Isaiah Austin: A story of faith, courage, and the tenacity to overcome

Isaiah Austin: A story of faith, courage, and the tenacity to overcome

Excerpt

Isaiah Austin: A story of faith, courage, and the tenacity to overcome

Excerpted from Dream Again: A Story of Faith, Courage, and the Tenacity to Overcome by Isaiah Austin. Published by Howard Books. Book can be purchased online at Amazon.

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It was finally my time. The dream that I had held on to and fought for since I was a kid in Fresno was so close. I was staying in Dallas to get ready for the NBA combine. A lifetime of unexpected challenges had taught me to take nothing for granted. The adversity I had fought through had helped me understand that though I was standing at the edge of my dreams coming true, it only meant it was time to work harder than I ever had before.

In that month leading up to the draft, I was putting in ten-hour days. I worked out at the Academy with Ray, Jay, and Sweat. I would put in a full day of strength training, skills training, and then most nights would try to get back later and put up thousands of jump shots. I couldn’t stand the thought of one bad shooting performance at a tryout. I was obsessed with preparation. No one was going to outwork me, and I was going to show up for my auditions in better condition than anyone else. At the outset of that spring there was a lot of talk that I could be drafted in the first round. But I knew it was all talk. A lot of work goes into preparing for the draft. I knew I was going to attend the NBA combine on May 14, and I didn’t want to waste a minute. Putting in six days of work every week was nothing new to me. Sometimes people believe when you are seven feet tall that God has gifted you enough that all you must do is show up.

It’s true, my height has given me an advantage, but without my work ethic, I would never be the player I am today. A lot of my success came because I naturally love the game more than most people do. Since I was a little kid, practicing basketball has been an everyday way of life for me. I never thought there was anything unique about it. It was always an escape for me. I never would pay attention to time going by while I was on the court, unless it was during Coach Ray’s crazy sprints. All that to say I’ve never felt like working hard at my dream was anything special. When you love something, that’s just what you do; you work at it.

My work ethic grew intense starting in high school because I was exposed to elite athletes from the league. Mo, Ray, and the guys in Dallas who invested in me showed me the level of commitment it takes to make it. Since then, I’ve always wanted to outwork everyone I know in the gym. I’ve always believed it is important to bring it to every drill. That spring, as my name was being mentioned as a possible first-round pick, I was also getting more press because of my disability. I don’t even really like to say the word “disability.” To me disability sounded like a weakness, and my vision had really become my source of strength. It is what drove me to work harder than anyone else. I would dare people to feel sorry for me on the court while I was out there embarrassing them. But the ESPN story in January, which had shared my story about being blind in one eye, had made quite an impression.

I continued to give interviews about how I had overcome it, and it gave me the chance to reflect on what I had accomplished on the court since my eighth grade year, when I began dealing with limited eyesight. People always seem to be amazed and want to talk about the fact that my blindness doesn’t impact my performance on the court. Most of the time, people who deal with vision problems have their entire lives to learn how to make up for them. Doctors have talked to me about how a lot of their patients who are sight impaired have had years to learn to compensate with their other senses. They grow up learning to deal with the depth perception challenges and other obstacles from their limited sight. I had never given it much thought. I had turned my adversity into a positive. I never had the greatest vision to begin with and I wore glasses almost my whole life. When I completely lost sight in my eye, I was determined that it wasn’t going to get in the way of my dream.

There had been an adjustment period, but I was able to overcome it with my work ethic. I don’t understand all the mechanics of it. I’ve always put in hours and hours of repetition. My sight didn’t change the mechanics of my shooting at all. I just had to learn the “feel” of each distance, the right force to use from each spot on the court, because I couldn’t completely rely on my eyesight. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I can shoot the ball better than most guards who are playing with both eyes. The only time my limited vision seemed to impact me was when I played in big arenas with a lot of distance behind the backboard. Some of the NCAA tournament venues can be like that, but I never felt like it hurt my shooting from the floor in any of those games. I just had to show up extra early and get more shots up than usual so I could get my vision adjusted to the background.

Playing in Allen Fieldhouse at Kansas bothered me sometimes because the goal was so close to the crowd and there was so much going on behind the basket in the way of colors and movement during the games. My foul problems there bothered me more than any shooting background. In my mind, I’d never given a lot of thought to the fact that I could play with one eye. I wasn’t anything special. I did what anyone else would who loves what they do: show up every day and get after it.

I wasn’t going to let my struggles get in the way of my dream. The only fear or concern I’ve ever had about my vision since I became totally blind in my right eye was the possibility of losing the other one. The thought of that happening has always scared me to death. I wear protective glasses when I play, and I’ve always felt fortunate that I never took a hit to my left eye. I didn’t ever anticipate that being a problem on the court, though. I guess it was a trust thing. I always figured that God had had me experience enough adversity in my life. He wasn’t going to let me be completely blind. I believed that I had earned some protection from anything else ever getting in the way of my dream. And as far as the things I could control personally, I was going to be ready.

I had met my agent, Dwon Clifton, years ago when he was coaching at Baylor. He became close with my family and has always been in my corner. He was excited about the prospects of my draft position even before the combine. Dwon, Ray, and everyone else in my camp were convinced that once I got out on the floor for the workouts, I was going to play my way into a solid first-round selection. I was working in the gym to put weight on. Coach Charlie had worked hard to get my weight up during college, but I was a little light for a player of my height. I still had a lot of advantages, though. I was really long and could do things with the ball that other big athletes competing for the draft couldn’t do.

