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The word in Greece: Disney among suitors

6/14/2006

GREECE, N.Y. -- Alone in the gym after practice, Jason
McElwain went through his elaborate pregame ritual.

The 17-year-old senior, manager of the Greece Athena High School
basketball team, drained a 3-pointer, a double-pump layup and a
free throw, kissed the back of his ring finger at center court and
sped off to the dressing room to exhort and amuse his teammates.
"You've gotta give it everything you got!" McElwain sang in
rap verse. "The winner goes home all happy/The loser goes home and
says/'Mommy we lost the game, wah wah wah!"'
McElwain, who is autistic, was back in his role as an all-around
motivator on the eve of a sectional semifinal game Tuesday night --
handing out water bottles, dispensing tips, helping run drills. Two
weeks earlier, he suited up for a game and delivered a jaw-dropping
performance.
His play drew national attention, and a flood of calls from
Hollywood. His parents have received inquiries from about 25
production companies ranging from The Walt Disney Co., parent of ESPN, and Warner
Bros. to independent documentary filmmakers.
"I don't know what I'm walking into," McElwain said.
In his team's final home game of the season, McElwain entered
with four minutes to go. It was his first and only appearance for
the Athena varsity team in this Rochester suburb. The 5-foot-6
manager hit six 3-point shots and a 2-pointer and was carried off
the court on his teammates' shoulders.
His triumph was captured on a student video that made the rounds
of the television networks. The school was besieged with calls and
e-mails from parents of children who have autism, a
little-understood developmental disorder.
"We have an obligation as a society to find a way to include
people with different abilities," said the school's athletic
director, Randolph Hutto, whose 12-year-old son, Joshua, is
autistic. "This, hopefully, will help open doors for some people,
or open some eyes."
McElwain, who didn't begin talking until he was 5, still lacks
social skills but has learned to cope well in his teens, said his
special-education teacher, Diane Maddock.
"He might talk a little loud, laugh a little too long or not be
able the read the body language or even the tone of voice of a
person, but it's not a big difficulty," Maddock said. "If you
call him on it, he will acknowledge it, say 'OK, you're right, I
shouldn't have said that or laughed when I laughed."'
"This couldn't happen to a nicer kid," she added.
Considered too small to make the junior varsity, McElwain signed
on as manager, then took up the same role with the varsity to stay
near the sport he loves. Amazed at his dedication, coach Jim
Johnson had him suit up for the home finale. There was no guarantee
he would play -- Athena was battling for a division title -- but he
got in when the Trojans opened a large lead.
"It was like a big old bucket and I was just hitting them like
they were free throws," McElwain said. "I just felt relaxed."
The coach couldn't believe what he was seeing.
"He's been my right-hand man, he's there every day and just
getting him the opportunity to suit up was emotional enough for
me," he said. "For him to come in and seize the moment like he
did was certainly more than I ever expected. I was an emotional
wreck."
Because he played in just one regular-season game, McElwain was
ineligible for sectional play. But he's not bothered.
"I just want to win as a team, not individually," he said.
What's more, he prides himself on having a lot of friends.
"I'm not really that different," he said. "I don't really
care about this autistic situation, really. It's just the way I am.
The advice I'd give to autistic people is just keep working, just
keep dreaming, you'll get your chance and you'll do it."