No one could have predicted what would happen on February 15, 2006, when Coach Jim Johnson sent in his basketball team manager, a student on the autism spectrum named James MacElwain to play in their division finals game. What followed was a miracle that taught Coach Jim powerful lessons on leadership. In this episode, Ben Baker sits down and talks to Coach Jim about this miraculous moment and what lead to it. Coach Jim also shares what he’s learned over the years as a leader and how to bring a team to success.
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Miracles On The Hardcourt: Lessons In Leadership With Coach Jim Johnson
[00:01:22] I have somebody I’ve wanted to have on this show. We’ve been trying to figure out when was the right time to do this, and I figured now is the right time. We’re going to have Coach Jim Johnson talking about life lessons learned from the basketball court. Coach Jim, welcome to the show.
[00:01:46] Thanks, Ben. I’m glad we’re able to do this.
[00:01:48] It’s about time. You and I have had countless conversations. We have great times. We talked about all different things and I went, “I’ve got to get Jim on the show.” I keep like, “When do we have time to do this? When does it work with your schedule and mine?” It did. I’m excited to have you here.
[00:02:05] I’m looking forward to it.
[00:02:09] I want to talk about J-Mac, teamwork and inspiration, but what I want to start off is a little bit about you, give the audience a little bit of a hint about who you are, where you came from and what brought you to this point in time because you’ve had a pretty successful career as a coach.
[00:02:32] I grew up in an athletic family. I was the oldest of six. I have three brothers and two sisters. My father was my high school basketball coach. He was in athletics. We got involved and I played a lot of sports and basketball became my major love when I hit high school. I played other sports as well. When I got into basketball, I started to get to the point where I was a good player. In my mind, I thought I was a good player, which unfortunately wasn’t true.
I had a pretty good high school career. I’m living in a suburb of Rochester, New York, called Greece. Our high school program hadn’t been good and we had a good season in my senior year. That was got us going. I got to college and I got humbled. I was such a great college player. I played one semester at one school. I transferred to another school and I got to cut the next year. It was a humbling experience.As a leader, the first person you need to lead is yourself. Click To Tweet
I went wayward for a little, I forgot to start going to class and all the reasons I was in college but fortunately, after about a year of some shoddy college things, I met a lady in my junior in college. We ended up getting married. In fact, we have been married now for several years. She helped me get my life straightened back out and we moved back into my hometown. I started my teaching and coaching career. There, I struggled a little bit early. I was an assistant coach teaching part-time in my hometown. After three years of that, I got a full-time job and I became a varsity basketball coach at 25 years old. I was excited. I thought I knew everything about coaching and all of this program was in very good shape. I thought with my great coaching genius, I was going to turn the program around in the first year.
I did such a great job that we won after my first two games and then we lost seventeen games in a row. To add insult to injury, I didn’t like what the administration had to say to me after the year. He said, “We’re going to look for someone else.” It ended up being a blessing for me because it woke me up. It made me understand that I had a lot to learn about coaching and how to be a leader. That’s when I started my own personal growth. I got a break the next year, ironically. I had a local junior college coach call me and his name was Bill Van Gundy. For your readers that follow basketball probably have heard of the Van Gundy family because his two sons have been head coaches in the NBA and now they’re both commentators.
Coach Van Gundy took me under his wing and then I worked with him for a year. I got back into a high school situation of a much smaller school. We started having a little success and then my dream came true. After a couple of years at the small school, I got called back to my homeschool district and became the head coach at a school called Greece Olympia. That program was in dire straits. They had won two games in the previous two years. That was my mission. That’s where I started to learn a lot about becoming a leader and we’ll talk about some of the leadership principles that I learned.
Fortunately, after the first four years, we still struggled. We had a winning season in the second year but then I had two more losing seasons. The last three years I was the head coach there, we had three of the best seasons ever in the school history. We had some good teams. We got to the semifinals of our post-season tournaments, which is a big deal but we lost three straight years.
After my seventh year, we have four high schools in my town. One of the other schools had a job open up. For many reasons I’m not going to go into, I just felt this position was the best basketball position in the school district. They had had some history, won a state championship, had a great player named John Wallace that played in the NBA for seven years.