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I believed that no other big guy could shoot, pass, or handle the ball quite like I could. I wasn’t just a “five” who could stretch the floor. I could take you to the block and do some work, too. My postgame had come along in my time at Baylor and I had turned into a good shot blocker. I led the Big XII in blocked shots during the conference tournament in my last run. Dwon was communicating with teams, and we submitted my paperwork for early entry into the draft without hesitation. I was in Dallas most of the time, but I would go down to Waco to visit my girlfriend and hang out with Taurean, Cory, and some of the guys. When I was in Waco, I would play ball with the team and Coach Tang had some awesome pro-level workouts he would put Cory and me through as we would spend time in the gym after hours. Baylor was still my home, and whenever I visited I tried to spend some time catching up with Coach Drew and the guys.

I put in thousands of hours of work in that spring and flew to Chicago for the NBA combine on May 14, 2014, ready to make a great impression. Players don’t have to attend the combine. It is a voluntary thing, and your performance there usually isn’t going to make or break your draft status. My guys felt like it was a good decision for me to go, since it would line me up against players who were projected higher on the board than I was, and we were all confident I could outplay them. I went hoping to make some noise and prove myself.

The first days of the combine focus on a bunch of drills. It isn’t much different from a lot of the basketball camps I had gone to in my life. The scouts and coaches divided us by position and did a lot of the usual drills like running weaves, different cone drills, a lot of shooting, and fast-break drills. Some people think the combine is like open gym and they divide you up and let you run pickup games. That would’ve been so much fun with the talented group of players there, but they never do anything like that. When you do actually play, it is focused on three-on-three situations and you are going against similar position guys. The coaches who run the combine keep you moving from test to test, and there isn’t a lot of downtime once you arrive. I was performing well and having a lot of fun.

The combine is also the place where doctors poke you and conduct all kinds of tests to determine your fitness level. They make you do a vertical jump with and then without a step; they make you bench press, measure your height, weight, wingspan, and body fat. I measured at seven feet and 220 pounds, which was nowhere near what I needed to be. That year, some of the testing was a little different. It was the first year that the NBA was going to run certain heart and blood testing as a part of the combine. I went through the medical evaluations and didn’t think much about them. I didn’t even think about my long history with doctors.

The combine was a fun experience, because I also got to do a lot of interviews and meet new people. I enjoyed that part of it, but I loved being able to prove myself as a skilled player with true talent the most. When you’re playing as a post player, even on the perimeter, you can show off your shooting skills over the course of the season, but it isn’t a naturally consistent shot in any college offense. Scouts never got a great look at the damage I could do from a distance by watching tape from my Baylor seasons. I thought that I would be able to create a buzz at the combine with my shooting touch from distance and my ball skills. For the most part, that’s how it worked out. I was sure I was going to come out of the combine with a lot of teams interested in inviting me to individual predraft workouts. Unfortunately, the medical tests messed up that whole plan. I got back to Dallas and was so excited. It was May 17, and the draft was just a month away.

The top-ten picks looked solid. It is hard to play your way into that high of a position, but I was focused on creating buzz with my individual workouts. My plane had barely touched down in Dallas when I received a call from Dwon. He said that he had just gotten off the phone with the general counsel for the NBA and that I would need to return to Chicago to undergo further testing to determine whether or not I had Marfan syndrome. The arteries in my heart were enlarged and I had been flagged. This also meant that I dropped from a possible first-round pick to being a ghost.

I would completely vanish from everyone’s draft board. I sat there on the phone for a minute with Dwon not able to believe what he was telling me. This was not God’s plan. It couldn’t be right. I had heard the word “Marfan” years ago as a junior high kid in Minnesota, but I also remembered that I had undergone plenty of testing and was cleared to continue playing basketball. My first thought as we were talking was to get back to Chicago and get those tests done as soon as I possibly could. Dwon was way ahead of me and had already started making the arrangements. The bad news was that the NBA was not going to let me participate in any individual workouts until after I had been examined by a specialist. This was unbelievable. There had been too many moments in my life like this one. It left me shaking my head. How could this possibly happen to me? If I couldn’t participate in individual workouts, it was going to be nearly impossible to achieve my dream.

I had been so faithful. I had trusted God, but at every turn it seemed I got news like this. I took a plane several days later and arrived back in Chicago to meet with a specialist named Robert Bonow, who was at Northwestern. I talked with him about the possibilities and explained that I had no family history of this disease. He took some blood and told me about the screening process. We also went through some physical testing to make sure I could compete at workouts. As I sat in his office, the whole experience felt surreal. Whatever had come up in the test at the combine was wrong. It had to be wrong.

I had been cleared to play and already tested negative for this disease when I was a young kid. I sat in the doctor’s office thinking about trust. My body was decorated with tattoos that reminded me of my faith – the Lord’s Prayer was all about trusting God for everything. Verses like Isaiah 40:31, “but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles” and 1 John 4:8, “Whoever does not love does not know God.” I had trusted God through so many difficult circumstances. This one was just going to be another bump in the road. I settled it in my mind right there. I honestly didn’t worry for another minute about the test not coming back okay. I had played competitively my entire life, and I couldn’t let anything distract me from my workouts. It was going to be one more quick mention in the reports of how I made my way to the NBA. It was going to be part of my story. I wouldn’t let it take my focus off my dream.

