It was days before Baylor sophomore center Isaiah Austin was supposed to hear his name called in Thursday’s NBA Draft, the dream of his lifetime. He walked into his aunt’s home Saturday night near Dallas, and he was happy as his mother had ever seen him.
Everybody was there. Austin’s parents. His younger sister and brother. A few pastors. His high school coach. The entire Baylor coaching staff. Austin walked in the door: a surprise! His eyes lit up, and he started giving high-fives to his former coaches.
“Then our eyes locked,” his mother, Lisa Green, recounted Monday. “He looked at me, and he said, ‘No.’ He knew.”
What the 20-year-old NBA hopeful knew was this: His professional basketball career would be over before it started.
A detached retina at age 16 eventually left Austin blind in one eye but didn’t deter him from a stellar basketball career.
And so the 7-foot-1 young man – the one whose life had moments before seemed destined for the NBA – went to a corner, rolled into a ball and cried.
An EKG at routine medical testing at the NBA Combine last month had come back abnormal, so Austin went to get further testing. A follow-up MRI on his heart revealed a slightly enlarged aortic artery. Bloodwork was taken. His mother got the bad news Friday. She assembled as much of a support system as she could to reveal that news to her son a day later.
“I’m so sorry,” Green told her son. “The testing came back positive.”
It was Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue. Some aspects of Marfan syndrome, which affects one in 5,000 people, can be life-threatening, according to the Marfan Foundation – including aortic enlargement, the issue that appeared in Austin’s MRI.
He was days away from being drafted. Two teams had just told him they planned to take him if he was still available at their pick. But now, basketball was no longer an option. Not now; not ever.
Austin stood up from the corner of that room and wiped his eyes. He disappeared into the bathroom with his father. There, he composed himself. He had to compose himself. Because he didn’t want his 15-year-old brother, Noah Green, or his 11-year-old sister, Narah Green, to see him in this seemingly hopeless state.
“I thought it was a dream when it happened,” Austin told me Monday. “I really didn’t break down; I just lost all emotion. It’s heart-breaking. Your soul is just being sucked out of you. It’s crazy. It’s a feeling I never want to go through again. I can tell you: It’s not fun.”
Not fun for him. Not fun for his family and his coaches and his mentors, all the people who’d helped him fight to get here after a detached retina at age 16 sent him into four surgeries and blinded his right eye.
But most of all, not fun for the two younger siblings who looked up to Austin as their role model. The younger brother and sister wanted Austin to have an NBA career almost as much as he wanted it for himself.
On the eight-hour drive to Dallas, knowing they were delivering this heartbreaking news, Austin’s younger brother cried himself to sleep.
And so, moments after his NBA career ended before it started, Austin composed himself, came out of the bathroom and gave his little brother and sister a hug.
“While I was sitting there, I didn’t want to break down in front of my little brother and sister,” Austin said. “So I toughed it out. So I told them, ‘We’ll be all right.’ I didn’t want them hanging their heads on this. It’s a big deal, but it’s not. Life keeps going. Everything keeps flowing.”
The question now is this: What does a 20-year-old man do when everything he’d planned his life around is wiped away in one stroke?
“Tough times reveal character, they don’t just build it,” Baylor coach Scott Drew told me.
So Austin took his mother’s advice, the same words she said to him when he was blinded in one eye: You can make this your excuse — or you can make this your story.
On Saturday night, Austin gave his brother and sister big hugs. On Sunday morning, Austin gave his first television interview on Marfan syndrome.
He will make this his story.
“I know basketball is not my life,” Austin told me Monday. “It’s just something I enjoy to do and something that’s brought me to great places in this world and made me become a better man because of it. I was blessed to be able to play. One day the ball was going to stop bouncing eventually. It just happened sooner for me than for others.”
I know basketball is not my life. It’s just something I enjoy to do and something that’s brought me to great places in this world and made me become a better man because of it. I was blessed to be able to play.
He will turn this into a positive, he said. He has already received so much support, from people like Charles Barkley and Deion Sanders and Kenny Smith and all his basketball friends who will be drafted Thursday. One piece of news that eases the pain is that Austin was insured; his agent said the family is now working through the particulars of the policy as it relates to Marfan syndrome. And NBA commissioner Adam Silver invited him to the draft as his special guest; Austin said yes. After all, it’s always been his dream to be a part of that night.
After that, he says he’ll complete his degree, get into coaching and mentoring, and keep telling his story.
Maybe his story simply raises awareness about Marfan syndrome a notch or two. Or maybe his story can save a few lives, helping people who could find out they have this genetic disorder early.
Or maybe his story can just be an inspiration for other children who are going through tough times.
The platform basketball has offered him, Austin believes, can help give him purpose to his new life without basketball — maybe even a bigger purpose than he had in life with basketball.
“We do believe in God,” Lisa Green told me. “I told him, ‘Isaiah, sometimes God puts trials in your life so you can get through them. God sees you as vessel for Him.’ I told him, ‘Honey, you’re a chosen one. You were meant to be something.’ And now he has the platform to reach hundreds of thousands of people to save their lives.”