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Cornell coach Steve Donahue finds special inspiration for NCAA tournament run

By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010; D03

ITHACA, N.Y. -- The text message arrived on Cornell Coach Steve Donahue's cellphone minutes before the Big Red upset Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was a message from one coach to another: "If you don't dream to become a champion, you won't become a champion."

The coach was not one of Donahue's college basketball contemporaries. It was Jason McElwain, a 21-year-old volunteer junior varsity assistant coach from the Rochester, N.Y., area. McElwain spent Selection Sunday with the Big Red and has corresponded with Donahue ever since, sending Donahue messages during the 12th-seeded Big Red's NCAA tournament run to the East Region semifinals, where it will face top-seeded Kentucky in Syracuse, N.Y., on Thursday night.

"If J-Mac says dream it, then that's all I'm going to think about," Donahue said. "We can do this, and we'll see what happens."

McElwain, who is autistic, became a national story four years ago when he scored 20 points in the final four minutes of a high school basketball game in Upstate New York. He was featured on national news programs, won an ESPY award and met President George W. Bush.

Donahue and his wife, Pamela, watched a television feature on McElwain after the 2006 game. They both cried. One of their four children, Matthew, has a form of autism. Donahue also has a brother with mental disabilities.

When Donahue first took the job at Cornell in 2000, he befriended an autistic boy named Jeff who spent time around the athletic department. Jeff sings Donahue the team song on the bus before road trips, and Donahue once brought him on a road trip to Penn and Princeton and allowed him to stay in Donahue's hotel room. Monday's practice included spectators from the Special Olympics.

"Steve has always just had relationships with people like that," Pamela said.

Shortly after learning about McElwain, Donahue sent a note to Jim Johnson, McElwain's high school coach at Greece Athena High. They continued to correspond, and Donahue invited McElwain and Johnson to watch the NCAA tournament selection show with Cornell this season.

"It was an unbelievable experience to be with college players," said McElwain, who will help coach the Greece Athena varsity team next season. "I've talked to Coach Donahue ever since, trying to help him and give him advice on the game plans with his team. It somehow works."

Donahue's phone has not stopped buzzing. McElwain offered Donahue advice on the Big Red's first two opponents -- fifth-seeded Temple and fourth-seeded Wisconsin -- and has been studying Kentucky.

"He's got some really good points," Donahue said. "As good as anyone else who analyzes it."

"That just brings a tear to my eye, when a D-I coach says that about a 21-year-old guy who just started coaching high school basketball last year," McElwain said. "He knows his stuff, too, if he's won three Ivy League titles in a row. And not just a parent, but a parent of an autistic child, he's really brought a lot of inspiration to the community out there in Ithaca and other autistic parents that they're able to support a child with special abilities or needs."

Matt Donahue, who is 12, has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism that is not as severe as McElwain's. In the same way McElwain caught on to basketball, Matt's fixation is politics. He cares little about basketball. Cornell's players say he knows more about politics than anyone on the team.

"Knows a lot more than I do," Donahue said, adding that Matt has read books on President Obama and Vice President Biden, the Kennedys and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"He is Barack Obama's biggest fan," Pamela said.

When Cornell was about to beat Wisconsin and head to the Sweet 16, Matt turned to Pamela and said, "I can't believe I'm watching a basketball game when health care's about to pass." Sunday turned out to be a great day for Matt.

"Not because of our win," Donahue said. "Finally, when we landed, we got a text that the health care bill passed. That made his day."

Pamela said the current group of seniors -- the same ones who have helped turn around Cornell's program -- have formed a particular connection with Matt. He talks to all the players and sits in the back of the bus as if he's on the team. After the Big Red's final home game, Matt asked Cornell star Ryan Wittman where he was going to graduate school and recommended potential fields of interest -- never mind that Wittman averages 17.8 points per games and hits 43 percent of his three-pointers.

"I didn't really know what [autism] was before I got here," said Wittman, whose father, Randy Wittman, is an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards. "Now I think all of us are pretty familiar with it."

That's exactly what Donahue wants, and one of the reasons he invited McElwain to spend time with the team. Donahue said the first step of autism research is awareness. What appealed to him most about McElwain's story was the way McElwain was embraced by his teammates, coaches and community. And as much as the NCAA tournament run has provided Donahue with a national voice, the message that matters most is the one delivered to 20 players in his own locker room.

"I love that these guys have a chance to meet someone like that," Donahue said. "They're going to have to deal with some disabilities in their future families. If this helps them understand it, accept it, then as a teacher and a coach, I hope I helped them out."

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