The NCAA Tournament is a big event in the Mashack household. Tennessee sophomore guard Jahmai Mashack was conveniently sick on the tournament’s opening day each March and his entire family — even his grandmother — filled out a bracket every year.
“We were doing brackets since Jahmai came out the womb,” Jahmai’s mother Meika Mashack said.
In those early days, Jahmai Mashack’s path to playing in the NCAA Tournament looked narrow and rocky. At four-years old, Guillain-Barré syndrome put Mashack in the hospital for a month and took away his ability to walk while affecting him in a myriad of other ways.
Back then, the Mashack family was unsure Jahmai would have a normal life. This weekend, he plays in his second NCAA Tournament in as many years at Tennessee. This is how Mashack went from relearning how to walk to starting in the Big Dance.
“That’s just his personality. I’m going to figure it out behind closed doors,” Meika said of Jahmai. “I’m going to just keep thinking, I’m going to keep trying and keep figuring it out. It may not come easy but I’m not giving up. If you tell him that he can’t, he’s going to prove to you that he can.”
Guillain-Barré syndrome, or GBS, is a rare disorder in which a person’s immune system attacks its nerves. It takes feeling away in your feet and it slowly works up your body. GBS affects less than 20,000 people in America every year. It affects elderly people at a higher rate while young children almost never contract it.
Meika Mashack knew something was wrong with her middle child soon after he woke up. The usually energetic Jahmai was lethargic. A trip to the hospital produced no definitive answers.
“I told my husband, something just isn’t right,” Meika said.
That mother’s intuition led to a second hospital trip, this time to well respected Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital. Jahmai wouldn’t leave for a month.
“We took him there and by the time he got to the back, when they tried to call him back, he had no feeling in his legs,” Meika said.
Jahmai’s health got worse over the next week. GBS began affecting his lungs and led to him contracting pneumonia. It took the doctors that full week to diagnose Jahmai with GBS. While the symptoms matched up, GBS affects so few small children the doctors were hesitant to believe that was what was wrong.
“It was kind of surreal to me to go from, like I said, one day knowing everything and the next day just losing all that feeling,” Jahmai said on the Tennessee OFWAF podcast. “It was hard as far as like I was really scared and nervous as far as when we were walking and moving my hands at different phases. It was hard for me to pick things up off of tables. Little feelings like that, it was tough for me.”
Meika didn’t leave the hospital during Jahmai’s month there while her husband Elton took care of their other two children.
Those first days in the long trek back to normalcy were the hardest. The previously upbeat Jahmai became reserved and developed a much different personality than the one he previously had.
“I was kind of more down and not as much excited for things,” Jahmai said.
“It took a long time for Jahmai to become back who he was,” Meika added.
GBS is so rare in young children that doctors were unsure of what the long-term effects would be. Would Jahmai be able to play sports? Would he even be able to live a normal life? None of those things were clear in that first month.
Living in that uncertainty was difficult for Jahmai’s parents as they tried to balance optimistic and realistic thinking and messaging during that time.
“My mom and my brother and the rest of my family made me feel okay with what was going on,” Jahmai said. “I never saw them worry. I never saw them being frightened or freaked out which kind of freed my nerves.”
“We didn’t want him to see us panicked but we’re also very open so I don’t believe in lying to kids or pretending that something isn’t there,” Meika said. “That’s our family. If you’re in a forest and you can see your next step, that’s what we’re going to focus on. Your next step. And I think that helped him to not get too overwhelmed. It kept our oldest and our youngest being able to keep moving forward and that’s just kind of how we are.”
The month in the hospital was just the start of a long recovery process. Jahmai went through treatment and did plenty of physical and speech therapy over the next three years. After the first year, the Mashacks knew Jahmai would live at least a “somewhat normal life”.
Still, Jahmai wasn’t all the way back to how he was physically or personality wise before the incident. His motor skills were lagging behind which led to challenging first years of school. The way Jahmai approached those difficulties was an early glimpse at the mindset and competitiveness that foretold his recovery and road to big time college basketball.
