GREECE, N.Y. – As Jason McElwain wrapped up his speech, the student section at Greece Athena that already boomed his nickname started another chant and he raised his framed jersey above his head. "Fifty-two! Fifty-two! Fifty-two!" the students sang out in unison.
There was more magic at Athena on Friday night, as "J-Mac" had his No. 52 jersey retired by the school before Athena's game with Fairport. Spearheaded by veteran coach Jim Johnson, the man who helped the former student manager become a shooting star on Feb. 15, 2006, McElwain joined John Wallace as the only players in Athena boys basketball history to have their numbers retired.
Wallace, who wore No. 44, powered the Trojans to the 1992 state championship and was named New York state's "Mr. Basketball" before becoming a star at Syracuse University, which he led to the 1996 Final Four. J-Mac's one shining moment came because Johnson made the choice to give his dedicated, highly-functioning autistic student manager a chance to play on "Senior Night."
"I can't thank him enough," J-Mac said while addressing the packed gymnasium, standing on the same floor where he was — in his famous words — "as hot as a pistol," back in the only varsity game he ever played.
McElwain, 25, entered the game that night with about four minutes to play and Athena in control. He stunned everyone by making six 3-pointers and scoring 20 points in about four minutes. Video footage of his 7-for-13 shooting spree and the wild post-game celebration, which included him being carried off the court by teammates, went viral, and J-Mac Mania was born.
It happened on a Wednesday night. By the next day, clips of his shots were on ESPN. By Sunday night, he was the focus of an extended ESPN story. He won the ESPY Award that year for Best Sports Moment and met President George W. Bush. Magic Johnson came to Rochester to talk to his family about making a movie of his life and moment. McElwain was on dozens of talk shows, including Oprah.
"It's a great lesson in perseverance. He never gave up on his dream," Johnson told the crowd Friday, noting that McElwain had been cut from the team three times. "I saw a young man who deserved a chance because he made such a great commitment to our basketball program."
The Trojans went on to win the Section V title that year, and J-Mac invited back all the players on that squad to celebrate his immortal moment Friday. They stood with him, and Johnson explained that while he put McElwain into that game, he never instructed anyone to pass J-Mac the ball. His teammates wanted to do it.
"It's obviously a great moment, but as I come back to that year our 2006 team, when we won sectionals that year, that was the best moment ever," said McElwain, who also was joined on the court by his parents, Debbie and Dave, and old brother, Josh.
Former NFL running back Tony Collins, a Penn Yan native who works with AutismUp, was there and gave J-Mac one of his jerseys.
Josh wasn't there on Feb. 15, 2006. He was at SUNY Geneseo at college. But he has played a pivotal role in Jason's life. "Your undying love and support is the reason I am where I am today," J-Mac said of his family.
His family said J-Mac's life probably wouldn't be much different had all those shots missed. He'd probably still work at Wegmans and still coach at Athena. He is in his sixth season as a program assistant under Johnson, who is retiring from teaching at the end of the school year but still plans to coach.
"He's there every day. He has great passion — all the things you want," said Johnson, who has coached high school basketball 27 years. "The great thing about him is he's such a great team player. He cares about the team first and that's something as a coach you're always trying to preach to your young people."