One day when Isaiah Austin was ten, he stood in the batter’s box. The pitcher — young and as inexperienced as Austin was — wound up and threw the ball to the catcher forty-six feet away. Seconds later, the ball arrived high and tight to Austin’s face.
“I got hit in the right eye with a baseball,” Austin recalls. The injury would go on to affect his athletic ambitions. “And then when I was in eighth grade during basketball season, I went up to dunk during a pregame warm-up,” Austin continues. “And I remember coming down and I saw red.”
The dunk aggravated the earlier baseball injury and his retina was torn. In an effort to save the vision in his right eye, the young Austin endured a year of surgeries.
“The toughest part for me then,” he remembers, “was I couldn’t play basketball. I had four surgeries to try to repair my vision.”
But they didn’t work. So Isaiah had a new vision. A year after the injury, he returned to the court determined to start playing the game he loved so much relying on practice and muscle memory.
Despite these limitations, Isaiah Austin eventually rose to stardom as a menacing seven-foot, one-inch center for Baylor University’s basketball team. The Internet age made sure he was well known before his two years in the NCAA. At Grace Preparatory Academy in Arlington, Texas, he was ranked the number three recruit in the entire country by ESPN. “I was being recruited by basically everybody in the country,” Austin recalls. “All the way from Syracuse and North Carolina and Duke to Kentucky, Florida, all big-time schools. [I chose Baylor] because it was close to home. It was basically a family aspect. They really just showed me respect. I knew it was a Christian university and I knew I would be able to express my faith openly there.”
He was a seven-foot-tall giant as a sixteen-year-old, a rare physical quality that makes sense considering what happened to him during the week leading up to the 2014 NBA draft.
“Austin’s intrigue as a prospect has long hinged on his extremely rare physical attributes,” the blog Draft Express said going into the draft. “The Texas native has outstanding size for a center at any level to go along with impressive mobility.”
Declaring for the NBA draft after his sophomore year, he was projected as a late first-round to early second-round pick, after a season that ended in an NCAA Tournament run to the Sweet Sixteen, falling to Wisconsin. The future was wide open; NBA franchises like the Boston Celtics expressed interest in Austin’s ability and talent. Interest would mean a lucrative contract, fame, and — most importantly —fulfillment of a dream cemented by commitment and desire.
And this appeal came despite the fact that Austin was blind in his right eye, an injury that was only publicly disclosed earlier that year.
“At first, basketball was tough because my depth perception was off,” Austin recalls. He learned to play through it by keeping his head moving. And it never eroded his determination to be the best on the court.
“I got up at six every day. I trained every day,” Austin says. “I wanted to be ready for the NBA.”
Being ready for the league meant participating in all the events surrounding the draft, including a physical examination that consisted of a blood test. That is when everything changed.
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One month before the draft in May 2014, during the Draft Combine — a showcase where prospective players take physical measurements, play in basketball drills, participate in interviews and take medical tests – Dr. Robert Bonow gave him a routine checkup. Immediately the doctor detected an irregular heartbeat. He asked Austin if he had ever heard of Marfan syndrome before. He hadn’t.
“They first said I had symptoms of it. They said my hand flexibility was abnormal and my heartbeat was abnormal.”
The doctor ordered additional blood tests to look into it further. Austin kept playing. “I’m thinking I’m fine, I forgot about all the extra testing. I was trying out for teams. I didn’t take the questions too seriously.”
Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue, which is made up of proteins. It is caused by a defect or mutation in the gene that tells the body how to make fibrillin-1, a particular kind of protein found in our bodies. This mutation causes an increase in another protein called transforming growth factor beta, and this increased protein causes problem in connective tissues.
The disease is dangerous because connective tissue is found throughout the body, and can particularly affect the heart due to aortic enlargement — the expansion of the main blood vessel that carries blood away from the heart to the rest of the body — a possibly life-threatening situation.
Physical characteristics of Marfan syndrome are long arms, legs and fingers, and a tall and thin body type. Many college-scouting reports about Austin expressed concerns about his tall, skinny frame. They noted how he seemed to be getting stronger but had an extremely wide wingspan. The signs were there all along but throughout his high school and college career, no one had looked at his size and saw anything but NBA potential. How could his physical attributes be anything but a blessing?
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Austin told his parents and others close to him about Dr. Bonow’s concern but continued preparing for draft night in June. His parents were worried but never considered that Austin had been living with the syndrome as an athlete his whole life. He continued working out privately, playing for more than a dozen teams in May and June. Two teams told him that they would select him in the first round if they had the chance. All of the hard work, early mornings, rolled ankles, sprains and practice seemed like it was paying off.
“I was playing my best ball during that time,” Austin says. The sophomore from Baylor was ready to take his game to the hardwood courts of thirty arenas throughout the United States and Canada. He was ready to play against the greatest players the world has to offer. He was ready for the NBA.
