LAS VEGAS — People who recognized him, even sitting, without Isaiah Austin uncoiled at 7-foot-1, stopped to ask if they could take a picture with him or get an autograph. One lady simply offered a smile and a reassuring arm squeeze.
He is still in a basketball setting, the way it has always been, except that it’s never been like this. Summer League games are being played, he was supposed to be playing somewhere, here or Orlando last week, as a rookie from Baylor, and on top of that, his hometown team, the Mavericks, are playing the Raptors.
Watching from the front row is as close as Austin will get, though. On June 21, five days before the Draft, the projected second-round pick announced through the school that he would be forced to retire after it was learned he had Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that had gone undetected the first 20 years of his life. He had an increased risk of a potentially fatal heart episode on the court without ever knowing.
His career was over in an instant. He was brought to the Draft by the league anyway and given a unique salute when commissioner Adam Silver announced from the podium that the NBA was drafting Isaiah Austin. The crowd at Barclays Center responded with a standing ovation.
Baylor said his scholarship will remain in place and that Austin has an offer to join the coaching staff. As he weighs whether to accept that, though clearly leaning toward it, he came to Las Vegas to work behind the scenes for NBA TV.
Question: When you first got the news, was your reaction as a basketball player about what it means for your career or were you thinking more as a human being and what it could mean for your life?
Answer: Definitely my life. Basketball’s a wonderful game and all, but it’s not worth taking my life and risking it all, playing the game to risk my life for it. That was the first thing that came in my mind. I had been playing for I don’t know how long and my life has been in danger the whole time without knowing.
Q: How much does that scare you now as you think about that?
A: It didn’t really scare me because I have a strong faith and I knew that if my time was going to come then God was going to take me home. But at the same time, I was confused that nobody else caught it at the time.
Q: Do you ever look back now to any moment that you were playing that you may have felt a symptom or a problem coming on and just sort of set it aside as a quick moment?
A: No. I’ve never had any symptom. They told me some of the symptoms of Marfan syndrome are shortness of breath or chest pains, lower back pains. I’ve never had any of those pains while I’ve been playing in my career.
Q: How long did it take you to come to grips with the reality that you’re done with basketball?
A: It happened the first night. It’s reality. It’s not something you play with, something of this stature, messing with your heart. So I knew that right away that my career would end, but at the same time I knew that I can make this into a positive.
Q: Was it that easy to put it behind you? You’re just able to close one door and open another, or have there been days that it’s been difficult?
A: There’s still days that it’s difficult. Even watching these games, watching all these guys compete, I miss it. I miss being out there. I miss competing. I miss all the hustle and all that type of stuff. But at the same time, I’m focused on just staying positive and not trying to sulk in all this.
Q: Is it hard to sit here and watch these games?
A: Not really.
Q: Do you put yourself in position of “I could be out there, I should be out there”?
A: Sometimes I do. I definitely could be out there. I should have been out there. But it wasn’t God’s plan for me to be out there to play, so I’m definitely thankful that it was found out when it was because it did save my life.
Q: Did you give any thought to saying, “I’m going to play anyway”?
A: At first I did. But then I came to reality and I was like I would hate to see one of my fans or one of my family members see me collapse out there on the court.
Q: How long did you think about it and how seriously?
A: A couple days. I was pretty serious. They said I could sign a waiver and still play. But it’s not worth my life. It’s a great game and it teaches you many life lessons, but it’s not worth taking a life for.
Q: Have you had any teams talk to you and say, “If you ever reach a point that medically you feel you’re able to do this, please let us know”? Has there been any communication with any teams about playing one day?
A: No. I haven’t had any communication with any team. The only communication I’ve had with teams were them reaching out to me to give me their condolences. They were telling me they’re sorry that it happened but they were supporting me.
Q: What have you heard from them?
A: They just tell me that I’m a great guy and I’m a genuine dude and they’re supporting me in whatever I choose to do. They all tell me that I’m still a part of the NBA family. I’m thankful.
Q: Have there been one or two calls or letters that have stood out to you and meant the most.
A: Probably the one that meant the most was when commissioner Adam Silver whispered in my ear on stage that I’m always a part of the NBA family.
Q: What did that mean to you at that moment?
A: Everything. It’s always been my dream to become a part of this organization, to be part of the NBA, and he’s making it happen for me.
Q: There was a lot of attention and positive energy that night when they brought you up on stage. When they first approached you with the idea, were you all for it or were you thinking, “I can’t get that close to the NBA and not actually touch it. I just can’t do that”?
A: I was all for it. I’m all about being around the game that I love.
Q: It wasn’t too hard to get so close and not to be able to reach the goal?
A: It’s hard, of course, because I’ve worked my whole life for it. But at the same time, as long as I can be a part of the game in some way or form, I think I’ll be satisfied.
Q: Did the reaction of the crowd that night, and around the country, we assume, based on the reaction from Twitter and some other areas, did it surprise you at all?
A: Definitely. I had no idea that I would have this much support from around the world.
Q: What did that mean to you in a difficult time?
A: Everything. It’s tough to go through something like that, but it makes it that much easier when a lot of people are behind you and supporting you.
Q: When that night is over, you’re back in your hotel room, what’s going through your mind?
A: Man. I was just thankful. I just remember praying that night after I got back to the hotel room. I just remember calling my mom and thanking her and my family for being with me on this journey. I told them that it’s not over and we’re just beginning. It’s a new chapter in my life.
Q: You’re here doing some work for NBA TV. I know Baylor said that it was interested in having you come back to work on the coaching staff. Have you decided what’s next?
A: I am going to go back this fall to finish my degree, and while I’m there I’m thinking about taking the coaching job so I can still be
Q: Haven’t decided yet?
A: Haven’t decided yet.
Q: Is it something that you envisioned yourself getting into one day after your NBA career or you never really thought of coaching before so you need to take some time and decide if it’s what you want to do?
A: I never really thought of coaching but I always knew that I still wanted to be a part of the game somehow or some way, whether it was creating a foundation for the young kids and still being around the game or even having my own basketball camp one day. I am taking this into consideration because it is going to be a great opportunity for me. My brother’s still at Baylor and to still be a part of a great program.
Q: When do you think you’ll decide?
A: In the next week or so.
Q: Do you have a leaning right now? What does your gut tell you?
A: My gut’s telling me to take it because I love the game of basketball and I love teaching.
Q: I get a sense you want to do it.
A: I do want to do it. But at the same time I have to think if I’m going to have enough because I do want to graduate (with a projected 2016 finish) and do as best as I can in my classes.
Q: If there’s no NBA as a player, what do you want to do?
A: Get into public speaking. I want to share my story with as many people as I can and just try to inspire them to push through the obstacles in their lives.
Q: You’re going to bring a lot of attention to awareness and treatment of Marfan. That’s obviously something that is more than a job to you at this point. What message would you like to send to people?
A: Just to stay positive and if you have signs of Marfan to get tested early because it is a life-threatening syndrome and we would hate for anybody to have a fatality because they didn’t get checked out and they continued to play sports.
Q: You’re sounding incredibly positive in what must be a difficult time in a lot of ways because you came so close to one of your goals. Are you positive that you’re going to be as much of a success in another field as you once thought you would be in basketball?
A: Yeah, definitely. I have all the confidence in the world in myself and I know I have the right people around me to be able to become a successful businessman one day.
Q: How does this story turn out?
A: I don’t know. But I know I’m going to live a happy life.