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ESPY award-winner inspires Valley campers

Friday, July 20, 2012

ESPY Award recipient Jason McElwain (standing) addresses student-athletes attending the Snow Valley Basketball Camp at Valley.
(Missouri Valley College)
After sitting on the bench for over three years as his high school basketball team's manager, Greece-Athena (N.Y.) senior Jason "J-Mac" McElwain finally got to play late in his team's final home game.

What made this notable wasn't that McElwain exploded for a game-high 20 points during the final four minutes of the Feb. 15, 2006, sectional championship game against Spencerport, a 79-63 victory for the Trojans, draining six three-pointers.

What brought the crowd to its feet, and led to receiving ESPN's Espy Award for the Best Sports Moment of the year, was the 18-year-old McElwain's achievement in the face of autism. Then-President George W. Bush noted the following month during a White House reception how the "country was captivated by your amazing story on the basketball court."

"I think it's a story of Coach (Jim) Johnson's willingness to give a person a chance," the President said. "It's a story of Dave and Debbie's deep love for their son, and it's story of a young man who found his touch on the basketball court, which in turn touched the hearts of citizens all across the country."

McElwain, now 25, told his story in Marshall this week while working with students attending the Snow Valley Basketball Camp at Missouri Valley College. His message is more than about how one meets personal challenges, but "that with everything in life, you're going to have to overcome adversity."

"What I try to impart is that you have to work hard for everything you get," McElwain said. "You've got to set goals and have dreams, not only in basketball but in everything in life."

Coaches have praised McElwain's dedication and selflessness, having joyfully served the Trojans as a manager after developing a love for basketball.

"I knew what my role was. The other guys ahead of me were stronger and more talented than I was athletically," McElwain explained. "All I cared about was wanting to win."

McElwain was diagnosed as high-functioning autistic at a young age, but with the help of his parents and counselors began developing social interaction skills. Eventually, he earned the admiration or his coaches, teachers, teammates and classmates -- and was rewarded on Senior Night, even though at stake was a crown Greece-Athena hadn't won in 12 years.

"I cared about winning that title, finally helping my coach and our team," McElwain recalled, noting the Trojans had lost at the buzzer the previous two years. In spite of doubters and naysayers, "we finally got everybody to believe we could win a championship."

After his Moment, which eclipsed Kobe Bryant's 81-point performance and George Mason University's surprise run to the NCAA Final Four in the ESPY voting, McElwain met President Bush and appeared on the talk show circuit. He wrote a book, The Game of My Life -- with sections from his family, coach and teammates -- and sold the movie rights for his story to Columbia Pictures, although the production has been put on hold.

Of greater importance to McElwain than glory or riches was a chance at "giving back to a sport I've always loved playing."

"Giving back to kids who are trying to do the same thing I did," he noted. "Relate my success of being on a championship team on to them, to try to help them win a championship."

McElwain is currently an assistant coach for the Trojans and is working with the Iowa-based Snow Valley program at its clinics, including the one in Marshall which concluded Thursday. Although he's focused on teaching fundamentals during drills, McElwain's greater impact is "inspiration," according to Marshall senior Alex Maupin.

"How to work hard and love the game that you play," Maupin said. McElwain's team-first approach resonated. "That's how you've got to play: play as a team, get better as a team and win as a team."

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