Hoop Dreams: A 7-Foot Phenom’s Long Fall Down

As part of SLAM's weeklong collaboration with Narratively, we caught up with Isaiah Austin to discuss his life since being diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome.
by February 11, 2015

Since its inception, SLAM has approached the game and those who play it from a fresh, new angle that has kept the magazine and website the number one place for basketball fans for over 20 years. Unfortunately, due to a litany of circumstances, SLAM doesn’t always have the time, writers or space to capture every story we’d like to. Thankfully, publications like Narratively—a platform devoted to untold human stories—exist.

While most publications dedicate their All-Star Week coverage to today’s brightest stars (which SLAM will do as well!), SLAM and Narratively are bringing you four alternative basketball stories from around the globe.  

The group of stories debuted this week represent a commitment to reporting and the telling of stories about players past, present, and future. They are narratives not about marketing or hype but about taking readers to courts around the world. It’s about giving readers fresh perspectives–even a group of stories directly from the players themselves. Narratively and SLAM are proud to present HOOP DREAMS: A 7-Foot Phenom’s Long Fall Down.

Thank you to Ben Osborne and Pete Walsh of SLAM and Noah Rosenberg, Brendan Speigel, and Garrett McGrath of Narratively for forming the best five-player lineup and cranking out a winning slate of basketball stories.

For more about Narratively, visit their site, Facebook and Twitter.

By Garrett McGrath

One day when Isaiah Austin was 10, he stood in the batter’s box. The pitcher—young and as inexperienced as Austin was—wound up and threw the ball to the catcher 46 feet away. Second later, the ball arrived high and tight to Austin’s face.

“I got hit in the right eye with a baseball,” Austin recalls. The injury would go on to affect his athletic ambitions. “And then when I was in eighth grade during basketball season, I went up to dunk during a pregame warm-up,” Austin continues. “And I remember coming down and I saw red.”

The dunk aggravated the earlier baseball injury and his retina was torn. In an effort to save the vision in his right eye, the young Austin endured a year full of operations.

“The toughest part for me then,” he remembers, “was I couldn’t play basketball.”

“I had four surgeries to try to repair my vision.” They didn’t work. But that is when Isaiah began his vision. A year after the injury, he returned to the court determined to start playing the game he loved so much, relying on practice and muscle memory.

Despite these limitations, Isaiah Austin eventually rose to stardom as a menacing seven-foot, one-inch center for Baylor University’s basketball team. The Internet-age made sure he was well known before his two years in the NCAA. At Grace Preparatory Academy in Arlington, TX, he was ranked the number three recruit in the entire country by ESPN. “I was being recruited by basically everybody in the country,” Austin recalls. “All the way from Syracuse and North Carolina and Duke to Kentucky, Florida, all big-time schools. [I chose Baylor] because it was close to home, it was basically a family aspect. They really just showed me respect. I knew it was a Christian university and I knew I would be able to express my faith openly there.”

He was a seven-foot tall giant as a 16-year-old, a rare physical quality that makes sense considering what happened to him during the week leading up to the 2014 NBA Draft.

“Austin’s intrigue as a prospect has long hinged on his extremely rare physical attributes,” the DraftExpress blog said of Austin going into the Draft. “The Texas native has outstanding size for a center at any level to go along with impressive mobility.”

Declaring for the NBA draft after his sophomore year, he was projected as a late first round to early second round pick, after a season that ended in a NCAA Tournament run to the Sweet Sixteen, falling to Wisconsin. The future was wide open; NBA franchises like the Boston Celtics expressed interest in Austin’s ability and talent. Interest would mean a lucrative contract, fame, and — most importantly —fulfillment of a dream cemented by commitment and desire.

And this appeal came despite the fact that Austin was blind in his right eye, an injury that was only publicly disclosed earlier that year.

“At first, basketball was tough because my depth perception was off,” Austin recalls about learning to play after his childhood injury. He learned to play through it by keeping his head moving. And it never derided his determination to be the best on the court.

“I got up at six every day. I trained every day,” Austin says. “I wanted to be ready for the NBA.”

Being ready for the league meant participating in all of the events surrounding the draft, including a physical examination that consisted of a blood test. That is when everything changed.

For the rest of this story and more from the week, visit Narratively here.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Zizzo