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Throughout this entire crisis, Dwon was working behind the scenes to get me cleared to work out. This was our biggest obstacle. They brought in my medical records to show that I had been cleared of Marfan syndrome when I was younger and made the case that I had played competitively all of my life with no issues. The NBA was good to me about the process.

I signed some forms for the league, and then Dr. Bonow agreed, I should be allowed to continue on my path of working out until the testing brought back more conclusive results. The NBA cleared me to move forward with workouts. I was so grateful. Once I left Chicago to fly back to Dallas again knowing that I had been cleared, I never thought of the testing again. My concern was nonexistent. God had not allowed me to come this far to end my dream. I was confident that I had played all my life with none of the real physical issues that were related to Marfan syndrome, and it would all be okay. I was ready to get back to the gym and prepare. My first workout was with the Phoenix Suns on May 29. I went to Phoenix excited about what I could prove. I was hungry to earn my place with the other big athletes in my draft class. The draft was on June 26, less than a month away, and the next few weeks would be an all-out sprint of flying to and from franchises across the NBA.

I trained myself for the grind, though. It was part of what I had to do to get on that stage and have my dream come true. When teams work you out in individual evaluations, it is very similar to the combine. It is not usually just you. Most of the time they bring a group of guys in together. They test your stability and durability, they interview you to find out what kind of person you are, and they put you in specific playing situations so they can evaluate your skills.

My next workout took place with Dallas. I had already experienced some special moments traveling the country for individual evaluations, but this was one of the best. When Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks and one of the investors on the television show Shark Tank, has local guys work out for him, he handles it like he would any other player. Rather than ask me to drive over to the workout like he could’ve done, Cuban put me up in the Ritz Carlton in downtown Dallas. Then he drove to the hotel and picked me up personally in his DeLorean. Man, I really like cars, so it was quite an experience to ride around town with him and talk. I learned a lot from listening to him. I worked out pretty well for Dallas, but like Dwon explained to me, I probably wasn’t the best fit for the team’s roster that year. The next fifteen days flew by so quickly that it is hard for me to remember how I performed at each individual team visit.

I wasn’t getting any buzz with national media, but I was gaining momentum with the people who counted, the NBA front offices. Dwon was getting positive reports from my workouts. He felt like I was moving back into solid first-round territory. Earlier in the spring, there had been some conversations in my camp about staying home to watch the draft, especially if I was going to go in the second round. But I never saw it happening that way. My vision had always put me on the stage. Dwon was enthusiastic about a couple of specific teams. San Antonio and the Clippers were teams he felt would be great for me.

He wanted me in a place with an established veteran lineup and a coach who didn’t have to worry about his job security. He said those factors would allow the franchise to take their time and invest in my development. We also both liked the Boston team – it had a great coach and was a young team. It seemed like it was a possibility, too. I kept getting rave reviews from the GMs about the things I could do with the ball at my height. Despite going through a rough couple of years and learning how to grow up and handle the pressures of the limelight, I never doubted myself or my talent. There was a reason I was one of the top three players in America for most of my high school career. I felt like my auditions were finally showcasing my ability. But as Ray kept reminding me when we were in the gym every day, it didn’t matter what team decided to pick me up, and it made absolutely no difference in what round I was selected.

The Doctor…. What an honor!

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All that mattered was what I did after I arrived and unpacked my bags to go to work in the NBA. I’m still convinced that I would’ve been the best selection for any team in that draft. There were no other big men who could match my skill level and no one was going to outwork me. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant or anything; there were some great players coming out that year, but I wouldn’t have achieved my goals if I went around thinking that other guys could ever outwork or outplay me. I traveled to San Antonio, Memphis, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Toronto before coming back to Dallas on June 20.

My dream was so close that I felt I could touch it. I was just a step away from achieving everything I had worked, sacrificed, and trusted for… I was at the very edge of my dream becoming a reality. So this is where the story takes another difficult turn. I’ve already explained to you how things work with the Marfan syndrome testing. You already know that I will end up on the floor at Aunt Evelyn’s house. The test would come back positive and end my playing career. Now you know what I was doing to get to this place. But in order to understand the big picture of what God was doing on June 21, the night my dream was crushed, I first have to explain what was happening behind the scenes that led me up the sidewalk with Coach Ray’s hand on my shoulder and into Aunt Evelyn’s house to receive the worst news of my life.

I was on top of the world when we received reports back from the Clippers organization about my workout. I was on a flight straight from LA to Toronto and then back home to Dallas that Friday. On Friday morning, Dwon had been texting me some of the great news about Los Angeles. They were interested in taking me with their late first-round selection. They thought I would be a good fit on their roster. I had told my parents and we celebrated over the phone. We were all feeling positive. I was going to be a first-round pick in the draft! Then it happened. A few hours after receiving such great reviews from LA, Dwon received another call. It was Dr. Bonow.

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To this day, Dwon still gets choked up when he talks about taking this phone call. My whole crew was on a mountaintop at that point. So the phone call leveled us all. Dr. Bonow explained to Dwon that the testing had come back conclusive. He said that I had tested positive for Marfan syndrome. He also explained that if I continued to play competitively, my life could be in real danger. One shot to my chest or one extreme overexertion of my heart could kill me. Basketball wasn’t worth the risk. Dr. Bonow called my mom to inform her as well. She received the news on her drive home from work that Friday night in Kansas City. She cried so hard that she had to pull the car over several times just to gather herself. When she walked into the house, Dad took one look at her and knew what had happened. They had to get in the car to drive to Dallas to break the news to me. Mom says that it was the longest drive of her life. She, Noah, and Narah cried the entire trip.

