When Isaiah Austin learned that his basketball career was over due to Marfan syndrome, he curled his 7-1 frame into a corner and cried.
It was devastating news for the former Baylor player who envisioned a long, productive NBA career.
But Austin didn’t stay in that corner.
Since his diagnosis days before the NBA draft in June, Austin has traveled all over the country spreading the word about Marfan syndrome. Working for the Marfan Foundation and his own Dream Again foundation, Austin has raised awareness about the rare genetic disorder that can be deadly if left undiagnosed by doctors.
“I’m trying to raise awareness for Marfan syndrome and trying to get as many lives saved as we can,” Austin said. “We’re just trying to help people push through adversity in their lives. I want to be a positive factor that people look at if they’re struggling.”
With his hopeful spirit and tireless devotion to the Marfan cause, Austin is the Tribune-Herald’s Central Texas Sportsperson of the Year.
Austin is back at Baylor working toward his business degree that he plans to complete in December 2015. He helps Baylor coach Scott Drew’s staff as a student coach. It’s quite a different life than he enjoyed last spring when he was a scoring, shot blocking presence in the middle helping the Bears reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
“I went from being able to dunk the ball and breaking a sweat in practice to wiping up sweat from players falling on the ground in practice,” Austin said. “It’s very different. But it’s been fun and a great experience so far. I’ve really enjoyed just being around the players and the coaching staff and getting to know people on a different level.”
But working toward his degree and helping out Baylor’s coaching staff are only part of Austin’s extraordinarily busy schedule. He’s flown all over the country to places like Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Las Vegas to spread the word about Marfan syndrome.
Each time he speaks before a crowd, he uses his own life as an example to encourage others to push forward and stay positive.
“I think I’ve been to 15 states since school started,” Austin said. “My main objective is to share my story with as many people as we can to inspire people. People of all ages have been telling me that I’ve been inspiring to their lives just because of the will power I have to push through adversity.”
Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue which holds organs and cells in place. Features of the disorder are most often found in the heart, blood vessels, bones, joints and eyes. Some Marfan features such as aortic enlargement can be life threatening.
Many people living with Marfan syndrome don’t realize they have the disorder. Early detection and subsequent treatment are important to living a longer life.
Austin’s high visibility as a former college athlete and a potential NBA draft pick helped the Marfan Foundation raise awareness in ways its organizers couldn’t have imagined.
“The hits on the Marfan Foundation website went from 60,000 in May before Isaiah was diagnosed to 470,000 in June after he was diagnosed,” said Eileen Masciale, the foundation’s director of communications. “He has totally taken it to a new level because people in the public are so aware of it. It was terrible for him because it changed his career path. But he’s such a quality person, and he embraced it and talked about it and learned about it.”
Before he began preparations for the NBA draft, Austin had never heard of Marfan syndrome.
Eye injury didn’t heal
In January, he revealed that he was blind in his right eye after he was hit by a baseball in middle school. Austin underwent four surgeries for the detached retina, but eventually was fitted with a prosthetic eye.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever know the true story on Isaiah’s eye,” said Lisa Green, Isaiah’s mother. “He underwent four surgeries that never took. The eye injury was so bad. Maybe because of his situation with Marfan’s is why we never could get it fixed with surgery.”
Despite playing with sight in one eye, Austin was one of the top high school players in the country coming out of Grace Preparatory Academy in Arlington. At 7-1, he had remarkable shooting and ballhandling skills and was a tremendous shot blocker.
As a freshman, Austin made an immediate impact for the Bears as he averaged 13 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots for their NIT championship team in 2012-13. After offseason surgery for a torn labrum in his shoulder, Austin came back his sophomore year to average 11.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 blocked shots for Baylor’s Sweet 16 team.
During NBA pre-draft evaluations, Green said EKG testing for Austin’s heart was abnormal for the first time. That led to genetic testing which revealed Marfan syndrome.
NBA doctors recommended that Austin didn’t play professional basketball because extreme physical exertion could lead to a ruptured aorta that could cause death. Though Green was sad that her son couldn’t pursue his NBA dream, she was thankful his condition was caught in time.
“Even when Isaiah underwent genetic testing, they thought there was a low probability of him having Marfan syndrome,” Green said. “But the test results were positive. I was absolutely relieved to know. I can still talk to him and see him and hug him, and that’s all a mother really wants. God blessed him and saved his life, and now has bigger plans for him.”
