GREECE, N.Y. -- An anniversary was approaching, so Jason McElwain and Jim Johnson set up a table at a grocery store last week, waiting to sign books near a barista stand. You know a moment is big when it spawns two books, a career on the motivational speaking tour and one transforming friendship. The moment never gets old.
Who'd believe it has been 10 years? Johnson looks as if he has been preserved in a time capsule, right down to his taut physique and 2006 haircut. McElwain, however, elicits a double-take: He was a boy then, and has since grown about 6 inches. His blond hair is receding, so he shaves his head.
They are trying to sell their books, but seem preoccupied. In a few hours, the Greece Athena boys' basketball team will play their regular-season home finale, one of Johnson's last games as head coach. Everything is going to change soon, and some wonder how McElwain will handle it. He is a 27-year-old bound by routine, and for most of the past 10 years, he has always had Johnson at his side. McElwain is his assistant, his second son, his amped-up alter ego on the sidelines.
Tonight, Athena will honor the coach, and commemorate the anniversary of a basketball game that changed many lives, none more so than McElwain's and Johnson's.
The coach checks the time and says they need to go. They pack up the table, grab some sandwiches from the deli and head for the gym. "I hope people come," McElwain says.
ON FEB. 15, 2006, a late-night call came into the sports desk at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Jim Johnson was convinced he had a great story for them. He'd just inserted his student manager in a basketball game -- an autistic kid named Jason McElwain who had never played JV or varsity -- with four minutes to play ... and the kid went off for 20 points.
McElwain did not look as if he belonged on the court. He weighed barely 100 pounds, was swimming in his jersey, and a white sweatband hung awkwardly above his ears. But the crowd had been chanting his name since the opening tip, and when he swished his first 3-pointer, the place exploded. Four other subs were on the court that night, some of them seniors who rarely got to play, but they did not feel compelled to take a shot. They just kept feeding the ball to J-Mac. The crowd rushed the court when it was over, and he was scooped up by a sea of arms.
The next day, Johnson grabbed the paper and thumbed through seven pages before finding McElwain's name buried in a nightly prep roundup, his name absent from the headline.
So that was that, and everyone at Athena seemed fine with it. McElwain's dad, Dave, went to work that day and proudly told his colleagues at the New York State Tax Department that his boy made the sports page. "I thought it was neat, to be honest with you," he says.
But that wasn't that. The night before, a young man named Marcus Luciano had perched at the top of the stands with an old VHS camera. Luciano was filling in for the basketball team's regular video guy and was given strict instructions from Johnson, who's anal-retentive about game film: Track the formations only.
Luciano, a senior who would not finish high school, had a well-deserved reputation for breaking the rules. On this particular night, he intended to follow orders, but when McElwain hit his first shot, and the crowd went berserk, he changed his mind. He pointed the camera at the crowd, the raucous bench, and J-Mac.
Johnson, initially, was peeved at Luciano for constantly panning the crowd. It wouldn't help them prepare for their next game. "Little did I know ..." Johnson says today. "It was a brilliant move from him."
Some things can't be appreciated, or recognized, unless they're seen. Everyone in the gym that night knew they'd witnessed something special. Andy McCormack, McElwain's speech therapist, was so moved that he passed the video along to WROC, a TV station in Rochester. "It's the best thing I've ever seen in sports," McCormack told them.
The CBS affiliate ran the video, and then the local ABC and NBC stations picked it up. Five days later, CBS Evening News called.
Nobody could've dreamed what would happen from there. McElwain and Johnson appeared on Oprah and CNN. Magic Johnson visited Athena High School, and McElwain met President George W. Bush and Peyton Manning. Bush said he cried watching the video.
The media blitz became so intense that Athena High hired a substitute teacher to take over Johnson's gym class for 10 days so that he and McElwain could handle all the requests.
Luciano, who's 27 now and co-owns a buy/sell/trade store near Rochester, still calls it the most memorable night of his life.
"Nobody could tell you it was going to be something that would define our high school all over the country and I guess inspire people," he says.
"I don't want to sound cliché, but it really ingrained in me that you should think big all the time."
THE FACT THAT McElwain could even shoot a basketball, much less do interviews, was an incredible feat. He did not talk until he was 5; he couldn't chew food until nearly a year after that, subsisting on Spaghettios and baby food until then. He also wore a diaper for much of his first six years.
About six months after he was born, Debbie McElwain knew something was wrong. A mother always knows. He was rigid as a baby and didn't make eye contact. "This kid's not normal," she kept saying to her family.