Dad was able to keep it together until he got everyone safely to Aunt Ev’s house. There was a major operation set in motion by Mom and Dwon at this point. Everyone was working to figure out the best way to tell me. They knew how tough the moment was going to be. Meanwhile, it was Friday evening, and I was in Waco feeling great about my life. I was just five days away from my dream and honestly had never felt better. Mom, Dad, Noah, and Narah were already halfway to Dallas.

My family was working to keep the story under wraps until they could share it with me face-to-face, the way it needed to be shared – with my whole family present to support me. Mom and Dwon began to communicate with everyone who needed to know what was happening. I had driven to Waco to work at Coach Drew’s basketball camp that afternoon and played in the camp game that night with Cory and some other guys. By the time Coach Drew got the call from Mom, I was already out on the court competing in a scrimmage for the campers. I had no idea it was going to be the last time I would step onto a basketball court to play with those guys. I didn’t know it was the last game I would ever play in front of a packed gym. These were things I loved, things I took for granted. Coach Drew texted Coach Nuness, who was down on the court with all of us.

The Baylor staff guys were all very concerned that something could happen to me while I was out there competing. They texted back and forth about whether or not they should find a way to pull me from the game and get me off the court. At one point, Coach Nuness even tried to sub me out! I laughed him off, because there was no way I was sitting down. All my boys were out there playing and having a great time. It wasn’t intense; we were trying to show off for the kids. I was playing carefree and having fun. We were doing different dunks, throwing lobs, shooting threes, and basically doing what we could to entertain the kids that night.

Finally, Coach Drew called my mom and told her that I was playing on the court and he was worried about my safety. He asked Mom what she wanted him to do. She and Dwon both had the same response. They wanted me to be able to play in front of those kids one last time. I could’ve never dreamed it would be my last “competitive” game, but I am thankful that it was on my home floor at Baylor. At this point, Mom and Dwon were on the phone trying to make arrangements for the meeting. They called Evelyn and Dre, because I would be staying in Waco that Friday night, but would come back to be with them on Saturday, because I still thought I was flying to Chicago for a workout on Sunday. Aunt Evelyn, Dre, Erica, and Kristina were all really upset. I call Ron and Kristina my cousins, but they might as well be my brother and sister. (My only issue with Ron is that he went to Kansas and drives around with a Jayhawk on his car; we like to tease each other all the time. He says the only time he isn’t pulling for Baylor is wen they play his Jayhawks.)

They took the news pretty hard, but Aunt Ev had to get prepared to host a houseful of people. Mom talked to Coach Drew and asked if he wanted to be there when they shared the news with me. A lot of coaches would’ve wanted to be there, I guess, but Baylor is a special place. Coach didn’t hesitate, but he told Mom it wasn’t just going to be him, that the whole staff at Baylor wanted to be there to support me. Coach McCasland, Coach Nuness, Coach Maloney, Coach Mills, Coach Brewer, Coach Tang, and even Pastor Wible. The Baylor family was doing what family does –showing up even when things get tough. Cory and I were preparing for more NBA tryouts that week and weren’t all that tired from our camp game. We had asked Coach Tang earlier in the week if he wanted to work us out later that Friday evening after the camp was over. Coach Tang can put you through a crazy workout.

He’d agreed that he could do it before we went into the camp game that afternoon, but when we were done with the game, he told us something had come up, and we should probably go home and get some rest. Coach Tang would never cancel something like that, so I should’ve suspected something was up. I didn’t, though, and we decided to head back to my apartment and hang out.

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At this point my mom was on the phone with Coach Ray, trying to figure out how to manage me the next day. Coach Ray has never lied to me about anything in my life. He still gets emotional when he talks about how hard it was for us to spend that Saturday together. He told Mom that he couldn’t lie to me about anything. It was going to be difficult for him to go through the kind of day we had planned and not tell me that something was up, but he understood it needed to be done. My family needed to buy time for everyone to get to Aunt Evelyn’s. After talking with Mom, Ray called up Jay, Sweat, and Mo to fill them in on the situation. Mo Williams thought it would be best to have me over to grill out at his house and keep me busy playing video games, eating, and playing with his kids. So the guys I trust more than anything in the world were the ones who scheduled my Saturday to keep me locked safe. They wanted to make sure I was busy until later that night.

There were some near disasters in all of this. Several news sources called Coach Drew that next Saturday morning while I was working out at the Academy. Someone from my camp or the NBA had leaked the news that I had Marfan syndrome and that my career would be over. Coach Drew was on the phone with a couple of the local media guys in the Dallas area and had to beg them not to run with the story. He had to tell them that I didn’t know yet and that my family was worried about how I would handle the news; they didn’t want me finding out while I was driving around town by myself in the car or something like that. Mom called Holly Rowe, who had been instrumental in doing the ESPN special about my eyesight. She and Holly agreed that they didn’t want my story rolling across the ticker on ESPN and disappearing the next morning. They wanted to do an interview. ESPN was interested because of the special they had run on my eyesight earlier in the year that had been well received by viewers.

