Wake County

NBA draft pick Isaiah Austin kicks off National Catholic Schools Week in Raleigh

Former Baylor University basketball star Isaiah Austin gives high-fives while playing a game of knockout with some of the kids after he spoke to a group of students at Saint Raphael's Catholic School in North Raleigh on Monday.
Former Baylor University basketball star Isaiah Austin gives high-fives while playing a game of knockout with some of the kids after he spoke to a group of students at Saint Raphael's Catholic School in North Raleigh on Monday. cseward@newsobserver.com

Isaiah Austin could have signed a multimillion-dollar contract, left his business marketing degree unfinished at Baylor University and played on almost any NBA team in the country.

But that dream quickly crumbled. A week before he was expected to be a first pick in the NBA draft last June, Austin was diagnosed with Marfan’s syndrome, a genetic condition that leaves connective tissue in the heart easy to tear, causing overexertion to be potentially life-threatening.

“I worked so hard my whole life, and it was just taken away,” Austin told a group of about 50 middle-schoolers at Saint Raphael’s Catholic School in Raleigh on Monday.

Doctors told Austin he had to stop playing basketball just five days before the draft. The NBA still drafted him, though, in the NBA’s first honorary draft.

Austin shared his experiences with students at Saint Raphael’s to kick off National Catholic Schools Week, which celebrates families and communities involved in Catholic education.

Although he is not Catholic, Austin told students his faith helped him accept his condition and new life.

“This is what God had planned for me, and I’m happy with it,” Austin said. “I’m living with it.”

Ellen Guarente, a staff member in Saint Raphael’s Office of Advancement, helped plan Austin’s visit and said he is a good example of how students can use their faith when faced with challenges.

“He’s a young man of deep faith, which has really shaped his life,” Guarente said.

Although students heard about Austin’s struggles, they were interested to hear about what it’s like to be as tall as Austin (7 feet, 1 inch) and what it was like to practice with NBA teams. They wanted to know his favorite basketball player (Kobe Bryant) and how he managed to stay on top of his classes while playing basketball.

Instead of spending his days rushing between classes and practice, Austin works out with some of his former teammates, goes to class and serves as a manager for the Baylor basketball team.

He’s usually traveling now, too, speaking to groups and building a foundation that will support Marfan’s syndrome research while working on an upcoming book about his life and basketball career.

It’s not what he planned, but Austin said he is finding he enjoys his new life just as much as he did playing center on a nationally ranked college basketball team.

‘It was God’s plan’

Austin had played basketball since he was a toddler, long before he attained the height of an NBA center, making him a top recruit as he got older.

He committed to Baylor at the end of his sophomore year of high school in Arlington, Texas, after fielding offers from the likes of Duke, UNC, the University of Kentucky and Syracuse University.

In his freshman year at Baylor, he got to play at Madison Square Garden. Last year, Baylor made an NCAA tournament run to the Sweet 16 with Austin playing center.

He almost didn’t make it that far, though. Even before his Marfan’s diagnosis, Austin faced a challenge that almost permanently benched him.

In eighth grade, when Austin came down from a dunk on the basketball court, the retina in his right eye detached. He had several surgeries to repair it, but by the time he was a junior in high school, he was blind in his right eye. He wears a prosthetic eye now.

“God really put that obstacle in my life to prepare me for what He had for me later in life,” he said.

With practice, Austin was able to figure out the best way to shoot the basketball. Most of the time, he said, it’s just muscle memory. He knows how it feels to make different shots from different parts of the court.

Austin told students he was crushed when he found out he couldn’t play basketball anymore, but he tried to find a new purpose in his life. Now, he told them, he gets a chance to change peoples’ lives.

“What I do now – I’m a normal kid,” he said. “It wasn’t my plan; it was God’s plan for me.”

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