I applied and got that job called Greece Athena. In there, we had quite a bit of success. We have a winning season immediately. In my twenty years, we never had a losing season but I had another big stumbling block. As a coach, you’re often measured by how you do in the postseason. The regular season often is forgotten. You can go 18 and 2, but if you get knocked out in the postseason early, it doesn’t go well. That was my thing, we’re winning division championships but we were still struggling to get in the postseason. We didn’t even get to the semifinals, which I had done the last three years in my previous school until my eighth year. The next year was when this young man named Jason McElwain came into our program. We did have one son. He’s an attorney. We’re proud of him. Although my wife and I were both teachers, he didn’t want to follow the teachings footsteps.
[00:07:43] Before we get into Jason J-Mac, let’s talk about motivation, teamwork and inspiration because there are real lessons that you learned through failure and success. I personally think I learned far more through my own failures than I ever did through success. What I want to find out is you have teams. Whether it was teams that were 2 in 22 or a successful team and then petered off for whatever reason in the playoffs, how do you get those teams back up? How do you get those teams to sit there and say, “Let’s figure out what’s gone wrong, where we are, what’s our goal and how do we move forward.” It’s not the fact that we fall down seven times. It’s the fact that we get up eight. I want to hear about that and then we can get into J-Mac because I don’t want to leave that alone.
[00:08:43] That’s a question we could go a lot of different ways. I do a lot of leadership presentations and I developed these seven keys. They’re not anything I’ve borrowed from other people. We’re trying to figure out how to be a better leader. The first thing that is important is as simple as it sounds we forget often as a leader, the first person you got to lead is yourself. One of the things I push people about is having clarity about who you are. One of the things I’m big on is developing your own personal mission statement, your why and purpose, having clarity of that.
One of the things I talk about in my personal mission is developing a team mission. In our program, we developed a mission because kids always said, “We want to win.” I said, “I want to win too but it’s got to be bigger than that.” I studied a lot about teams that were successful and also businesses. It’s not just profit that makes a business successful. You’ve got to have a bigger vision than that. It’s the same with building a championship-level team. Our team mission was we are going to develop winners on and off the court. As a leader or the chief reminding officer, it’s important that I was sharing with them consistently because I was using basketball as a vehicle to try to teach them to be better people in life.
It was important to me. I want to develop good basketball teams but it was more important that I develop good people and try to help them become leaders of their own lives. That starts to get into the culture piece. I took over four different schools. The first one, I failed miserably. The next three, we were able to turn them around. The biggest difference was developing a process of how to build culture. The second key that I talk about is how do you build trust. When you come in new, especially in situations when they’ve been bad, they’re looking for hope but they’re still unclear about you, “Are you the right person for the job?”
One of the things that I talk to leaders about is that I don’t think there’s any leader that would say that it’s not important to have trust. What we neglect is that we don’t have a plan on how to build trust. When I brought my staff together at all three of the programs we talked about, we wanted to spend time focusing on three areas of building trust. One was that we were going to align our words and actions being consistent day in and day out. If we said something, we’re going to follow through with it.
Number two is that we were going to build that trust by each other the truth. That’s why I did a lot of one-on-one meetings and got clarity. The third thing because I did take over three programs that were not doing well is that you got to see the old Ken Blanchard adage because there’s so much truth that you got to catch people doing right more than you do wrong.
What we tried to establish is build a culture that we could trust each other. As it started to develop, you started to develop some winning things. As we developed winning teams in my last few years at Greece Olympia and then for my first eight years in Athena, we have winning records every year but we were falling short in the postseason. Here’s something that took me a while. It took a lot of knocks on the head, learning about a failure. It was J-Mac’s senior season when we finally had the breakthrough but what I realized is that one of my other huge things in leadership is to lead by example, which I was a good example. I stayed fit. I was trying to lead by example.
Here is my real downfall. It took me a while. I realized that through all those winning seasons when we were getting knocked out in the postseason, I was a different person during the postseason in a bad way. I was short with my players because I was putting so much pressure on me to lead a team to a championship. Who do you think was feeling the brunt of that pressure? My players.We need to be the same person throughout our lives. Whether we're on the basketball court, classroom, office, wherever we are with our home, family, friends, we are one person. Click To Tweet
What I realized that it hit me between the eyes because we had a tough season. It made me realize that I had to be the rack with adversity. When I started doing that, especially in the post-season or any pressure situation, it changed and we ended up winning a lot more close games and then we started winning championships. Those are some of the lessons I learned.