 

Our family has a strong relationship with Holly Rowe. She’s a really good person and an honest journalist. She and Mom have known each other for years, and she had even babysat me a couple of times when I was a small kid. When Mom called Holly, they cried on the phone together. Mom says that she and Dad had this feeling that it was important for me to go on television and talk about it. She felt like arranging for me to take that first step right away might help move me faster toward recovering from the devastating news. I am thankful that she knew me well enough to do that. Holly grabbed an ESPN film crew and made arrangements to travel to Dallas to film my story. For my parents, this diagnosis was much bigger than whether or not I would ever play basketball again. This was a life-threatening illness. In the hours leading up to my arrival, they were doing what most parents would. They were reading and researching all of what this diagnosis could mean for me.

After the time they had to research the disease, I am pretty sure that basketball was the last thing on their minds, but they knew it would be the first thing on mine. Friday evening I came back to my apartment after the scrimmage at the Farrell Center. I was feeling great about the Clippers news. I texted back and forth with Ray, making plans to meet him up at the gym in Dallas in the morning. That night I laughed a lot. I am not sure there was a time in my life when I had ever felt more sure about my dream coming true. I felt on top of the world.

I had the chance to entertain some kids at camp, which always put me in a good mood. I had some great texts from Dwon. I was looking forward to working out with my guys in Dallas tomorrow and seeing Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Dre that night. I had one last workout coming up on Sunday, but man, the draft was just five days away now. Five days from my dream coming true. I stayed up late with my friends Royce, Taurean, and Elliot, playing video games and messing around. I went to sleep that night seeing myself walk across that stage. I even thought I knew which hat I was going to put on that night. In reality, my lifelong dream was dead; I just didn’t know it yet. Every person in my life that I considered to be part of my family was praying for me that night. Coach Mills, Pastor Wible, the Baylor coaches, Mom and Dad, Coach Pops. I know it was hard on them to anticipate what was going to happen the next night. No one knew how I would take the news. Basketball was my life.

I know that there was plenty of time spent prayerfully thinking about how everything needed to happen. Saturday, June 21, would be the worst day of my life. I had already been faced with so many challenges – from blindness to injury – but I had been able to overcome them all. I was standing at the edge of my dream, completely unaware that in a few short hours my whole world – everything I had dreamed about – would come crashing down. Fortunately for me, my family was already there to pick me up.

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There I was on the floor at Aunt Evelyn’s house. My mind was racing a hundred miles an hour, wondering what could be next. I felt like I couldn’t get to my feet. My head was spinning as if a three-hundred-pound dude had just set a screen on me and blown me up on the court. I had been rocked by real life, and no one had given me any warning that it was coming. I had always taken pride in my vision. I made sure my blindness was an asset that would drive me, and never something anyone could ever take advantage of, but this was a different kind of blindness. For a minute I thought of the NBA testing and wondered how I didn’t see this news coming. I had been guilty of trusting… of trying to stay positive. “My excuse or my story?” It seemed at that moment that if there was one consistent part of my story, it was this kind of devastating news. I had made it through so many trials in my life, but I wasn’t sure this was something I could handle on my own.

I had always been able to overcome. I had always been equipped to outwork the challenges that had come my way. Now, I couldn’t even get to my feet on my own. But Ben was there, like he had always been. I thought of Fresno; I thought of God bringing him into my life. I thought of my mom with her prayers and wisdom. I still couldn’t look up, but I could hear her softly crying in the background. I could feel the people in the room moving toward me. I still wanted to escape. I wanted to run out of the house and begin the whole night again. I wanted to hit the reset button on my Xbox and start the game over. This moment in my life should’ve been a celebration. Instead it felt like a funeral. In a lot of ways, it was a funeral. My dream was there on the floor, fighting for its last breath. In a matter of minutes, my life had changed for the worse. I felt Dad grabbing me by my shoulders and lifting me up. The room was still spinning.

There was crying and praying, but I am not sure I could hear anything through the grief buzzing in my head. Dad slowly put his arms around my shoulders as my feet steadied underneath me. Mom stood by to hold me from the other side to make sure I could stand. I remember Dad saying, “C’mon, son.” And with those quiet words I took my first steps with the help of my parents to get up from that crushing news. I stood on the hardwood floor for a moment and steadied myself against the white walls of the entryway. Mom and Dad helped me walk slowly down the foyer, and as I looked around the room, for the first time I clearly saw all of my family gathered there. All of the people who had helped me build this dream were in this moment with me. As I turned the corner to the left to head to the bathroom, I noticed each person in the crowd.

Aunt Evelyn, Uncle Dre, my brother and sister, my cousins Kristina and Ron, Mrs. Forsett, my girlfriend Erika, Coach Pops, Coach Ray, Pastor Goines, our team chaplain Pastor Brewer, Coach McCasland, Coach Drew, Coach Nuness, Coach Mills, Coach Tang, Coach Maloney, Dwon. Everyone was wiping away tears from their eyes and looking at me to see how I would react. I needed a moment to pull myself together. I didn’t have to tell Mom and Dad – they knew I needed to regain my composure before I did or said anything. They helped me turn the corner and go into the small bathroom down the hallway from the living room. The walk toward that door seemed like the longest, slowest, and heaviest steps I had ever taken.

I felt like I was onstage in that moment, but not in the way that I dreamed. Dad got me into the guest bathroom and closed the door as Mom stood outside praying. There was a lot of praying that night. When the door closed, Dad grabbed me and hugged me. That was the moment when the shock began to go away a little bit. I didn’t have any words. All that was left were tears. My dream had died out there. It died in the form of some blood test in Chicago. It was gone with a report on a piece of paper and a phone call. I don’t remember saying much in those moments alone with my dad. He prayed and we cried together. I began to think about all of the things God had done in my life in moments when I felt like I couldn’t go on. I thought about Mom praying over me late into the night after each of those eye surgeries. I thought about the hope that grew with each surgery and the discouragement I felt every time we received the news that I would need another one.