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Six days before the beginning of the draft, Lisa Green, Austin’s mother, was driving home from her job in Kansas. Lisa moved from Texas after Isaiah enrolled at Baylor. The doctor called with the results of the further blood tests. Austin had Marfan syndrome. He would never be able to play professional basketball due to an enlarged aorta. Vigorous activity opened Austin up to many physical complications, including death, because the muscles in his heart were stretched thin.
Lisa immediately went into action. She and Ben Green, Isaiah’s stepfather, left for Texas that night. In the car, Lisa began to notify those close to Isaiah about the devastating news. The next day would be harder. The gathered group of family and friends had to tell Isaiah.
One of the people Lisa called from the car that night was Ray Forsett. The coach of the Prime Prep Academy in Dallas was in the school’s parking lot. After Austin had gone off to college Forsett had become the school’s coach. Lisa told him the news and he dropped the phone. He called Lisa back, who asked the coach to take care of Isaiah before the family meeting.
Forsett was still involved in Austin’s development and had scheduled practice with him the next morning. That day, he picked Austin up in his car and practiced with him, like usual. Afterwards, Forsett took Austin to his aunt’s house. The driveway and street were lined with cars.
“I had no idea what was going on,” Austin told me. “Ray told me to go inside and I did.”
“Everybody was there: my Baylor coaching staff, my pastor, my agent, and my family. I saw my mom, crying. She told me the tests came back positive. That I had Marfan syndrome. And, I knew.”
Austin knew that he would never play in the NBA. He went into the bathroom and ten minutes later emerged, poised and strong.
“It is out of my control,” Austin realized. “I can’t change it, so why focus on it?”
The group of family and friends began to pray. It felt like a funeral. They were mourning.
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On June 22, 2014, Isaiah Austin sat down with ESPN’s Holly Rowe to tell her and the world about his diagnosis, only four days before his name was supposed to be called at the draft in Brooklyn. The ESPN video clip is titled “Isaiah Austin Heartbroken As NBA Dream Ends.” Austin wears all black and can barely lift his head up. The way he talks about hearing the news is as if he is going through the process of hearing it again for the first time. “The draft is four days away,” Austin chokes, “and I had a dream that my name was going to be called.” The weight of the dream unattained was obvious to everyone who tuned in.
Four days later NBA Commissioner Adam Silver would select Austin as a special pick in the NBA Draft. “Like the other men here tonight,” Silver told the crowd as Austin walked towards the stage, “Isaiah committed himself through endless hard work and dedication to a potential career as a professional basketball player, and we wanted to make sure he fulfilled at least this part of his dream.”
Austin genuinely smiled for the first time since hearing his diagnosis.
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This past semester, Isaiah Austin, college student, returned to the Waco, Texas, campus at Baylor. The Baylor community embraced him: Coach Scott Drew gave him his scholarship back and welcomed him to the coaching staff as a graduate assistant.
“I’m a normal student,” Austin says. “I’m a normal guy around campus. It is a family atmosphere here, everyone cares and loves each other.” Austin — like many at this Christian university — chose to attend Baylor partially because of his faith in God. “Baylor has a wonderful spiritual environment. Faith has always been a part of my life.”
“My main goal right now is to finish my degree,” he says, and he is doing just that. Austin has three semesters left to get his degree in business and then wants to pursue an MBA. He says he “misses the game a lot.”
“I don’t watch the NBA as much as I used to,” he admits. He is living the life of a busy undergraduate and coaching assistant.
The biggest adjustment has been learning to live with a disease that limits his physical activity. “I listen to my doctors, [they] tell me how to live my life. They give me information on the measures to take to prolong it. I don’t live scared. I still exercise. I go on jogs and exercise every day. I love to play golf.”
Last summer, he took a job with NBA TV and did some work with the online publication Bleacher Report. The NBA and Adam Silver
publicly offered Austin an open job opportunity with the league after his graduation but he seems to be moving more towards coaching at Baylor right now. A year ago he was playing with them, and today he is helping coach them.
“Some of the guys are older than me, but it doesn’t matter. I come to the game and the players with a lot of respect. Everyone on the team is great. I like how I can still be a leader. One day I might be a good coach.”
“It is fun to coach,” he adds. “The players really take everything I say in. They come to me. I enjoy helping them get better.”
Coaches in all sports at all levels have made similar statements. They are the leaders — pulling talent, desire, and heart out of the group they have been appointed to command. Coaches teach plays and fundamentals but the great ones offer guidance and tenets that help players after the final whistle. The comments above are particularly unique because of who said them.
Most have played the game, often at the highest levels that that particular sport offers. But few were expected to be first round draft picks, and are still in their twenties.
Isaiah Austin is anything but a normal coach. Between classes and practices, he has found time to work on a memoir, coming out this year, called “Dream Again.”
Isaiah has dreamed again and he has turned the nightmare of a dream deferred into something more.
“[I would tell athletes] to not take for granted the sport that they are able to play,” Austin told Larry King last summer. “It really is a privilege to be out there and wear a jersey on your chest and run up and down the court.”
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Garrett McGrath is a regular contributor to Narratively
and Uni Watch. Follow him on Twitter at @garrettpmcgrath.
Jonathan Zizzo is a commercial photographer based in Dallas.