The hardest thing for Green was telling Austin of the diagnosis. She gathered a support group in the Metroplex on June 21 when she broke the news to him, including Drew and his staff, high school basketball coach Ray Forsett and other friends and family.
Austin was devastated when he heard the news just a few days before the June 26 NBA draft.
“I can’t even put it into words,” Austin said. “I thought I was dreaming. But then reality hit and the next morning I woke up and it was the same results.”
After Green told her son his NBA career was over before it even started, Austin slid into a corner and cried. But his thoughts quickly turned to his younger brother Noah and younger sister Narah who saw how he reacted to the life changing news.
“He was crying and his dad pulled him off the ground,” Green said. “He was devastated but then he saw the fear on the faces of his little brother and sister, and he felt he had to keep himself together. He thought he had to be strong because his brother and sister looked up to him.”
Drew expected the worst because Austin’s NBA dream was over, but everyone left the evening feeling hopeful.
“I went up there thinking it was going to be like a funeral because you know how down and upset everyone is going to be,” Drew said. “At the same time, I was pleasantly surprised because his pastor and his high school coach put the night to song and made it more inspiring and uplifting. After the initial shock wore off, you could see his heart gravitate toward kids because he wanted to make sure his brother and sister were OK.”
Austin was invited to the NBA draft as a guest of commissioner Adam Silver, but he had no idea how special the night would be at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Silver made Austin an honorary draft pick of the NBA which became the most memorable moment of the night.
“It was breathtaking,” Austin said. “The NBA draft was amazing. What Adam Silver did for me and my family that night was unbelievable. It showed how much class that man has.”
Inspiring role model
Following his diagnosis, Austin began making appearances for the Marfan Foundation with its annual conference in Baltimore. Marfan Foundation leaders quickly saw how inspirational Austin was.
“He came to the conference and was a role model for everyone,” Masciale said. “His path changed so quickly but he was inspirational and truly not thinking about himself. From the first day he talked about it, that was just the beginning and more people became interested in it.”
Children diagnosed with Marfan syndrome have been especially touched by Austin’s message. He’s made friends locally with 10-year-old Carson Flanagan who met Austin at a Baylor basketball practice. Flanagan was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome five years ago.
They both attended Marfan Night at the Boston Celtics’ home opener Oct. 29 at TD Garden.
“They got to talk and they hit it off, and it has blossomed from there,” said Carson’s father, Mark Flanagan. “Isaiah is very down to earth and has become friends with Carson, and it has been a positive thing. They exchange text messages and Isaiah has come out to our house. Isaiah has told Carson that sports and basketball aren’t everything, and it’s encouraging for him to see that perspective from Isaiah.”
Green was grateful when Baylor decided to continue to fund her son’s education even though he isn’t playing any more. It has allowed him to work toward completing his degree while staying connected to the basketball program. Austin’s teammates enjoy having him at practice to encourage them and teach them a few things about the game.
“He’s tremendous in everything he does,” said Baylor junior forward Taurean Prince. “We just love him being around. He’s still the same old Isaiah. He’s not in practice (playing) with us any more but you don’t see that it affects him. He takes it as a new beginning like his slogan ‘Dream Again.’”
Prince changed his number from 35 to Austin’s No. 21 to honor his former teammate. Now a rookie playing for the Brooklyn Nets, Cory Jefferson also wears No. 21 as a tribute to his former Baylor teammate.
“He and I are good friends and I wear his number to keep his tradition going because he wouldn’t be playing basketball any more,” Prince said. “It’s an honor. I definitely have things to prove as far as what I do and how I carry myself. But for the most part he’s been an inspiration.”
When Austin graduates from Baylor, he has a standing offer from Silver to work in some capacity for the NBA. But Austin said he might go into coaching after getting a taste of it at Baylor during the fall semester.
“Right now I’m just weighing all my options,” Austin said. “That (the NBA) is a great job offer and will probably be hard to turn down. But if things open up here in Waco I might even consider staying here. A lot of the players respect me and know I’ve been through a lot, and that I know the game pretty well.”
Austin still misses playing basketball every day. But he’s accepted his new life and is making the best of it. Now that he’s been diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, he believes he can live a long life and accomplish great things while reaching out to others along the way.
“I’ve devoted my whole life to basketball, and it was my life,” Austin said. “It’s going to take me a little while to get over this, but I’m still pushing forward in a positive manner. It’s really an amazing feeling when you’re walking to class and a professor will stop me and say how much I inspired him. It’s a blessing from God, that’s all I can say.”