I thought about all that Ray had taught me about being a man and not making excuses. I thought about my drive to make seeing the court better than anyone, even with one eye. I thought about my Baylor coaches and how they had given me the gift of learning to trust. I thought about Chapter 41. I thought about Aunt Evelyn and her battle with cancer. I thought about Coach Pops and his late-night phone calls that could get me through so many difficult times. I thought about those brave kids like Carter.

 

I thought about Pastor Goines, his prayers and sermons, and how he had strengthened my will to pursue my dream through the toughest times. When Dad stopped praying, we looked at each other and I knew it was time. It was my dream, but everybody out there in that room had made a big investment in it. It was their dream for me, too. I had to go back out there. My family was waiting. The family that had been my foundation through all these trials needed to know that I was going to be okay. I didn’t know what was next, but I knew the people in that room would help me. I leaned over the sink and washed my face. I looked in the mirror for a moment and thought about my eyes. I had never wanted anyone to feel sorry for me. And then I thought again about the words of wisdom Mom had given me. The words I had told everyone on the ESPN special in January. As hard as it was to realize, it was still true. I had two choices: I could make this my excuse or I could make it my story.

I didn’t even know what my story would look like from this point on. My story had always been about basketball. As Dad took my arm and asked me if I was ready, I remembered that my story was also about family. Whatever was next, the people in Aunt Evelyn’s living room, my family, would be the ones I knew I could lean on to help me figure it all out. I straightened myself as much as I could and I looked at Dad for a moment. Family, I thought. That was my next concern. Especially Noah and Narah. They were out there and they were the first people I wanted to turn my attention to. They both needed to know that no matter what happened, their big brother was going to be all right. I am not sure how, but I was finally able to gather my breath. I knew what I needed to do. Dad opened the door and Mom was there waiting. I hugged her as she cried for a moment. I needed everyone in that room to know I was going to make it through this somehow. I walked down the hallway and stood for a second looking around.

Everyone was standing and had gathered closer to the foyer. In Aunt Evelyn’s house, the stairs to the second floor face the entire living room. I slowly walked around the corner and grabbed the banister, looking for Noah and Narah. They were standing right next to the stairs. My legs still felt weak, my head was still spinning, but I was no longer crying. I reached down and sat on the stairs so that I could be eye level with my brother and sister. Noah and Narah came and sat on either side of me; both of them were pretty upset. I put my arms around them and told them, “It is going to be okay. I am going to be okay.” I hugged them both for a minute. The entire group had gathered close enough that I could look at everyone in the eye. When I looked at the faces of every family member, friend, and coach, I felt I was in a huddle during a time-out of a very intense, crucial game. All I could think about from that moment forward was that it was time for the next play.

Everything I thought about in my life revolved around basketball. Basketball was my identity. And my thoughts in that minute went back to the saying I would hear from all my coaches.

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Good players had a “next play” mentality. I had no idea what the “next play” could be. But I knew that I wanted the ball in my hands as soon as the clock began again. I’ve had only a handful of times in my life outside of church services and chapels when I really felt God’s presence enter a room. Sitting on the stairs at Aunt Evelyn’s, I knew He was there and that I was not alone as long as these twenty-some people who were family to me remained by my side. But there was something else, something that’s hard to explain. Even if everyone in that room were to abandon me, I knew God was enough for me to get through whatever I faced beyond that moment. I knew that there was a presence in that room so much bigger than all of us. God’s presence that day was not only felt by me, though. Everyone else could feel it as well.

As I sat there with Noah and Narah under each arm, and my girlfriend Erika just below me, Mom touched my right shoulder as she continued to pray, Coach Pops began to sing. It was soft and quiet at first, but as everyone around the room recognized the song, they all began to join in. Coach Pops is not a pastor, but he fills that description for a lot of people who know him. He has a spiritual presence about him that shines through in the darkest moments. He had been there for me through a lot of frustrating moments to give me good advice. I know he loves me as though I am part of his family.

He then began to sing a little louder, and soon everyone in the living room had drawn together and joined in to sing along. I will never forget the words to that song. He told me later it was a gospel tune that Kirk Franklin had written. No one recognized it by its name at the time, but everyone knew the words. Some people were still praying quietly, but above everything you could hear Coach Pops’s voice confidently singing, “He loves me and He cares, And He’ll never put more on me than I can bear…” Those words seemed to connect all of us together. I remember the hope I felt as he put his hand on my head and sang those words over me. I had been through so much adversity, and people would often say encouraging words like this to me – saying how God wouldn’t give me anything I couldn’t handle. But in that moment, I realized for the first time what the words to that song meant.

It wasn’t that God would keep us from a diagnosis or any other situation that could crush us, but it meant that He’s always there to somehow get us through it. I looked around the room and realized that these were God’s people. I didn’t feel like I had to bear this on my own. The people with me singing that song and praying were the ones who were going to help me. God didn’t stop Marfan syndrome from ending my career, but you can’t tell me that He had not carefully planned the love and support I needed that night in the living room. He had brought together just the family I needed to bear this heartbreaking diagnosis.

