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Ellwood City, Pennsylvania
Eric Poole is a reporter and columnist for the Ellwood City (Pa.) Ledger, a small newspaper nestled near the Ohio state line in the heart of Steelers Country. He has a wife, a son and a daughter (so there will be some daddy stuff on this blog). A former steelworker and retired rugby player, Poole has a wide range of interests, which was reflected in the 2008 Pennsylvania Newspaper Association awards, when Poole won first-prize honors for best columns and best special project. His upcoming book, "Company of Heroes," due out March 17, 2015, from Osprey Publishing, tells the story of Vietnam War hero Leslie Sabo and his comrades. Sabo was awarded the Medal of Honor May 16, 2012, in a White House ceremony.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Blast from the past

This video has making the rounds on Facebook this week. The video's timestamp reads 2009, but it actually happened in 2006, because that was when I wrote this in the Ellwood City Ledger:

How would you like to be Jim Johnson? How would you like to be the basketball coach who let the best shooter on the team sit on the bench, wearing a shirt and tie, for three years, until finally turning him loose in the last home game of his senior year.

In Johnson’s defense, Jason McElwain didn’t look like a basketball player. In a big man’s sport, he stands a Lilliputian 5-foot-6, not even tall enough to make the Athena High School junior varsity team in Greece, N.Y.

And he’s autistic.

But he’s also the kind of kid who, for three years as team manager, did everything Johnson asked of him.

“He is such a great help and is well-liked by everyone on the team,” Johnson told the Associated Press.

So, as a reward, Johnson gave the kid a uniform for the last home game of his high school career.

By far, the best thing about high school basketball is that, on nearly every team, there is a kid who sits on the end of his team’s bench, working hard every day in practice, without the guarantee of glory on game night.

But as soon as the home team goes up by 20 points, the crowd begins to chant his name, calling for the last man to get into the game.

On Feb. 15, for the Trojans’ game against Spencerport, Jason McElwain was that kid, with students waving signs reading “J-MAC” in his honor. Johnson said he hoped to get the senior manager into his first game action, but with a playoff berth on the line, he had to worry about winning the game first.

Of course, winning the game might have been easier if Johnson had put McElwain in the game earlier, but he had no way of knowing his student manager would put on a shooting clinic.

With four minutes left in the contest, and a Trojans’ victory in hand, Johnson gave the crowd what it had asked for. After missing a long-range shot and a layup, McElwain went on the kind of tear that would have had Kobe Bryant shaking his head in wonder.

McElwain drained seven of his next nine shots – including an even half-dozen three-pointers – to finish with 20 points in Greece’s 79-43 victory. He had part of his foot over the line on one of his field goals.

Is it dark in here or did someone just shoot the lights out?

It’s possible that McElwain’s teammates were feeding him. And it’s equally possible that Spencerport decided to leave him open in a game that already had been decided.

But, even if that’s true, it’s not as if any of that would have diminished what McElwain did. If you think it’s easy to hit an open three-pointer, head on down to the Lincoln High School gym Monday and try to hit seven-of-nine from your favorite spot beyond the arc – you’re allowed to step on the stripe once.

You could try that for 100 years and not drain seven before missing three, even on an empty court. Now imagine doing it as a high school senior in front of a crowd of hundreds chanting your name in your very first varsity appearance. You’re likely to be throwing up nothing but airballs.

And your dinner.

After establishing himself as the straightest shooter in high school basketball, McElwain got a ride off the court on the shoulders of his teammates.

Then, the young man who didn’t talk until he was 5 did a creditable Dick Vitale impression.

“I ended my career on the right note,” he told the Associated Press. “I was hotter than a pistol.”

Little did Jim Johnson know 10 days ago that he would end up as the not-so-evil villain in McElwain’s Cinderella saga by keeping a marksman on the bench for three years.

But that’s not so bad. After all, not everybody gets to be a character in a fairy tale, even as the stepcoach.

For Jason McElwain, it must be even better. Even though he’s back in his suit and tie as his teammates head into the playoffs tonight, he’ll never again be the autistic kid at the bench’s end.

From now on, he’ll be known as just about the hottest hand high school basketball has ever seen, if only for one night.