[00:13:41] Trust-based on consistency is huge because you’re right. We need to be the same person throughout our lives. Whether we’re on the basketball court, classroom, office, wherever we are with our home, family and friends, we are one person. This is who we are. The more we can show people the consistency, our worthsenal, the good, the bad and the ugly. “This is who I am. I’m going to get upset every once in a while but I’m as upset at myself as I am, as you guys.” To sit there and say, “Let’s work as a team, let’s build together and be able to do that,” that’s going to create trust.
Once you can build that trust, it never comes easily but once you have it, it truly enables great things to happen. Without trust, effective communication and consistency, I don’t think you’re ever going to get people to sit there and say, “I see where we are and where we want to go. Let’s go there together.” That’s where that whole consistency and trust comes from.
[00:15:02] You said some powerful things about trust. One thing that I believe helps in leadership is that a leader should have a few non-negotiables but not many. They know what you stand for. One of our non-negotiables is we had to be on time because I thought that was a great life skill. If you asked my players over the years how many times the coach was late for a meeting, practice or anything, it didn’t happen because that was non-negotiable. I did an odd thing that is a neat thing, we started practices at weird times. We didn’t start at 2:30. We started at 2:33 because we were trying to emphasize what is the importance of being timeless.
[00:16:26] I teach every once in a while up at the universities and have some fun lecturing. Usually, it’s a guest lecturing situation. When the class starts at 2:30, 3:00 or whenever it starts, I lock the door. The people that showed up that were on time that were sitting at their desks deserve my attention and deserve for me to start on time. Dimes to donuts within the first five minutes you get this knock on the door and I see that they’ve got a coffee in their hand, I go, “Where’s my coffee? If you had time to go get coffee, where’s mine?” Sure enough, all of a sudden, those people start showing up early and they’ve got two cups of coffee in their hands in case I need one from them.
It’s a matter to sit there going, “We have to make it fun.” You have non-negotiables but you have to make it fun. You can’t embarrass people. You got to have some fun with it. That’s going to be the stuff that’s going to build that respect and trust. Let’s get into J-Mac because this is a great story. Everything you’ve told me, he’s an amazing person. I’m going to let you take it from there without any more preamble.
[00:17:38] He went to the same high school that I was a coach at but he didn’t try out his ninth-grade year. We had a pretty big high school. I didn’t know all the students. The next season, which was the 2003 to 2004 season, he tried out for the JV team. He’s a tenth grader sophomore. After a couple of days of trial, the JV coach comes to me. He says, “We have a young man. His name is Jason McElwain. He’s on the autism spectrum now.” That was quite a while ago. I’d heard of autism but I did not know much about it.
He goes, “He’s tiny. He can’t make our team. He’s not any good but this kid loves basketball. He loves being around the kids. We should keep him in the program.” I said, “What do you get in mind?” He says, “I’m going to let them be our team manager and practice with the team.” That’s what he did. At this time, he was probably 5’6.” I don’t think he was 100 pounds and he was a little guy.
He hung around. He got the nickname J-Mac from me because I kept butchering his last name. Butchering his last name was a misdemeanor. I would have been on death row. I couldn’t pronounce the McElwain. One day I walked in and there was a player at Syracuse University, which is about a couple of hours away, named Gerry McNamara and everybody called him GMac. He played on the national championship team. I said, “Jason, come here. Do you know Syracuse GMac?” He goes, “I love GMac.” I said, “Syracuse is going to have GMac. Why don’t we have you called J-Mac?” He looked at me and says, “I like that.” It was great because now I didn’t have to say McElwain. The name stuck by the end of his senior. I bet half the school didn’t know his real name. They know him as J-Mac.
