Thursday March 16, 2017
[WARNING: CONTAINS MATURE CONTENT]
In high school, Isaiah Austin was touted as one of the top young basketball players in the world, despite going blind in one eye. His undeniable talent led him to Baylor University, where he continued to dominate opposing teams. By the end of his sophomore season, he made the decision to enter the NBA draft. Many projected Isaiah to be a top 10 pick in the 2014 draft.
"I didn't have time to mourn my loss of basketball. I didn't have time to spend with myself. I didn't have time to really sit back and think that basketball is over. What do I want to do with my life now?"
But just five days before his dream was realized, five days before signing a multi-million dollar contract, Isaiah was faced with the ultimate game changer - he discovered that he had Marfan syndrome. It's a genetic disorder that affects the body's connective tissue, and the same fibers that support vital organs, such as the heart. It can be extremely dangerous to overexert yourself, even life-threatening. As a result, Isaiah was immediately forced to give up the game he loved.
Isaiah came from a lineage of former ballers, including his uncle, Isaac Austin, who played for years in the NBA. So naturally, as a kid, he spent hours everyday honing his skills. By the time he turned 13, Isaiah was one of the best middle school players in the state of Texas. But during his last game in junior high, he was faced with a frightening injury.
"I'm in warm-ups, and we're playing our rival basketball team, and I dunk the ball, and I come down, and it's like a bright, red curtain was just placed over my vision. And I really couldn't see anything," he remembers.
"I had been through so much. I wasn't going to let anything else get in the way of it. So it was like, you know, I've already had four eye surgeries, what's stopping me now?"
The next day, doctors told Isaiah that his retina was completely detached from his eye. Over the next twelve months, Isaiah would undergo four eye surgeries. In the end, doctors couldn't save his vision. Isaiah went blind in his right eye. And for a kid with big dreams to play in the NBA, it was a massive set-back.
But it didn't stop him. In fact, it fueled his motivation. So he got in the gym, and relearned how to play the game. Because his depth perception was compromised, Isaiah had to readjust to the speed of the game, and redevelop his jump shot. It wasn't long before he regained his dominance on the court.
By the time Isaiah finished his sophomore year, he was ranked the second best high-school player on the planet. All the big colleges and universities were after him, but he wanted to play at home, in front of family and friends. So he chose to play for Baylor University.
"It was kind of like I was a superstar. It's like a real college movie, where people are just stopping and looking at you and asking you for autographs, and saying 'What's up Isaiah,' and you don't even know that person's name."
And in his very first game, he dropped 22 points. "The ball was just rolling for me. I started getting and-ones, I started, you know, getting assists, getting all types of rebounds, blocking shots. I felt really, really good," he said.
But off the court, Isaiah had to adjust to the newfound fame. Everywhere he went, he was treated like a celebrity. "It was crazy, like girls would basically throw themselves at me. Like I would go to class and girls would always try to sit by me. I used to always try to sit in the corner, so there's only really two or three seats next to me. They DM me, they Snapchat me, Facebook me," he recalls.
LOVE OF THE GAME
There was no question about it. Isaiah Austin was the man on campus. The spotlight was intense. But away from all the hype and the crowds, when his friends and teammates were doing their own thing, Isaiah would often escape to the gym, all by himself, to find peace.
"When I play basketball man, it's like a release from the world, a release from all the stress that I'm under. Whether it be from school, finances, or relationships with friends, family, stuff like that. It's like, when I'm in the gym, it's kind of like a sanctuary," he said.
"After a workout, in your mind, you're just like, I live for this. I like pushing myself to the limit. I enjoy being tired. I enjoy the pain. I enjoy the bumps, the bruises, the bleeding, the tears, all that. And it's like, that's what you feed for. That's what makes you hungry."
Isaiah led the Baylor Bears to two very successful seasons - winning the National Invitational Tournament as a freshman, and standing out as one of the best players during March Madness. Once his sophomore season was done, Isaiah was ready to make the biggest step in his basketball career - he was going to go pro by entering the NBA draft.
But through conditioning tests, team doctors made an unexpected discovery -- Isaiah had Marfan syndrome. He was told to stop playing competitive basketball immediately, or his heart could rupture. The game he dedicated his entire life to had been taken from him.
"And I just remember sitting in my room all night. I couldn't sleep. I was sitting with my back against the wall, my head on my lap. On my knees. I was just thinking. I wasn't even thinking about anything though. My mind was just black."
Just five days before his name would be called in the NBA Draft, Isaiah was suddenly forced to change the entire direction of his life.
Somewhere in those five hectic, emotional days, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver invited Isaiah and his family to attend the draft in New York as special guests. It was a bittersweet moment for Isaiah - sitting there with his family, listening to the names of other players being called up to the podium.
"Even though it wasn't the moment that I really wanted it to be, at the end of the day, I still got to walk across the stage and shake the commissioner's hand. And that was always my goal in life. It was probably the happiest day of my life."
Then, in the middle of the draft, Adam Silver did something extraordinary. He called Isaiah up to the podium, and made him an honourary draftee. "Even though it wasn't the moment that I really wanted it to be, at the end of the day, I still got to walk across the stage and shake the commissioner's hand. And that was always my goal in life. It was probably the happiest day of my life."
Since the draft in 2014, Isaiah has been seeing a cardiologist regularly to monitor his heart. He had been working out lightly here and there with his heart condition remaining unchanged. And then last summer, after our interview with Isaiah, his doctor felt his heart was stable and he was cleared to play basketball again. It was an amazing announcement that shocked the basketball community.
"It's been a whirlwind. It's been highs and it's been lows, but at the end of the day, I always had this love for basketball in my heart. So now, I get to get back on the court. It's crazy. I get choked up talking about it man," Isaiah said about his comeback.
Now, Isaiah is playing professional basketball in the Adriatic League in Serbia. After nine games into the season, he's averaging nine points, three rebounds, and playing 15 minutes per game. It's a long way from the NBA, but he's happy to be playing the game he loves again.
EXTRA | What happens when elite athletes are forced to give up the game they love? After devoting such a huge chunk of their lives to one goal, how do they find a new sense of purpose and carve out a new identity for themselves?
Many of them confide in a sports psychologist like Dr. Paul Dennis to help navigate the transition. He's spent 20 years as a consultant with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now, he teaches and works with college athletes, helping players with self-confidence, performance, and coping with major injuries.
Dr. Dennis came by the Campus studio to tell us more about how he helps athletes come to terms with such a devastating loss, and coaching them to move on and dream again.