As Coach Pops finished singing and his voice trailed off, I put my face in my shirt for a minute to fight back tears. Not tears of grief, but tears of joy for God’s presence in my life, as well as for the support of my family all around me, including friends and players and coaches. There was a short minute of silence before Coach Pops began to speak. He began to preach to me what God was putting on his heart in that moment:

When I get weak, I trust Him. When I just don’t know, I trust Him. When I can’t figure it out, I trust Him. When I am on the mountaintop, I trust Him. When I am in the valley, I trust Him.

There were “Amen”s coming from around the room. But none of them were as loud as what I was hearing in my heart. Trust was the theme of my life. I had no answers, but I remembered Mom telling me that faith is the easy part – trust is where the real work begins. And then Coach Pops began to speak the words that changed my life. He spoke for several minutes, and the power of each word seemed to cover the quiet room with an unbelievable peace. He placed his hands on my shoulders and began to pray over me. Some of my family gathered around and placed their hands on his shoulders. I wasn’t crying at that point, I was just there in the moment, open to whatever was going to happen next.

Coach Pops prayed, “Lord, Isaiah has lost his dream. Help him to find a new way; help him to find new dreams. Lord, help Isaiah to dream again.” Of all the prayers this man had prayed for me over the years, these words were the most powerful that anyone had ever spoken into my life. “God, help me dream again,” I prayed. It isn’t that I could fully understand what God was doing at that moment. And to tell you the truth, I still can’t completely see what it means for my life today, but I was able to get up from the stairs, and while the grief was still very present, I knew I needed to start taking steps to move on. Whatever dreaming again meant for me, it began where all my dreams had started: with my family. I needed to spend time with the people who had come together for me in that room, so I got up and began talking to my coaches and the people who were there to help me dream again. I needed to tell everyone how thankful I was for each of them in my life.

Several minutes later, Mom’s phone rang. It was Dr. Bonow from Northwestern and he wanted to speak with me. Mom talked with him for a minute and asked him if we could put him on the speakerphone. Everyone in our family wanted to hear what he had to say. Looking back, this conversation with the doctor was the first moment where I actually saw what God had done. Dr. Bonow explained the situation to everyone and how the results had come back positive. He said that I should be very grateful for the diagnosis.

 

It was hard to hear at first that I should be thankful for something that was taking my dream away. But he explained that this discovery had actually saved my life. If they hadn’t identified the problem through the blood work and with the aortic enlargement in my heart, I could’ve easily died playing basketball. This diagnosis was saving my life. We had a lot of conversations that night about well-known heart-related tragedies that had taken place on the basketball court. We talked about how blessed I had been to compete at an elite level and not have something terrible go wrong with my heart, especially a heart that was affected by this strange disease. I remember Coach Ray telling me that he was so thankful that nothing had ever happened to me as I was running one of his thousands of sprints. I started to realize how serious the diagnosis was, and while it didn’t make losing basketball any easier, I started to realize how God had actually saved my life.

It would be long after that evening when I would make even bigger connections about what God had done for me. I was overwhelmed with the love in the room that night. After an hour or so, the coaches began to leave to get back to their families. Pastor Wible, who had driven up from Waco, prayed with me. Pastor Goines prayed with me, too. Coach Ray and I had a couple of moments together as well; he had been with me from the beginning and had been as excited as I was to see me walk across the stage on draft night, so I knew he was taking the news really hard, too. He knew the days ahead were going to be really tough for me, but since his goal had always been to make me a better man first before training me to be a great player, he was confident everything would turn out all right. When my agent, Dwon, told me that he was working on what we were going to do next, I was a little confused. Dwon was an NBA agent. Now that I couldn’t play, I had assumed that I wasn’t someone he could work with.

In my mind, it wasn’t worth his time financially if I wasn’t going to play. But he didn’t see it that way at all; he wasn’t concerned about the money. He told me as he left, “I am your agent, and I am not in this for your basketball career, I am in this for you.” He said it was time for us to think about what we were going to do together next. It meant a lot to me. Coach Drew spoke to my parents, saying that he had already made arrangements to keep me on scholarship at Baylor if it was something I was interested in doing. He wanted me to go back and get my degree and said that he and the rest of the coaching staff would be honored if I would hang around the program and help them out. He asked if I would be interested in being a student coach who could help mentor the younger guys. I realized that as soon as he received the bad news on Friday, his first concern was that I would be able to finish my degree. Coach Drew is always working to find the positives in any situation.

It meant a lot to me that he had taken care of that before he even showed up at our house.

Later that evening, Cory Jefferson stopped in to see me. He had to drive a long way over to check in, and I knew he was getting ready for his workouts in New York City with the Knicks and the Nets in the next few days. He and I took a walk around the neighborhood and talked about everything we had been through that season. He was actually able to make me laugh, and it was good to get my mind off what had just happened, even if only for a couple of minutes. I asked him how he was feeling about the draft, and he said he felt good. It wasn’t a heavy conversation or anything, but he was really upset about what had happened to me. Cory had always worn number 34, but he told me that he wanted to change his number to mine when he played in the league. He said he was going to go out there to play for both of us and he would carry the number 21 out there for me. I couldn’t believe he would do that for me, because keeping the number you’ve played with for years is a big deal to athletes.

I felt both honored and humbled by his words. That night felt like the longest night of my life. If I didn’t know any better, I would have believed that time had stood still or at least went in slow motion. Mom told me that Holly Rowe was coming to Dallas the next morning, and we would be taping an interview to share my story with ESPN. I stayed at Aunt Evelyn’s house, and I remember that my parents’ phones were going off late into the evening with reporters calling to get the story.