He was a team manager in his sophomore year. You talk about perseverance is one of the things I talk about in one of my other presentations. What I admired about him is the essence of never giving up mindset. I was a head coach for 30 years. I can probably count on my hand 3 or 4 players if they got caught one time, we try out again. Most kids don’t come back if they don’t make it. Jason gets caught his sophomore year, stays as manager. He comes to all our off-season workouts. That’s where I start to get to know him a lot better. I’m picking him up at his house. He started to tug at my heartstrings. He tries out for the varsity as a junior in the team I coached and I brought him in. I said, “Jason, unfortunately, you’re not good enough to make the team but I’d like to offer you the team manager job.” He quickly embraced that.
At that point in my career, I had never won a Section V Championship, which is a big deal in our area. He raises his hand in our first team meeting. I said, “Yeah, J-Mac.” He says, “Coach, I got to share with the team. We’ve talked about this. We’re going to develop this slogan called, Stay Focused. We’re going to help you win your first sectional championship.” I said, “Thank you.” We had a good year. Jason’s sophomore year, our team got back to the semi-finals but we lost. That was the sixth time in my career. In his junior year, we have another good season.
We get to the semifinals. We lose at the buzzer. We are devastated. I admire him because he comes to all our off-season workouts. He tries out in his senior. At this point, he’s grown a little bit. He’s 5’9″, maybe 110 pounds. He’s not still big. He tries out again in his senior year. I brought him in. This time, when I tell him that he wasn’t going to make the team, he was pretty disappointed because he had to invest a lot of time and effort.
I said, “This year, I’m going to give you a gift.” His eyes brighten up. He says, “What do you get in mind, coach?” I said, “For the senior night.” He goes, “I’m a senior.” I go, “I know. For the senior night, I’m going to give you a uniform and hopefully get you in the game.” As a kid, people periodically would ask me about the uniform during the season. I define periodically about every other day. He was fired up.
The ironic thing is I wrote a book about it called A Coach and A Miracle. The crazy thing about that year was that we were expected to have a good team. We had a lot of players coming back and we had high expectations but we had a lot of internal turmoil. It’s too long a story and it is in my book. We became a divided team. Although we had a talented team, we were struggling.A leader should have a few non-negotiables but not many. People should know what you stand for. Click To Tweet
We won our first two games and then at Christmas time, we were 4 and 3. This was where I had to step up as a leader. We played in a Christmas time at this big high school in our area. They were good that year and we both won in the first round but they beat a team, the school was called Fairport High School, in the second game by 40 points that we had barely beaten two weeks earlier.
The next day because in Christmas break, we bring them in to do what we call a shoot-around. It’s a short practice. We do some shooting. We go over some plays and get ready for that game because we do that when we don’t have school. I knew I had to do something different because we were still in so much turmoil. I shocked him. I didn’t bring any basketballs out. I sat him in the bleachers. I looked him dead in the eyes and I said, “I don’t want to go to the game tonight.”
They looked at me in disbelief, “What do you mean? You’re the coach.” I said, “Unless we decide we’re going to be a team, we’re going to lose to Fairport by 50 points tonight.” One of my keys and you brought it up before effective communication is the thing that I started meeting become much better is that I knew I had to be a better listener.
After I gave them my little five-minute motivational talk, I said, “I don’t have all the answers.” I showed my vulnerability. I said, “If you guys are willing to share and bring this team together, we’re never going to turn the season around.” Fortunately, they started to open up. I didn’t solve everything but you could see they had a better bounce in their step.
That night, it manifested. We played Fairport in a great game. We didn’t win but we lost and went overtime and show what we could do. We got some momentum. We won eight over the next nine games. That was going into the senior night, which was February 15th. On February 13th, they gave J-Mac his first jersey. It was number 52. It was way too big.
There was a rumor going around school that he slept in it for two straight nights. I don’t know if that was true but he was darn excited. For those readers that aren’t familiar with our area and a lot around the basketball world, senior night is where you honor the seniors. We would bring their parents or guardians out before the game. It was cool to see Jason because he always came in a white shirt and black tie during the games. He’s now dining number 52. To see him embrace his parents in uniform is a memory I will always cherish. The game begins at night. We had a good student body following. If you go out on YouTube, the J-Mac story, there’s a lot of hits on it. ESPN did a nice five-minute documentary about it.
