Isaiah Austin still might not ever play in the NBA. But four years after his hoop dreams were cruelly dashed mere days before the NBA draft, the former Baylor center is playing again … and, from the sound of it, thriving.
Marfan syndrome derailed Isaiah Austin’s journey to the NBA
Projected by many to be a late first-round or early second-round pick in the 2014 draft, Austin — a 7-foot-1 shot-blocker with the length and skill to potentially carve out an NBA niche despite being legally blind in his right eye — was found in pre-draft medical testing to have Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissues. (Austin had been tested for the ailment as a child, after shooting up to 6 feet tall by age 12, but wasn’t diagnosed at that time.) The disorder, which reportedly affects one in roughly every 5,000 people, enlarges the aorta, the artery that carries blood from the the heart to the rest of the body. Doctors feared that the exertion of playing NBA basketball could cause the aorta to burst, putting Austin’s life in danger every time he took the court.
This was a risk the league elected not to take; while Austin was still invited to the draft and, in a moving moment, ceremonially selected by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, his professional basketball career was over before it started. Except, as it turns out, it wasn’t. In November 2016, after more than two years of consistent monitoring by Stanford professor of cardiovascular medicine David Liang that revealed his heart had remained stable even after increased physical activity, Austin said that he had been medically cleared to return to the court, and that he was “I’m able to make the choice if I want to go back and pursue my dream again.”
Austin has begun his career overseas
That pursuit has taken Austin to Serbia, to Lebanon and now to China, where he’s starring for the Guangxi Rhinos of the National Basketball League, the second tier of Chinese pro hoops. (It’s a step below the Chinese Basketball Association, where NBA notables like Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas, Michael Beasley, J.R. Smith, Jimmer Fredette and Delonte West have played.) Bleacher Report’s Leo Sepkowitz recently caught up with Austin — averaging better than 35 points and 10 rebounds per game while playing “small” forward on a team laden with big men — to check in on what it’s like to be “rising to stardom in exile”:
[…] most amazing for the man who supposedly risks his life with significant physical exertion: He logs huge minutes, sometimes playing all 48 in a given night.
“I’m in really good shape, which is why it’s really hurtful that people won’t give me an opportunity,” he says. In addition to the NBA, many international teams have been wary of signing Austin so far. “Even after playing these strenuous minutes and working out each day, I’ve had no regression in health. I’m just getting healthier.”
Getting NBA clearance continues to be an issue
The problem, though, is that no matter how many minutes Austin plays overseas or how productive he proves in them, there’s evidently no way he can ever be truly “cleared” of the potential danger that his aorta will one day burst from overexertion. Liang told Sepkowitz that, Austin’s November 2016 terminology notwithstanding, he didn’t “clear” the young big man as much as he put a choice back in Austin’s hands after the NBA had taken it away:
“My philosophy is, it’s not my job to tell people what they can and can’t do,” Dr. Liang says. “It’s to let them understand what the risks are.”
He adds: “What I’m trying to weigh is his physical risk as well as his psychological and emotional risk,” Dr. Liang says. “I have a good feeling of the cost of playing; this is what I do for a living. When I first met Isaiah, the cost of not playing was, ‘He’s going to be happy, able to function and enjoy his life—in which case, alright, just don’t play’. As time went on, it became clear to me that if he didn’t have a chance to play, it would have left a big wound in him emotionally and psychologically. That’s what changed for me.”
That Liang’s view changed, and that Austin — whose Marfan case Liang called “very mild,” and whose aorta the doctor called “very mildly abnormal” — has since gone on to play professionally in three different countries without physical incident, has not yet changed anything for the NBA. The league continues to abide by the recommendation of the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology that athletes with Marfan syndrome “should not participate in any competitive sports that involve intense physical exertion or the potential for bodily collision,” preferring to err on the side of caution on medical matters of the heart, as it has in the case of Chris Bosh.
Isaiah Austin’s ultimate dream remains out of reach for now
Perhaps Austin’s case truly is “mild” enough that he’d be able to play significant minutes at the NBA level for years without ever experiencing any issues. Knowing what they know, though, the NBA has decided that it cannot knowingly and willingly open the door to the possibility of another player suffering a sudden cardiac incident and dying on the court, as G-League forward Zeke Upshaw tragically did this spring. It’s an understandable position, though one that just as understandably has left Austin once again feeling short-changed and slighted, unable to fully realize his childhood dreams and prove that, after everything he’s been through, he really is good enough to play in the NBA.
Barring a change in either his medical condition or the league’s philosophy, then, Austin will have to continue to pursue his career overseas, searching for clubs at higher levels of international competition that will agree to sign off on his medical issues in exchange for gaining access to his big-league talent. It’s not what he’d always envisioned, and it’s not exactly what he wants, but after being faced with the prospect of never playing again, it’s something, at least, and more than he thought he’d be able to grab hold of this time four years ago.
“I’m just happy I can play the game again, because that was the main thing missing from my life,” Austin told Sepkowitz. “It was killing me slowly being away. Pursuing a pro career and making a nice amount of money to take care of my family is something I’m very thankful and grateful for.”
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