Word was leaking out about what had happened, but it was mainly local media. My Baylor guys and my family from Grace Prep were also slowly starting to find out, and they were all reaching out to me and sending encouraging texts.

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The next morning I would be able to share my story on a national stage. I didn’t think much about it. I couldn’t. It was all really fresh. Late into the evening, after everyone had left and it was just my close family, we sat around Evelyn’s house like we had done hundreds of times and talked. I don’t know how my parents stayed awake after driving all night the evening before from Kansas City, but they still sat up with me for a long time. I couldn’t sleep soundly that night. Every time I woke up, the reality of the news would hit me. It was like getting hit in the foyer over and over again, because my mind would have to get readjusted to my new reality. I would get up and walk around for a minute and then try to sleep again. I was starting to have so many new questions. Was there a way to fix this problem with my heart so I could play? They had said I could never play again, but I was still really young.

What if the doctors found a new treatment? How was Marfan going to affect my everyday life? Could I still work out? Could I stand to be around the sport I loved and not be able to play?

Did my diagnosis mean I wouldn’t live a long life? It seemed like there were new questions and so many things running through my mind. When I woke up the next morning, we went straight to the Mo Williams Academy. I had taken the court there the previous day as I prepared for my Sunday workout in Chicago. Now there would be no Chicago trip. When life changes so quickly like that, it’s hard to get your mind around what is actually happening, and everything kept playing in my mind over and over again. It was terribly difficult to gather my emotions and gain strength to even walk into that gym again. I had put in thousands of hours there to chase my dream. When I stepped on the court to meet with Holly, the emotions started to weigh me down, and I wasn’t sure how I could do the ESPN interview. I had a feeling it was always going to be hard for me to walk on the court from now on, but I needed to press on. My family had lifted me up on Saturday night, but now I had to start doing the real work.

I had been through this before. First you have to see your vision, and not until then can the real work begin. I am a competitor. I have to fight. I needed to have something to go after. My first thoughts that morning were positive, but I was still angry. I wanted to attack this disease. I wanted to bring awareness to it and beat it. That was my mind-set, even if it still meant I would never play basketball again. Maybe by doing the interview, it could somehow make a difference.

Since Holly is a family friend, we took a few moments to talk before the interview, and she said she knew it was going to be hard for both of us. It was one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had – and it happened for an interview that would be seen all over the world. Since I hadn’t slept well, my emotions kept rushing in and taking over when I tried to talk. By the time we started taping, it was all I could do just to get in front of the camera. When I finally sat down and Holly asked me what had happened, I was able to pull it together for just long enough. I explained the situation and the danger of my arteries being enlarged by Marfan syndrome. And then I got to that word. I tripped into it, because it was a word I had used my whole life. I said, “I had a dream that my name was going to be called–” And then the truth of everything that had happened in the past day floored me again, nearly as hard as it had in the foyer at Aunt Evelyn’s house.

I tried to get myself together. I knew it was emotional for Holly and I didn’t want to cry on national television. That word, though – “dream” – had driven me my whole life. When it slipped out, the fact that I would never walk across that stage on NBA draft night was too much for me to deal with. Fortunately, I was able to gather myself and Holly helped me out with another question. Of all the people in the world who could’ve been interviewing me at that moment, I was so thankful it was her. I apologized to my fans, who would never get to see me play, and told the camera that it wasn’t the end for me, only the beginning.

"They let a brother steer the ship, and never told him that the ship was sinkin'" #tbt

A post shared by Zeke Uno (@isaiahaustin) on

 

And that wasn’t me trying to say all the right things. I wanted this not to be the end, but a real beginning for something greater. I just didn’t know what that meant for me. We taped the interview early and it ran on ESPN later that morning. I haven’t watched the interview yet and don’t know if I will anytime soon because my emotions were so raw. It captured the moment of my pain – the real grief I was feeling just hours after finding out. My dream had been so much a part of who I was, and now I was feeling so empty. We hung around the gym that day for a while. There were so many people who wanted to interview me, but I couldn’t do them all. Mo had kids coming in for workouts that afternoon, so I spent the rest of the day staying busy by working with the kids. Helping them get better was a great distraction from everything going on. Eventually my family and Evelyn and Dre’s family were able to go out to eat together.

Being around them was great, because it also allowed me to focus on other things besides my bad news. I would spend the rest of the week hanging out with them at my aunt and uncle’s house when I wasn’t doing media or planning my next step with Dwon. I’ve never been so thankful to be around people who have so much joy in their house no matter the situation. The news was out. I still had no idea what was coming next, but things were starting to get interesting. Coaches, teachers, and pastors talk about moving on.

On the basketball court we call it a “next play” mentality. The thing about the next play is that it starts as a state of mind. Moving on to the next play doesn’t erase the last one. It just means that you are going to move forward and focus on what’s in front of you. The news from that Saturday night would hurt me for months, but I had to move on to the next play. I couldn’t sit there and feel sorry for what had happened. That week I received so much love from Baylor nation that it was unbelievable. I received encouraging messages from guys in the league who I had never even met. As hard as it was, I was overwhelmed at times with how many people reached out in support. And that week I also started to understand more about the miracle that had occurred in my life with this diagnosis.

You can buy Dream Again: A Story of Faith, Courage, and the Tenacity to Overcome on Amazon.

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