They took him to daycare once a week to see if he'd interact with other children, but McElwain could always be found hiding in a corner, clutching his blanket. He would frantically run in circles in the middle of the night, spinning round and round for an hour, eventually getting knocked out by a shot of Benadryl. McElwain used to have temper tantrums in which he'd violently bang his head. Debbie, not wanting him to hurt himself, would clutch him -- and wind up with a black eye.
When he was 3, they finally had an answer. Severe autism, the doctors said. Debbie read up on it, and proceeded to cry for a week. Then she became determined to make sure her son didn't have to live with unnecessary limitations.
He'd go to therapists and specialists and sit on his mom's lap watching "Sesame Street." One day, his brother Josh, who's a year older, walked in and announced that Jason had just said his first two words:
It was the biggest breakthrough of his life at that point, and from there he just kept talking. Chewing was also a major development -- Debbie stopped packing Spaghettios in his lunch to force him to do this -- and sports provided another huge step. Once Jason began to talk, Josh started taking him everywhere, to bowling lanes and golf courses and basketball courts, and Jason suddenly had a purpose.
"He was different mentally, clearly," Josh says. "But physically, we were able to play the same sports. It kind of connected him more than anything."
He became obsessed with basketball, standing in front of a hoop every summer morning, shooting from sun-up until he was forced inside at night. When he got to junior high, he eagerly tried out for the basketball team. He didn't make the cut.
Debbie left a message at the school. She was desperate, and explained that Jason didn't have much in life, and could he please be on the team? A student-manager position was created for McElwain, and though he desperately wanted to play, he was as passionate as anyone on the court. He wore a dress shirt and tie to games, and jumped up and down as if their winning baskets were his. After practices, McElwain would go to the YMCA so he could shoot and dribble.
"He was almost like a little walking encyclopedia of basketball," says former Athena forward Devin DePoint. "He could recite the most random things people wouldn't remember.
"People understood how much time he put into helping the team, how much he lived and breathed basketball. He really acted like an assistant coach and a player in practice. He was just always there."
Before Feb. 15, that winter of 2006 was challenging for Johnson. He was not winning the big games, and tension between him and a few parents made him contemplate leaving. But he had rarely felt closer to a team than he did that night against Spencerport.
Johnson wasn't sure if he was going to be able to get J-Mac into the game. He had no idea how McElwain would react to the pressure. But his teammates resolved to build a huge lead, of 20 or 30 points, so McElwain would at least have a chance to play.
It has been 10 years, but the people who were there that night remember every vivid detail. Steve Kerr, a senior starter on that team, can still see McElwain excitedly lacing up his shoes in the locker room before the game. The crowd waved pictures of McElwain's face on popsicle sticks, imploring Johnson to let him play.
When the coach finally pointed to McElwain late in the game, he sprinted to the scorer's table.
"He just stood there," Kerr says. "We're like, 'Jay, you gotta go on the court, buddy.' He got out there, and he was trying to find his guy for defense. He couldn't hear anybody because [of] the crowd.
"When he made that first [basket], the lid blew off that place. As he made more and more, people started making their way down the bleachers. His mom had a bright green sort of workout suit on, and I could see her making her way down the bleachers. She wanted to be out there to congratulate him. It was wild. I still get emotional thinking about it."
The Trojans went on to win the sectional title for the first time in Johnson's tenure. They've won it five times since.
"When I think about it," Johnson says, "J-Mac was kind of our rock. Some parts he didn't completely understand, but he was the one who kind of kept everybody together in his own special way."
IT WAS THE wildest year of their lives. Peyton Manning invited McElwain to the Colts' training camp, and he took Kerr along with him. That summer, McElwain won an ESPY for Best Sports Moment. He beat out Kobe Bryant for the award. He was flooded with mail from strangers across the world inspired by his story.
One of the first interviews Johnson and McElwain did was with CNN. Johnson says they were so nervous that it was a disaster. But something amazing happened with McElwain during those weeks in front of the camera. He learned to write out his speeches and practice them, and became good on TV. His family says the exposure improved his communication skills dramatically.
Back in the Rochester area, a woman named Lisa Ponticello was trying to come to grips with her 4-year-old son Alex's autism diagnosis, when she turned on the TV and saw McElwain. It had been a rough time for Ponticello, who knew very little about autism. She constantly fretted about Alex's future. Would he play sports? Would he ever be able to get a job, to get married and have a family of his own?
"You actually start having these conversations in your head and these anxieties when your kids are little," Ponticello says, "because there's so much ahead of them. Then you see somebody who's that much older who had challenges along the way being able to be a productive member of his school's basketball team, to be a leader, in fact. It just makes you think, 'Wow, kids with autism can do anything.'"
