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Jason McElwain

Contagious Enthusiasm
They are positive thinkers, they are enthusiastic and that enthusiasm rubs off!

We are coming off of my favorite sports weekend of the entire year: March Madness! Honestly, who out there had VCU and Richmond in the Sweet Sixteen? But with all the talk of Bracket Busters and Cinderella teams, nothing that happened this weekend compares to my favorite springtime basketball story which occurred on a far smaller stage five years ago. It started at a high school in upstate New York, where a very unlikely hero emerged in the sectionals championship — and then went on to do something even GREATER after the game was over.

No one at Greece Athena High School in Rochester, NY was prepared for the media attention that resulted when Coach Jim Johnson put team manager Jason McElwain on the court for the final minutes of the game in 2006. The crowd went wild; his teammates started passing him the ball; and then J-Mac, as he is affectionately known, started to do the unbelievable: basket after basket, he scored 20 points in a matter of four minutes, hitting crazy shots from all over the court!

But what made this moment so special — besides the additional points that it added to the final score — is that J-Mac is autistic and had worked enthusiastically as the team’s manager for the past two years just so he could be close to the sport he loved. He had been told his disability meant he was not likely to ever be on the team’s roster and, in fact, that night was the first time he had ever slipped on a jersey. Regardless, his love for the game was undeniable, and his team spirit was infectious.”Usually you look for a player to be your team’s heart and soul,” Coach Johnson told me during a recent interview. “But on that team that year, J-Mac was the point of enthusiasm even though he wasn’t playing. Every day he was at practice early with that big smile on his face. His attitude impacted us all.”
J-Mac lived and breathed his team’s success, according to Coach Johnson, who has a new book out this week. J-Mac’s unbridled enthusiasm for Greece Athena’s basketball team spread throughout the community — and was returned to him in his final game before graduation. Hoping that Coach Johnson would substitute J-Mac into the game in the final minutes, fans showed up with signs and banners specifically designed to cheer on their hard-working manager. When Johnson signaled for J-Mac to hit the court, the crowd went wild, many of them holding up masks of his face. J-Mac’s teammates went wild, too. Every time down the court, they passed him the ball and encouraged him to shoot. When the game ended, the crowd rushed the court and the boy who dreamed of playing was carried off on the shoulders of his teammates.

“I didn’t tell them to do that,” Coach Johnson explained. “I just told them I was going to try to put him in; they started passing J-Mac the ball on their own accord. And they didn’t want anyone but him to shoot.”

But the story didn’t end with Greece Athena’s big win that night.

After he graduated, J-Mac came back to the high school to serve as an assistant coach with the Junior Varsity team. Then this year, Coach Johnson asked him to be an assistant with the Varsity. Together, Coaches Johnson and McElwain led the team to a 12-6 record all the way to the sectional finals.

“He’s fully invested in basketball — there’s no question,” Johnson laughed, telling me how J-Mac’s enthusiasm has only grown since graduating. “His goal is to become a college coach, and he has become a student of the game.” He attends the school’s Varsity, JV, and freshmen games, as well as several basketball camps in the summer. He exchanges text messages with a number of big-time college coaches that he has met since his “four minutes of fame” became national news. One of those is Steve Donahue, the former basketball coach at Cornell who is now the head coach at Boston College. Donahue, who has an autistic son, seems to relish J-Mac’s enthusiasm for the game and tireless pursuit of GREATNESS.

Attitudes are contagious... is yours worth catching? -AnonymousCoach Johnson believes that J-Mac’s can-do attitude and approach to the game will take him far: “He is the essence of what a team is all about.”

Tips from the Great Ones

J-Mac models so many traits of a truly GREAT winner that it was difficult for me to decide exactly which characteristic I wanted to highlight with his story. He has overcome adversity, he knows there is no off-season, and he is the ultimate teammate — but really, it seems that the essence of his GREATNESS comes down to his enthusiasm. He simply loves what hedoes — the game of basketball — and everyone around him feeds off that enthusiasm.

mcelwain4When was the last time you allowed your enthusiasm about anything to shine through in a way that inspired other people? Too often, we tend to keep our excitement for a project or positivity about a pursuit to ourselves, fearing that our enthusiasm will appear unprofessional or immature.

Apply this Characteristic: Challenge yourself this month to talk positively at least once a day with a co-worker about a current project in which you are involved. See if your positive attitude doesn't start to catch on!But consider the energy you feel when you’re with someone who has truly thrown their heart and soul into whatever it is that they are doing — and doesn’t try to hide the fact. In a worldfull of people who hate their jobs or only complain about work, isn’t it refreshing to spend time around someone who really loves what they do? Wouldn’t those around you more enjoy your presence on their team if you committed yourself to being positively enthusiastic?

J-Mac’s enthusiastic approach to his team didn’t just win him a place on the court in his final game; it also helped set the course of his entire future. GREATNESS doesn’t just happen when the ball is already in your hand — it starts with how you think.

Do you know a story of true Greatness from your community? I’d love to hear it! Please write to to share it.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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