"Big Four" Highlights


The J-Mac Minutes

A new book tells the full story behind the high school hoops miracle

He was an internet video sensation, with more than 3 million hits and network news coverage of his stunning performance in his first and only high school varsity basketball game. Google “J-Mac” today and you’ll call up the images of Jason McElwain, who in 2006 was a 17-year-old upstate New York senior with autism, who tore up the court in the final four minutes of a game, scoring 22 points, including six 3-pointers. The performance was called a miracle at the time, and it earned McElwain worldwide fame, speaking and celebrity engagements, and a trip to the White House to meet President George W. Bush.

Interest in the J-Mac phenomenon will be reignited by the publication of a new book which tells the story behind those four minutes of play five years ago, as told from the perspective of the team’s coach, Jim Johnson. Written with veteran Catholic journalist Mike Latona, A Coach and a Miracle brings the reader through the basketball season with Greece Athena, a public high school outside of Rochester, New York, and tells how J-Mac helped the team win a championship more by his enthusiasm as team manager than by his brief stint on the court.

Mike Latona tells Fathers for Good about autism in his own family.

Besides being co-author, Mike Latona has a special connection to book. Two of his three children – Andrew, age 9, and Matthew, 7, have been diagnosed with autism. He and his wife, Paola, also have a 6-year-old daughter, Catherine.

Latona, 50, is a staff writer for the past 20 years for the Catholic Courier, the newspaper of the Diocese of Rochester. He spoke with Fathers for Good about the new book and autism in his own family.

Fathers for Good: How did doing the book with Coach Johnson affect you personally as the father of autistic children?

Latona: I really liked reading emotional letters of thanks from parents of autistic children who wrote to Coach Johnson. In fact, I weaved together excerpts to make up a chapter of the book. The letters made me feel a) that I was not alone, and b) that my kids might not take the “conventional” path in life but they will be just fine.

FFG: Could you give an idea from personal experience about what autism is and isn’t?

Latona: Autism can vary in intensity, that’s why it’s called the “autism spectrum.” There are mild and severe forms. My kids are rated fairly mild. Autism is very noticeable because it often impedes social skills and proper expression of emotions. However, I think people often confuse autism with mental retardation. Autistic people generally have exceptional skills in certain subjects and focus very strongly on those subjects.

FFG: How do you think J-Mac’s story has inspired people over the years? Has it affected public view toward autism?

Latona: I’d say autism first “went mainstream” in the late 1980s with the movie Rain Man. But that character was an institutionalized grown-up. J-Mac’s story proves mightily that a young autistic person can fit into the mainstream, and excel in it. Advocates of special-education funding in their school districts can now say “We want success stories like J-Mac here too.” It’s a pretty convincing argument.

I also think positive publicity toward autism will compel more parents to come forward and seek early intervention, which is huge. My kids were both diagnosed by age 3, and we were able to start services for them right away. Parents now have less reason to fear getting that diagnosis for their kids, knowing that they have support in the medical and educational fields as well as from other parents. In general, the whole J-Mac story has helped POSITIVELY inject the subject of autism into the general conversation, and the benefits are immeasurable.

FFG: What are J-Mac and Coach Johnson doing now?

Latona: You can learn more from the book’s epilogue, but essentially J-Mac is doing the one thing he loves most. He has been a volunteer assistant coach for Greece Athena basketball since 2008, so he and Coach Johnson continue their close relationship. J-Mac also continues working in the bakery department of his local grocery store. A movie on J-Mac’s life that includes Coach Johnson’s role remains in the works by Columbia Pictures. Coach Johnson still coaches and teaches physical education at Greece Athena. He has also greatly increased his public speaking appearances, in which he recounts his involvement in J-Mac’s miracle game.