. The JV team was 16-2 last season. He also coaches track and cross country. During the summer, he lends his coaching services to the Snow Valley basketball camps held in Waverly, Iowa.
McElwain ran cross country and track during high school and is currently training to run a marathon later this year.
Though the calls for appearances and interviews have subsided some, McElwain’s message of working hard, being a team player and believing in dreams coming true never get old.
“Successful people seize every opportunity they get,” he said. “You got to be ready when your name is called upon. I got my one opportunity and I seized it … If you don’t dream it, you can’t become it.”
Tom Mix is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.