McElwain got a job in the bakery department at Wegmans, a local grocery store. He wrote a book called "The Game of My Life" with the help of co-author Daniel Paisner.
Johnson started making speeches all around the country, inspiring audiences with his tale about the night he took a chance and his life changed. He'd do 20 to 30 speaking engagements a year. One of his standard speeches is on leadership, the other on making your dreams come true. People ask him all the time if he still speaks to J-Mac. By way of an answer, he will point to his phone, which typically has 10 or so recent text messages from Jason.
Johnson is retiring so he can devote his time to public speaking. He also wants to do more work with Autism Up, an organization that supports families in the Rochester area.
Even today, McElwain does things that surprise him. A few years ago, McElwain told the coach he wanted to do something competitive, maybe distance running. The next day, he came back and said he was going to run the Boston Marathon.
"Jason, what's the qualifying time for your age?" Johnson asked. "He goes, 'It's 3 hours and 2 minutes.' And I said, 'Jason, that's really fast.'"
McElwain was undaunted. He asked Johnson to set him up with a training program, and he qualified for the Boston Marathon in 2014. He finished in 2:57:05.
THE ATHENA VARSITY TEAM meets in a tiny gym Wednesday night, poring over the game plan while the JVs play downstairs. Johnson hunches over and stoically tells his players everything they should expect.
"It hasn't hit him yet," McElwain says of Johnson's emotions before the game. "It's sad to see him go. He's like the mayor of Greece Athena. Our goal is to get him out with a bang."
This was not supposed to be their year, not after they lost nine of their 10 best players, but then Athena knocked off the No. 2 team, and now they're 19-1 with dreams of a state championship.
Though he's dressed for the part in a yellow dress shirt and tie, McElwain is often like an overgrown kid on the sidelines. His dad gets on him about this. He says he needs to act like a coach, not a player.
But the seniors say they love J-Mac because he'll do anything for them. If they want to shoot 1,000 free throws, he'll rebound every shot. If they want to get pumped up, all they have to do is look over at the dressed-up guy raising his arms to the crowd to get louder. McElwain is extremely regimented, and it can be both good and bad. If something goes wrong and upsets his routine, he's been known to lose it. Recently, Trojans starter Ryan Kubanka got hurt, and McElwain was so upset he came home screaming and yelling.
"He's 27 years old," Debbie says. "He's got to sort it out."
Before Wednesday night's game with University Prep, a video tribute plays for Johnson. Sports commentator Roy Firestone is in town to give a speech. For the past 10 years, Firestone has been captivated by their story, and is eager to meet Johnson and J-Mac.
Most of the crowd is too young to remember Firestone, that he was on the receiving end of a famous line in the movie "Jerry MaGuire" in which Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character tells him, "I'm not gonna cry, Roy."
McElwain, calm and composed in the hours leading up to the game, starts to cry during the ceremony.
He says Johnson is the reason he's coaching. Nine years ago, McElwain told him he missed being part of the program, so Johnson found him a spot on the bench. "He's not only teaching me how to be a great basketball [coach]," McElwain says, "but he's teaching me how to be a great man for the game of life."
Neither McElwain, nor much of the community, can imagine a season without Johnson. He's been here for 20 years. A fan walks up to Johnson's wife after the game and asks if he is really retiring. It's real, she says.
And McElwain isn't quite sure what he will do after this. He wants desperately to move out of his parents' house and live on his own. Debbie is worried about this. She's devoted her last 27 years to protecting him, but who will watch over him then?
Josh McElwain, who's a special education teacher in Florida now, believes his brother will be fine. If he can hop a flight to Chicago on his own, check into a hotel and deliver a speech, he can take care of himself. Josh will keep tabs on him. Johnson will still look out for him.
Though the boys on that 2006 team are scattered all over now, well into their 20s, many nights one of them will come home from work, get on a computer, and watch a moment that should've never been taped. Kerr did it just the other night. He somehow found an unedited version of the tape. In it, he can hear Luciano in the background, whispering an "Oh my God."
McElwain still group-texts the guys every so often, and they banter and catch up on each other's lives, like teammates. All these years later, J-Mac still holds them together.
"It was a year that no one would ever believe," Kerr says. "It was five years, hell, 18 years in the making. He deserved it.
"He motivates me daily. I think he is out there at 5 in the morning, when it's snowing in Rochester, training for the Boston Marathon. You see him pushing and making the most of every day instead of taking that night and saying, 'That's it.' He's still pushing forward and trying to overcome the next obstacle."
ESPN's Dylan Hanley helped research this story.