His Magic Moment
But somebody forgot to give Jason, who in three years has seldom missed a practice, the script. As the 900 fans watched in astonishment, this Rudy suddenly turned into Kobe. He missed his first two shots badly. Undeterred, he hoisted another. "It rattled the backboard and went in," says Johnson. "The place just erupted." From then on, Jason later told a TV reporter, "I was on fire." Altogether he hit six three-pointers and one two-pointer for a total of 20 points. When the final buzzer sounded Athena's 79-43 victory, the students rushed out of the stands and carried Jason off the court in triumph. Then he gave high fives and autographs. "He was really happy on the way home," says his father, who works as a manager of auditors for the state tax department. "He didn't sleep a lot that night." Says teammate Rickey Wallace: "He's an incredible kid. I knew he could shoot, but I didn't know he could score 20 points."
Much of Jason's life has been spent exceeding others' expectations. He was diagnosed with autism at age 2 when his father and his mother, Debbie, 53, a dental hygienist, noticed he was listless and had him tested. Though he scores low on standardized tests, he has an impressive memory, especially when it comes to sports trivia. And while he didn't start talking till age 5½, "he probably hasn't stopped since," says his father. "He's very social, he's a charmer." At Athena High he attends a few mainstream classes to go along with his special-ed instruction. But, as his father points out, one manifestation of Jason's autism is that he is fearless—at times a bit reckless—which perhaps helped him to keep shooting even after he missed. "He's never had any fear of doing anything or fear of what other people think," says Dave. "He loves roller coasters, and he loves to jump in the water."
Jason has tried out for the school team repeatedly but never made it. Three years ago he became the manager of the JV squad. The next year he became manager of the varsity. This season coach Johnson told him he would try to get him into the game on senior night, when the graduating players are recognized. As word got around that Jason might play, student fans made signs bearing his picture to cheer him on. No one was pulling harder for him to get the chance than his teammates. "He's so much fun to be around," says Matthew Sheehan, Athena's senior point guard. "He's got a lot of enthusiasm for the team."
During Jason's shooting spree, the Spencerport squad didn't try to play overly aggressive defense against him, but they did guard him and attempt to block his shots. Meanwhile, Dave McElwain marveled at the unselfishness of the Athena players in the game at that point, second- and third-stringers who would have loved to score themselves. "Every time his team had the ball they passed it to Jason," says McElwain. "No one else tried to take a shot—and a lot of these kids didn't get any playing time either during the season."
In the aftermath, Jason became an instant celebrity, with highlights of his game played over and over on news shows and even ESPN. Disney contacted the family about a possible movie. But Jason tried to play it cool. "My plans are to graduate and go to MCC [Monroe Community College] and work at Wegmans [grocery store]," he says. But he wasn't fooling anyone. "I think he floated to school the next day," says coach Johnson. "His feet never touched the ground."
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