Emmy award-winning sportscaster Len Berman reveals some of his favorite plays, mishaps and anecdotes from the annals of sports history in "The Greatest Moments in Sports: Upsets and Underdogs." Here's an excerpt.
The year 2006 featured some terrific basketball. Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers scored 81 points in a game against Toronto. It was the most an NBA player had scored in a game since Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 all the way back in 1962. In college basketball that year, a true Cinderella team, George Mason University, made it to the Final Four but lost in the semifinal to the eventual champion, Florida. However, the most amazing basketball story of all involved a player who wasn’t in the NBA—nor was he even a college basketball star. In fact, he was barely on his high school team. His name is Jason McElwain, and his entire varsity playing career lasted all of 259 seconds. But what an incredible four minutes and 19 seconds it was!
Jason grew up in Rochester, New York. When he was two years old, he was diagnosed with autism. He didn’t speak until he was five. For Jason, it was no big deal. He said, “I’m just normal like other people—that’s the way I am.” He is high-functioning autistic, meaning he can do lots of things, but in school, he had to take special education courses. When he got to Greece Athena High School, he wanted to play basketball. He didn’t make the junior varsity team, but to stay involved in basketball, he became the team’s student manager. And J-Mac, as he was called, was a great manager. His job, as he put it, was to hand out water and towels to the players and to act enthusiastic. He had no problem with any of that. He supported his team and was there for every game to help cheer them on. He was the manager for three seasons. And now his high school days were nearing an end.
The date was February 15, 2006. It was Senior Night, the last home game of Jason’s senior year in high school. Greece Athena was taking on nearby Spencerport High School. Coach Jim Johnson told Jason that he was going to let him suit up for the game. He might not get to play, but at least for one game, he could proudly wear the uniform of the Greece Athena Trojans. Many of the kids at school heard that Jason would be on the bench, so they showed up at the game with pictures of Jason that they held on sticks in front of their faces like masks, so they could all be Jason. He had his own personal cheering section in the stands. As the game wore on, they started chanting “J-Mac! J-Mac!”
With 4:19 left in the game, the Trojans were leading by 28 points. Coach Johnson stood up, pointed at No. 52, and told him he was going into the game. No. 52 was Jason McElwain. For the first time, he was going to play for the Greece Athena Trojans. Jason’s cheering section saw what was happening, and they all stood up, roaring their approval. Actually, as Jason described it, they were: “Wild, nuts, crazy, whatever you want to call it.” If there is one trait about Jason, he isn’t shy—on or off the court.
Moments after Jason got into the game, he was passed the ball deep in the right corner. He immediately threw up a long three-point shot and missed badly. It was an air ball. Back on the bench, Coach Johnson put his head in his hands. He said to himself, “Dear God, please just get him one basket.” A few seconds later, J-Mac took another shot, and he missed that one too. But Jason isn’t one to give up. His teammates kept passing him the ball. They wanted him to shoot—so shoot he did.
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The next time Jason got the ball, he fired up another long three-point shot from the right side and—swish! Three points! The moment the ball went in, his teammates on the bench jumped up in the air to celebrate. Coach Johnson thought, “Oh my God, my dream for him has come true.” The coach was fighting back tears. In the stands, it was sheer bedlam, especially in J-Mac’s cheering section. What happened next? Jason said, “I caught fire. I was hot as a pistol.” No, he wasn’t just hot—he was sizzling.
He took another three-point shot and—swish! Then another. Good again. He took shot after shot, most of them three-pointers, and one after another, they went in. As the final seconds ticked away, the Trojans came down for one final shot. Who would take it? Jason, of course. And again—swish! Greece Athena won the game 79–43. Jason made six three-pointers and totaled 20 points. He was only in the game for a little more than four minutes, and he was his team’s high scorer. Not only that, but his six three-pointers had tied the school record!
As soon as the game ended, the fans and players rushed onto the court. They mobbed the game’s unlikely hero, Jason McElwain. They picked up J-Mac and put him on their shoulders. After that, he posed for pictures with the cheerleaders and even signed autographs. What a scene! It was something right out of a Hollywood movie. In school, Jason was an instant celebrity. Teachers stopped to shake his hand. Jason said even the pretty girls who wouldn’t talk to him before were now saying hello.
The story of what happened that night was shown on television all over the country. One of the people watching happened to live in the White House: President George W. Bush. When he saw the news about Jason, he cried, pretty much like everyone else who saw it.
A few weeks later, the president was heading to upstate New York, and he just had to meet Jason. He had Air Force One land at the Rochester airport. As he walked off the plane, he was greeted by Jason and his parents. The president said that Jason’s story was “the 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.” It certainly did.
Jason received thousands of letters congratulating him. One letter meant a great deal to him. It came from the parents of a three-year-old boy who had also been diagnosed with autism. The letter said, Thanks for giving us hope.
Jason McElwain, who had always been told what he couldn’t do, was now a hero to millions of people. He was asked what that one night on the basketball court showed the world. Jason said, “The sky’s the limit. Give it all the effort that you can. Catch a dream. And never give up.”
Jason certainly didn’t give up. And in this book about incredible athletes and teams, that describes unbelievable comebacks and championships, the biggest underdog among them, Jason McElwain—just 5'6"—perhaps stands the tallest of them all.
Reprinted by arrangement with Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc., from “The Greatest Moments in Sport:Upsets and Underdogs” by Len Berman. Copyright © 2012 by Len Berman.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive