NEW YORK — Four days before the 2014 NBA draft, Isaiah Austin — a 7-foot-1 center out of Baylor projected to be a late first- or early second-round selection — learned he'd never play professional basketball. On Thursday night, he learned that wouldn't stop him from being part of the NBA.
Midway through the first round of Thursday's draft, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver pressed pause on the proceedings and made the best pick of the night.
"Before we continue tonight, I want to take a moment to recognize Baylor center Isaiah Austin," Silver said, eliciting applause from the crowd at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. "You may have heard about Isaiah. He is one of the nation's best collegiate players, and was expected to be picked tonight before the discovery just a few days ago that he had a genetic disorder called Marfan syndrome and is no longer able to play competitive basketball. Like the other young men here tonight, Isaiah committed himself through endless hard work and dedication to a potential career as a professional basketball player, and we wanted to make sure he fulfilled at least this part of his dream.
"So it gives me great pleasure to say," Silver continued, "that with the next pick in the 2014 NBA draft, the NBA selects Isaiah Austin from Baylor University."
Clad in a blue hat bearing the NBA logo, Austin began tearing up, then ascended the steps to the stage and embraced Silver to a standing ovation from the Barclays crowd. It was a sensational moment.
"For commissioner Adam Silver to even invite me here was a tremendous blessing," Austin told reporters after leaving the stage. "It just shows how much class that that man has. I have so much respect for him and for the NBA, and I'm thankful that I'm in this position."
After Silver called Austin's agent, Dwon Clifton, to extend an invitation to the draft as his personal guest, Austin felt "just joy."
"I forgot about the syndrome for a while," he said. "I just couldn't stop thinking of, 'I'm going to New York, I'm going to New York for the NBA draft.' It's always been my dream to go to New York. I got here."
Austin spoke at length about the chaos that has enveloped his life over the past week, and how he's tried to find sunlight beaming through the storm:
It's really been a tough week. It's really been rough. I've just had a tremendous amount of support from everybody around the world, really, telling me that they're praying for me and everything. Every single person that's reached out, I give my gratitude to them. [This] was one of the greatest moments of my life. Something I'll never forget.
I love this game of basketball so much. It's really changed my life. To be blessed to play this game for as long as I did. I'm just thankful. I've really had time to sit down and think a little bit, and God has truly blessed me. Because He could have let me continue to play basketball, but instead He saved my life.
Austin faced the biggest question of his life — what comes next? — with aplomb.
"Everything," he said. "I have a whole life ahead of me. I'm not going to sit here and [...] sulk about not being able to play basketball anymore, because I can still be involved with the game somehow or some way."
Those ways include coaching offers from both his high school coach, Ray Forsett, and his college coach, Baylor's Scott Drew, as well as Silver's offer of "a job with the NBA somewhere." For now, though, he's heading back to Baylor to work on completing a degree in business.
"I'm going to take things slow," he said. "I'm only 20 years old, and I'm going to do whatever I can to make my life better."
That process, and the journey ahead of Austin, won't be easy. But the whirlwind experience of the past four days has left him a stronger, wiser man, he said.
"These past couple of days have really taught me a lot about myself," he said. "They've really showed me that no matter what obstacle you're thrown in life, there's always a way around it, or there's always a way through it. [...] So the rest of my life, I'm going to keep a positive attitude, and I'm not going to take anything for granted, because it can be ripped away from you in seconds."
And while you'd certainly understand it if Austin felt pangs of jealousy or a sense of regret while watching players against whom he's competed for years mark the beginning of their professional basketball careers while he was ostensibly having a wake for his own, Austin continued to accentuate the positive.
"Just being around all the draftees and seeing all my friends get drafted, it just brings joy to my heart because I know how hard we work to get to this point," he said. "I've been through it. Everything — the late nights in the gym, the early mornings in the gym, the injuries, the tears, the sweat, the blood — everything. [...] To see them walk across that stage is one of the biggest blessings in my life."
As difficult as this week's been, Thursday was a night for counting blessings for Austin — a night to leave behind diagnoses and dashed dreams, and to fully embrace the ones that still may come true.
"That's your dream, to be able to walk across that stage, and hearing your name called," he said. "When [Silver] did it, my head just dropped, because, you know, it was almost too much for me to handle."
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