Anger, sadness, and depression are the emotions most people would have if their chance of getting drafted to play in the NBA were snatched away from them. But spend any length of time with Isaiah Austin, and you quickly realize he's not like most people.
"I'm glad to say that I've been through all of this and if I could go back and change any of it, I wouldn't," he says, "because it's definitely made me a stronger man."
Austin was a dominating 7-foot-1 big man at Baylor who was projected to be a first-round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. But his chance to star in the pros was suddenly gone after he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome five days before his name was set to be called. That's the cruelest way to not accomplish something, when it's so close you can taste it. And even for a positive person like Austin, the news was devastating.
"It was difficult because my whole life, I've been playing basketball and nobody detected it," he says. "Why is someone going to say I can't play anymore after everything I've been through? But it's all been a blessing in disguise."
Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder of connective tissue that can lead to heart rupture. Austin's hoop dreams disappeared in a nightmare that featured doctors and DNA tests, a disease he had never heard of, and the threat of not being able to live a long, healthy existence. He was forced to choose between the sport he loved and life.
"My whole playing career, I never had any signs or symptoms of what the doctors were explaining to me," Austin says. "They asked if I had shortness of breath and I never did. They asked if I ever blacked out from pushing myself past my limits, and I never have. They asked if I get dizzy or see bright, flashing lights and things like that that would detect Marfan syndrome, and I never had any of those symptoms.
"When I found out about it at the NBA Combine, I wasn't too worried about it," he says. "I thought, 'What are the odds that I could have Marfan syndrome and my career could be over?' So they let me continue on with my draft workouts, and I was going to different cities every week. And then five days before the NBA Draft, I finally got the results back from my DNA test that said I did have it."
His mother broke the news to him when the results of his blood test came back positive. But Austin is no stranger to adversity. Despite losing the vision in his right eye in eighth grade after suffering a detached retina, he still went on to become one of the best players in college basketball. He was set to turn pro after his sophomore season at Baylor.
"I really didn't have a lot of confidence in myself, but I realized I could go to college with this and possibly make a living off of basketball," he says. "It was really just god-given talent that allowed me to play, even with one eye."
About an hour after ESPN first aired his story, Austin received a call from NBA commissioner Adam Silver with an invitation to attend the Draft. Then Silver surprised the 7-footer again when he was called to the stage as a ceremonial pick by the league.
"That was amazing," Austin says. "I was just ecstatic because I knew I had friends who were going to be drafted, and I still wanted to be there to support them because I knew they would be supporting me in the same situation."
Now Austin is supporting others through his eponymous foundation. He wrote about his inspirational story in a book, Dream Again, co-authored by Matt Litton, with a foreword by Washington Redskins quarterback fellow Baylor alum Robert Griffin III.
"I'm just proud of the hard work that went into it," Austin says. "Everybody that supported me and helped me to get the book out. It's really special to me to be able to share my story, and I feel that putting this to words will help a lot of people around the world."
Ironically, Austin is getting feedback beyond the small fraternity of people that share his disease. "It's funny," he says, "because people would think that I would just relate with people who are affected by Marfan syndrome, but actually I have people who just have everyday problems in their lives that tell me I'm an inspiration to them, that they look to me to be able to push through their darkest days."
Since last year, Austin has re-enrolled at Baylor, and he's scheduled to graduate in December. He takes special care of himself, sees a cardiologist once a year, and he watches his diet. Austin works out occasionally, but nothing like before. Remarkably, two weeks after he was diagnosed with Marfan, Austin stepped back on the court.
"It was comforting. I wasn't scared to get back out and play," he says. "Basketball is still the love of my life. It has a place in my heart, and it always will."
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