The 2014 NBA draft was one of the most highly anticipated drafts of the last twenty years. GMs, owners, media, and fans have spent months dissecting every player’s abilities and weaknesses, prognosticating each team’s potential takes and trades, while measuring its impact on a monumental offseason of posturing for free agency. Talk centered around what the Cleveland Cavaliers would do with the number 1 pick, as their decision could alter the destiny of a several high profile prospects; possibly cultivating the NBA landscape for the next decade. But the most special and perhaps the most memorable selection was not the Cavs and Andrew Wiggins but the NBA and Isaiah Austin.
If you haven’t heard his story, Isaiah Austin is a 20-year-old, 7-foot sophomore from Baylor University with long arms and big dreams to one day join the NBA. His road to the draft was already tumultuous. As a middle schooler, Austin was struck in the right eye by a baseball that left him partially blind with a detached retina. In 2008, he would undergo five surgeries, spending most of his days resting on his stomach until he healed. To play at college, Austin wore a glass eye protected by what became his signature googles. His ability to hit jumpers and block shots (3.1 his sophomore year) in spite of his limited vision demonstrated his hard work and positive attitude. If you want to make the Association there is no time to lament life’s difficulties, no matter how unfair they may be, and Isaiah Austin is a champion who believes in overcoming obstacles; not surrendering to them. Austin would have been the first partially blind player in NBA history had he been selected last night.
But during the pre-draft testing, Austin was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome – a connective tissue disorder that can be life threatening if it remains undiscovered. Only a few days before the draft, Isaiah Austin’s basketball career was over. Now instead of hearing his name called possibly in the late first round, Austin would face the silence of an empty gym never to be opened to him again. For most of us, losing our dream at the door step of realization would be too devastating to bear. However, not only has he accepted the truth, he has handled it with remarkable grace and faith. New commissioner Adam Silver, in what felt like a sincere act of kindness and goodwill, paused the draft proceedings to acknowledge the former Baylor Bear and select him into the NBA family. Isaiah Austin was greeted by the standing ovation from the fans, media, and fellow players in attendance at the Barclays Center. It was a classy, heartfelt gesture by the league that clearly meant everything to Austin as he took a few moments to cry and collect himself with his basketball community standing behind him. After stepping up to the stage to recieve the honorary handshake and embrace from the commissioner, Austin shared his thoughts with ESPN reporter Jay Williams who, it should be noted, also had his career cut short due to health issues. When asked what the moment meant to him and what he plans to do next, Austin responded, "It’s one of the biggest blessings of my life… When God closes one door, He opens up another for you. I’m gonna dream again. I’m going to share my story with as many people as I can."
As a fan and as a writer, it can be easy to forget that these are not professional assets; they are people. Not millionaires at first, but young men with a basketball and a belief to one day participate in the privilege of professional sports. As much as we celebrate the players with elite skills and athleticism, we should remember to celebrate even more the people who show character, humility, poise, and gratitude whether win or lose. Isaiah Austin, your positive and gracious attitude is the essence of the sportsman. You may never play in an NBA game, or hit the winning shot, or lift a championship trophy; but you are the reason sports, every so often, transcend entertainment to a higher plane of spiritual inspiration – a gift to us and an award to you that no one can ever steal away.
In his mother’s words to encourage all of us who must dig deep to find the strength to overcome life’s unexpected adversity, "You can make it your excuse, or you can make it your story."
You can share in Isaiah Austin’s moment here.
Britton L. Roberts
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