On Isaiah Austin And Coming To Terms With The Unexpected

(Ed's Note: The news of former Baylor Bears forward Isaiah Austin announcing the end of his basketball career due to the diagnosis of Marfan Syndrome during his NBA Draft preparation was heartbreaking to hear. Today on TSFJ, Esau Howard and friend of the family Brandon Caldwell of Day & A Dream both spit poetic on coming to terms with the unexpected. Enjoy.)

By Esau Howard / @EsauTheFirst

Isaiah Austin was never a player who I spent an insane amount of time paying attention to. I knew that he was good, and at times great, as the dominant big man for Baylor. Every time Baylor made a national appearance I took interest, mainly because during the rare occasions that I did watch him play he put on a show. He didn’t always demand my attention in the same way that an Andrew Wiggins or Julius Randle did this past season, but I certainly enjoyed watching Baylor just to see what Austin would do.

The kid was strong in the post, though at times he seemed uneasy, almost indecisive, and that was to be expected — he was still just a kid. On offensive possessions where he seemed frustrated, he immediately made up for it on the other side of the floor. The biggest trait I took away from his game was determination. One of the most memorable games that I watched him in this past year was when he recorded five blocks in a win against an impressive Oklahoma team. That same game he had 18 points, and I remember thinking that I had no idea how he would translate to the next level. He was going to be on an NBA team because if nothing else was certain, he had everything ability-wise it took to make it.

That’s why when he announced this past Sunday that he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, I found myself taking more of an interest in him than I had before. His professional life as a basketball player was set to begin in a few short days, and this news shockingly ended that. The disorder will prevent him from not only playing in the NBA, but also any sort of competitive basketball ever again.

If that's not heartbreaking then I don't what is for someone who's hoop-dreamed his entire life. Here you literally have a guy who was preparing for the next phase of his life revealing to the world that he has an ailment that will alter his fate in every way. The NBA Draft is only days away, and as a projected first-round pick, Austin was going through the motions like so many of his peers preparing for it.

Watching this 20-year-old man fresh out of school, who hasn’t quite found his place in the world, share something of this magnitude was hard to watch. It takes a level strength that few could truly muster to even acknowledge a reality like this, and for him to do so in such a public way shows a sense of maturity well beyond his years. Basketball may not have been the most important thing in his life, but it’s certainly instrumental in shaping the person that he is. When it was reported that Austin’s mother drove overnight from Kansas to Dallas to break the news to him, just thinking of the burden that weighed on her heart knowing she had to deliver the message isn’t something I would wish on anyone.

Knowing that this announcement marked the end of what should have been an intriguing professional career, my thoughts drifted to the 2013 NIT tournament. That was probably the most vested interest I’ve had in Austin’s career, and it was memorable because of the way it transpired. Watching him lead a Baylor team that edged out some opponents and completely dominated others on its way to a championship was as impressive as it was intriguing. At the time, I wondered how that team would have fared in the big dance had Baylor made it to the NCAA Tournament. Now all I can think about is how I should have appreciated that time more.

Life is funny like that. Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s a shame that it takes certain things for us to see that. I don’t know what the future holds for Austin, but I do know that he was a good basketball player. He was tough on the court for various reasons, and after watching him accept this sudden turn of events, I know now that he is even stronger as a person. The times on the court when he seemed indecisive, he never appeared to be defeated. He left it all on the floor every time, and even now he looks just as determined. I’m sure he’s disappointed, maybe even afraid about the future, but that’s to be expected. His perseverance and work ethic are the traits that led him to being a potential first-round pick. That same foundation will most likely be what carries him forward from this point on, and they are traits that define him more than anything else. That’s something to be proud of.


By Brandon Caldwell / @_brandoc

“Do you want to talk to him?” -- Ed

“I’d shoot him a text or two. Don’t know if I could hear his voice discussing this. I might cry my damn self.” -- Brandon

I’ve struggled with talking to people when they’ve stared something I’ll never understand in the face. I dealt with my brother when he had a liver disorder that could have killed him. All I could offer were words of encouragement that seemed empty at the time. He survived, thanked me for a few of them, but still, I felt like I hadn’t done enough.

A few days ago I got off the phone with Eddie Maisonet. It was a good conversation, two brothers aiming for the exact same goals and ambitions, plotting and planning. I meant to bring up the crazy drunk pimp we saw out in Oakland but forgot. I texted him again yesterday after once more being heartbroken about an athlete losing his shot to achieve his dream. Again, I was unable to form the words to talk to someone at a new crossroads of his life.

“What exactly do I tell him? How exactly do I talk to Isaiah Austin about losing an opportunity to play NBA ball because his body failed him?”

There’s a cruel thing to factor in about life. You don’t necessarily know when it's going to go on an alternate path. You don’t know when it’s going to deviate from your dreams and manifestations about the future. When the change hits, you’re left to adapt. Or struggle with the consequences of not doing so.

As devout a college basketball nut as I am, I always felt that Austin’s team at Baylor was a group of talented underachievers, men so athletic and talented that they should have dominated the Big 12 far more frequently than they did. Austin was their centerpiece, a 7’1" load on the front end with supreme hand skills but no real sense of domination. He helped lead Baylor to the NIT in 2013, almost bounced for the NBA but returned to school.

It wasn’t until January that he revealed to the world that for all this time, he had been playing basketball with one eye. A freak injury as a youth almost ended his dream once. Another completely sat it down for good this weekend.

Mafran syndrome is a genetic disorder that deals with the one thing necessary to be great — the heart. Cocaine robbed us of Len Bias’ huge heart in 1986; a heart defect snatched Boston legend Reggie Lewis on the court in 1993. Compared to both of them, one a silky wingman in Lewis and a Maryland Superman in Bias, Austin seemed to fit in the middle — polished but still raw. He hadn’t completely tapped into what his body at 7’1" could do. Doctors feared overexertion on his body would kill him, rob him in a far crueler fashion than telling him to stop playing basketball.

Life is more important than the game.

So here he is, on the initial steps to readjusting his life at 22 years old. Not shifted out of his spiritual gift of inspiring people and raising his own personal bar of fulfillment, but asked to walk a different path than basketball. The cruelest aspect is that the news came six days before the draft. Six days before Adam Silver was probably going to announce his name and he was going to throw on some NBA team’s snapback and smile. Pose with his girlfriend; be outfit for training camp and rookie hazing.

Live his dream.

Then my mind went back to him at Baylor, his freshman season an awakening, and thought that in reality, God gave him his chance. He was a key figure on a team, a thicker string in the tapestry of men who all want to simply win.

I told my brother he was granted a second chance at being a better man once his body accepted his new liver. I guess the only message I would send Isaiah would be to remind him of how blessed he is to even do something so few are able to obtain. You’ve already won, Isaiah. Let your new jersey in life reflect that.

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