“He’s not going to be a kid that’s going to want to be singled out or last or not competitive,” Teika said. “It affected him but it affected him more privately and it just caused him to work twice as hard in private so he could be okay in public.”
After three years, Jahmai stopped going through intensive therapy so he could “go be a normal kid.” While he wasn’t playing high-level sports during this time, his competitiveness showed through in a family full of competitors.
“We were a very very competitive family,” Jahmai said. “Like, I say competitive and a lot of people say competitive but we took competition to a whole ‘nother level whether it was our parents or our siblings or even some of our cousins that came over.”
Both of Jahmai’s parents played college athletics (basketball and track). His older brother went on to play football at Arizona while his younger sister is poised to run track in college. But in those years, the competition was in the living room and the game was Wii Sports.
With Jahmai’s motor skills lacking, he had little success— especially against his older brother.
“Sore loser isn’t even the right words to describe me when I was young,” Jahmai said. “I hated losing and one thing that was funny is my brother knew I hated losing. He knew how much that bothered me.”
“He’s just not good and when you’re not good everybody doesn’t take it easy on you,” Meika added.
“I would sneak downstairs and definitely do whatever I can to beat my brother the next time we played,” Jahmai said. “I just took that upon myself to keep on trying to beat him and get to that level.”
“I would hear him in the middle of the night like what is that noise downstairs? And he would just be sweating and trying to bowl and it became our personal secret,” Meika said. “By the time Christmas came around— the next holiday— with family, he was able to beat people.”
“I thought I was smarter than everyone else and thought they didn’t know I was working on it but they all knew,” Jahmai remembers.
Wii Sports success was just the start. Jahmai started playing sports around fourth or fifth grade. It started by running track before trying his hand at both football and basketball. Jahmai enjoyed playing football with his friends but basketball is where he found his true love.
“I was literally just a rebound guy,” Jahmai said. “Go in, grab as many rebounds as you can and don’t dribble, don’t shoot the ball but go in and grab as many rebounds as you can and defend without fouling anybody. I just enjoyed it. I was having fun. I was just happy to be playing. … That’s where you probably saw me smiling the most.”
Jahmai’s athletic talent was clear. GBS still limited him athletically but he was overcoming those deficiencies. By 12-years old, the Mashack’s were doing everything they could to help Jahmai become the best athlete he could.
“He has some talent it just needs to be honed,” Meika said. “Let’s figure out his deficits, where they are and how we can correct them.”
By high school, Jahmai was one of the top basketball players on the west coast. The 6-foot-4 guard earned 14 offers from quality programs across the country and ranked as a four-star recruit and the third best prospect in California according to the 247sports composite rankings.
There were a lot of things important to Mashack when he was going through the recruiting process. Near the top of the list was playing at a quality program that could consistently go to the NCAA Tournament.
“Jahmai was recruited by some of everyone in the nation, going to a place that could get to the Dance was a primary (factor),” Meiksa said. “It didn’t matter— come here he can be the man— it didn’t matter. Jahmai wanted to go on a competitive team where he could get to this. It was such a big thing. For us, to be here. It’s surreal. We appreciate it. He appreciates it.”
Tennessee went to the NCAA Tournament in Mashack’s freshman season but the shooting guard played just nine minutes in an opening round route of Longwood before not playing against Michigan.
This season, Mashack is a starter entering the NCAA Tournament. The sophomore had a larger role from the season’s offset but grew into his own in recent weeks after injuries propelled him into a larger role. In the Vols’ last eight games, Mashack is averaging 8.6 points in 25.6 minutes per game.
“March Madness,” Meika said. “You just don’t forget that stuff. I don’t care what you go on to do. It’s a special time.”
It’s a special time and it’s been a special journey for Jahmai Mashack. One he doesn’t take for granted as he takes the court for his second NCAA Tournament.
“Knowing how things could have been different,” Jahmai said. “It definitely is something that drives me to work even harder. Times where I don’t want to, I always think of the times where my mom was working hard to get me to where I was and my dad was working hard and the sacrifices that they make.”