We had a good student body following called The Six Men. At the opening tip, they start yelling, “We want J-Mac.” In case I forgot, I said, “Hold on, boys, we got to wait a little.” My dream is I wanted to get him in with enough time to score a basket. I wanted to put him in and not have to take him back out. I thought I want to get them to the fourth quarter but I want to get them in enough time so that he could get a few chances. I put him with over four minutes to go and the place exploded. In fact, I’m usually a pretty macho guy. Normally I don’t cry at basketball games but this was different. What happened was one of our parents had made these placards of Jason’s face and put them on paint sticks and he gave them to the students. He said, “If Jason gets in the game, please show these.”
I had no idea that was happening and Jason didn’t either. When he walked on the floor for the first time, the student body gave him a standing ovation. They show all these placards. I’m Mr. Macho. I sat down, which I rarely ever do. Tears are rolling down my face. I’m profoundly touched. The game begins, Jason gets the ball in the first possession in the right corner behind the three-point arc. Our crowd stands in anticipation. It misses by 6 feet. As I kid people, I know you’re not supposed to pray in the public schools but I pray, “Dear God, please help him get one basket.”
A great lesson we can all learn from this is, how many times in our lives have you failed miserably on your first attempt and then you give up? All of us got to think about it because Jason could have done that. That was embarrassing. One of the things we always thought our players is the next play. You got to be ready to move on and Jason illustrated that to the best. In the next possession, he gets a much shorter shot from about 10 feet. This time, it hits the backboard, hits the rim and falls off. I’m thinking, “God is starting to listen, we’re getting closer.” In the third possession, he gets another three-pointer. This time he lets it go, magic. It goes in. The place explodes. I’m thinking to myself, “God must be a basketball fan. He helps Jason score.”
I’m thinking, “He can’t get any better than this. He’s got a three-pointer.” After that, for the next three minutes, as I kid people, Jason’s boyhood idol was Kobe Bryant. He started turning into Kobe Bryan. He starts making shot after shot. I’ll get a fast forward. I’ll bring you back to the end of the game. Four months after that, Jason is up for the ESPY Award in California for the Greatest Sports Moment of the Year. One of the four finalists he’s against is Kobe Bryant, his idol. Kobe had scored 81 points in an NBA game and he has won the four finals. He got to meet his idol and beat him out for the ESPY.
Going back to the final game. He’s making all these shots. I’ll take you through the last ten seconds. Our opponent that night, Spencerport High School, I want to give kudos to their coach and players. They were good sports. They score and our player takes out of bounds. Normally you throw it to your point guard. Someone throws it right to J-Mac. He’s dribbling down the court. I look up, the clock’s ticking. I thought they were going to let them go, he’d go in and make a short shot. No, he pulls up two feet behind the arc, almost an NBA three. He let’s go of this rainbow. I said, “Don’t shoot that. That’s way too far.” Swish. I look over, our student body and our players run on the floor. I’m thinking I’m living the movie, Rudy. This was truly incredible. I have no idea how many points he had scored. He’s got the ball over his head. He is sitting on his teammate’s shoulders and our public address announcer comes on in scores and says, “The leading score for the Trojans tonight, J-Mac, with twenty points.” It was crazy.
He ended up tying in school record for six threes. One beautiful thing I want to share with the audience because we had spent so much trying to unite this team again, was I had never asked the kids on the court to pass Jason the ball, yet those last four minutes, they pass him the ball every time. To me, that’s what the essence of teamwork is. You’re willing to give up the shine and light in another teammate. Probably one of the most profound touching things to my heart is to see how they were willing to do that for him. It shows how much they appreciated him and cared about him.
[00:29:43] You have on your LinkedIn profile and everywhere else, it says, “Attitudes are contagious. Are yours worth catching?” The team took that and they took it from your talk with them the day before that big game that you guys ended up losing. In overtime, that was able to sit there and say, “We have to win and die as a team.” J-Mac became an essence of the team, a senior. Being able to rally around him and give him his moment to be able to shine did as much for his teammates as it did for him, for you and for the program is that it brought everybody together.
