If you’ve been around here a while, you probably figured out that I’m a huge fan of Jason ‘J-Mac’ McElwain and everything he both embodies and symbolizes about what our children can accomplish. (See also “Autism Goes Super”, “The Unlikely, Inspiring Combination of Gatorade and Autism”, and “Swifter, Higher, Stronger” – scroll down to the bottom on the last one.)
So I discovered that he wrote a book – The Game of My Life – with Daniel Paisner, who did a masterful job as credited ‘ghost’ writer by staying out of the way and letting J-Mac tell his story the way he wanted to. The result is like sitting across the table from Jason and listening to him tell his story. The result is an honest, unfiltered, humble, inspiring story of this young man’s remarkable life.
If you don’t know his story, take about 10 minutes now, watch both of these videos, and you’ll get a flavor of how amazing it is. They are worth every second of your time. I still can’t watch them without tears and wanting to pump my fist repeatedly in the air in celebration.
And now about his book. Jason fills out the breadth and depth of his experiences only hinted at in the videos. The challenges he has faced throughout his life are far more numerous and significant than alluded to on TV.
His story adds many important details to The Game, but as the title says simply and beautifully, the book is about the game of his entire life and how he has played it and devoted himself to it. As thrilling a moment and a memory as it must be for him, there’s not a single hint of self-aggrandizement in his book. He appreciates and savors everything that has come to him as a result, but isn’t the least bit caught up in the kinds of things that fame often brings about in people.
He won the ESPY Award (ESPN’s major sports awards) in 2006 for Best Moment, beating out among others Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game. But his mention of it was almost fleeting, with perhaps his most emphatic statement about the award being about how heavy it was.
But we also get hints into the thoughts and feelings and lives of the people surrounding him in his journey. There are passing references to things that we know speak volumes. We hear echoes of our own stories in the words he uses about his own family and friends. He leads you into imagining yourself as part of his story. Most importantly, he’ll make you look at your child and know you’d better raise your dreams for them at least several notches higher because anything is possible.
We see ourselves as parents in his descriptions of his own parents and laugh and cry and know. From the protective mother who has taken on the mantle of being the parent who manages therapies and school and bears all the anxieties about her son to the somewhat more adventurous dad who’s willing to take the training wheels off and let his son try without much worry, you’ll see parts of yourself in both of them. But did they do anything differently than many other parents with autistic children that helped Jason live out this extraordinary dream? Their commitment and efforts seem as strong as many other parents I know. But perhaps that’s one of the morals of the story. You don’t have to be anyone super-special or unique to be a good parent; you just have to work hard, dream big, and believe in your child most of all.
As important as his four minutes on the court are for him, he spends a great deal of time talking about the goals of his team. Clearly from his perspective, his team comes ahead of him, and Greece Athena’s championship run was at least important to him, if not more so, than the game for which he’ll be remembered. At no time does he even think of suggesting that his magical moment inspired his team to its eventual title, but I imagine it had no small part in it. After The Game, he goes back to embracing his long-time role as team manager with the same singular focus as he did before he become famous.
For a self-professed man of routine, Jason has adopted his new work as role model, motivator, and hero with the same characteristic humility, focus, and hard work with which he’s met every other challenge. He remains unable to grasp what the big deal is about what he did, but he accepts it with an almost innocent grace and a sincere desire to help others in whatever way he can. If any of us could do this even a fraction as well as Jason, the world would be a much better place.
You might think the transition from all of this fame to baking bread at a grocery store would be a letdown, and for most people, it probably would. But he devotes several pages to how he’s committed himself to his role at the store and to his enjoyment of baking bread for customers. His story will, of course, continue on as he seeks his next dreams as an adult, but just from reading his concluding words, you know that his way of living his life is to focus on seeking out what he loves, working hard, and doing each thing he does to the best of his ability. He teaches us by his example and makes you want to follow.
For me, the most important lesson I took away from his book is that those magical four minutes that changed everything came about not as some out-of-the-blue fairy tale but as the result of all the hard work and focus that he put into realizing his dream. In the videos, those four minutes on the basketball court exist somewhat in isolation from everything he poured into the months and years before that day. He teaches us that realizing a dream isn’t something you wake up one day and do; it’s something you pour your heart and sweat and tears and entire being into and then you will it to happen when your moment finally comes.
His goal was to shoot 1,000 baskets a day. He put in an extraordinary amount of effort and work into the game he loves. As we worry about our children and their challenges and how nothing comes easy for them, J-Mac takes this and turns it completely around on us. Yes, it really does take that much work, but if you put in this single-minded, intense, dedicated effort, amazing things can – and usually will – happen. He invested himself completely in his dream with no promise of anything ever coming of it. He had no way of knowing any of this would ever happen, but yet he kept dreaming and believing and working at it. If that’s not one of the most important lessons we as parents need to learn, I don’t know what is.
It’s not an easy lesson, though. We have no guarantee of anything in our lives, but yet one of the most important things we can do is to every day put in the work and bust our behinds with our dreams always right there in front of us. What will happen down the road for us and our children is a complete unknown, but we can trust that out of all of our efforts and commitment something extraordinary will happen.
He uses one of the most brilliant terms I’ve heard in a long time. In trying to differentiate when people are crying tears of happiness from tears of sadness, he uses ‘smile-crying’ for the former. That’s the word he used to describe his mother’s reaction to his incredible achievement that night. And I certainly did a lot of smile-crying while reading his book.
Find a copy, invest a couple of hours, and let yourself be inspired.