That was the essence of leadership to be able to sit there and say, “This kid has his due. Let’s put him on the court. Let’s give him a chance at it and give him an opportunity. Win, lose or draw, let’s give him the opportunity to show the world what he has after all these years and all this time of the dedication of being there.” The team around that was able to see where the magic lay in that is the fact that they saw that he was not just given this opportunity because of his neighbor, what he was is because of what he did. That’s leadership, teamwork and inspiration.Be concerned of how you're building culture, day in and day out. Your words and actions do matter. Click To Tweet
Those are the things that we need to be thinking about no matter where we are whether we’re coaches and leaders within organizations. Whoever we are, how do we give people a chance to shine in their own light? That’s so important. I’ve got one last question for you because we’ve gone through this incredible circle. When you’re looking at this, from a coach’s point of view, what is the one key thing you want to be able to tell the next level of coach and leader to enable them to be successful on their own and bring their teams along with them? After all these years of coaching, that’s probably the one thing that you can instill that can make the world a better place moving forward.
[00:31:56] The biggest thing that I would say is that you’ve got to have a plan about building trust and understanding that culture is built daily. I’ll give you a couple of examples. We would have a theme every week. One of the things I emphasize to our players is if we’re going to be the best we could be, you have to be outstanding and things you can control. You brought up one of my favorite quotes, “Attitudes are contagious. Are yours worth catching?” That was an attitude quote we would share during our attitude week. Another thing you control is your work ethic. Are you investing the time and effort?
You mentioned with Jason the fact that I put him in but I believed he deserved a chance because he never gave up. He came all the time. It wasn’t like he showed up on the game day. He was there every single day, all the off-season. It was a rallying point. As a leader, you’re looking at what are the things you can point. After that game, it started a little slow because it was not my intention. We had no media there but we started to get a lot of media, in fact, all over the world. I was on more TV and radio stations than I could shake a stick at.
We’re trying to prepare for this sectional term that we had never won and now we’re getting bigger crowds in our game. We had a buy-in in our first round that we won easily in the quarterfinals. The semifinals are my big stumbling block. In that game, we were ahead most of the game. We blew it and we were down in the fourth quarter but this time I was different. I handled the adversity better and I stayed positive with the guys. They hung together. Jason was our glue during the sectionals because he had to go back as our team manager because the rule was you had to play in six games to play in the sectional. He knew that right up front yet he was so into it.
It’s interesting when you talk about building a team something that I opened one of my talks with is that I ended up being part of six Section V Championships. We have to win that first one. Jason was part of five, one being on a team and then four more. He was one of my volunteer assistant coaches. The people would ask them, “Jason, what was the best thing about your senior?” He immediately says, “Winning the Section V Championship.” People asked me, “Coach, what was the best thing of your coaching career go?” I would say, “The J-Mac game, without a doubt,” because, to me, that was the essence of what a team was all about when you’re trying to shine the light on other people.
In summarizing, it would be, be concerned of how you’re building culture, day in and day out, your words and actions do matter. That’s important. The last thing I’ll say is, you’ve got to be cognizant of what you stand for and what kind of people are you bringing on your team? If you don’t have the right people, you can end up struggling. We would keep guys that maybe had a little less ability but we’re more into our culture as opposed to somebody that may be a little more ability but didn’t fit our culture.
It’s the same thing when you’re running a business. Maybe someone has a little more skill but their attitude and work ethic are pretty weak. They don’t fit your culture and you take them because he’s got a skillset that you think you can use. It ends up bombing your business or your team more times than that. You have to be cognizant of the people you’re bringing to your team.
[00:35:37] The best way to get people in touch with you is through the website, CoachJimJohnson.com. People can buy A Coach and A Miracle there. I have one last question. It’s the question I ask every single person before I let them out the door. When you get in your car and you drive away, what’s the one thing you want people to think about you when you’re not in the room?
[00:36:02] I’ve started to think about this more from a legacy standpoint. I met with a former player and my former assistant took over for me last 2020. He is a young man and he ended up playing for the Houston Rockets part of 2020. That was a dream come true for him. My assistant took over and has had some success but he said, “The one thing I always admired about Coach Johnson is I believe he cared more about us as people than he did as basketball players.” My legacy could be is that I was a person of integrity and I cared about people. I’d be happy.
[00:36:46] It’s a great thing to have people saying that you’re someone that they trust, you’re somebody that communicates and somebody that they can rely on. Coach, thanks for the amazing conversation. I appreciate it.
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