Isaiah Austin makes his unique situation his message

Isaiah Austin makes his unique situation his message
June 10, 2014, 1:00 pm
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Mark Strotman

Isaiah Austin is unique, and it goes a whole lot deeper than his 7-foot-5 wingspan.

The 7-foot Baylor center was one of the country's best shot blockers last season, has range to the 3-point line, has solid leaping ability around the rim and is relentless on both ends of the glass.

And he does it all with half the vision of his fellow draft hopefuls.

Austin is blind in his right eye, but he's made his struggle his message. As a young boy he was struck in the face with a baseball that loosened his retina, and aggravated his condition warming up before an eighth-grade basketball game. But instead of leaving the game he loved - something he seriously considered shortly after losing vision in the eye - thanks to his mother's words of advice, he continued to work and has become one of the top defensive centers in the draft.

And after going public with his condition, his "dilemma" as he calls it, during his freshman season at Baylor, Austin has made it his goal not only to prosper despite his setback, but also make it an example for others dealing with personal setbacks.

"Anybody with any type of disability, I encourage them to go and fight for their dreams and what they want to work for," he said at last month's NBA Combine in Chicago. "The only person that’s going to stop you from getting there is yourself. You always have to have that confidence in yourself to know you can do it. You have to have faith in God because there’s going to be bumps in the road, there’s going to be ups and downs.

"I just encourage everyone to keep fighting. Nothing is impossible."

But having half the vision of fellow Division-I student-athletes hasn't come without its burdens. Austin admits to still having problems with depth perception - it takes time for him to adjust to new arenas, so he's forced to warm up earlier than his teammates in order to acclimate - and the goggles he plays with each night do him no favors, but his on-court play speaks for himself.

Though his numbers were down in his sophomore season, Austin doesn't regret returning for a second year after he was a projected lottery pick in 2013. This past year he averaged 11.2 points on 45 percent shooting and 5.5 rebounds, including three double-doubles. He also added 3.1 blocks, sixth in the country and second among power-conference defenders.

He went toe-to-toe with projected top-three pick Joel Embiid in January, scoring 16 points and grabbing five rebounds while limiting the Kansas center to just 12 points in 26 minutes. He blocked seven shots in the Big 12 Tournament in a win over Texas and added 17 points in the Bears' NCAA Tournament win over Creighton, pushing them to the Sweet 16 for the third time in five seasons.

And while Austin would have been a lottery pick last year - he's now a borderline first-rounder who may slip to the second round - he doesn't regret his decision to return to Waco, Texas, admitting that while his numbers didn't improve his off-the-court intangibles did.

"I just wasn’t as close with my teammates. My sophomore year I became a lot more mature and I became a leader on the team and a lot of people looked up to me," he said. "But I really looked up to them because we really grew as a family together. We got to the Sweet 16 and those were some of the happiest times of my life. Those are the type of memories you’ll never forget."

Before that maturation process began, Austin admitted he was selfish about his draft prospects. Instead of focusing on team goals, he wanted to make sure he was going to be fine. But that changed, and the results were evident.

"It was a little bit difficult (returning) because I wanted to be a lottery pick, and coming back I was little disappointed like, ‘Oh, man, what if I have a bad season and I won’t be a lottery pick?’ But it’s just part of my growth that I needed," he said. "I’m happy I came back because I became a better teammate, I became a better person on and off the court and I matured."

Lottery, first round or second round, Austin's more worried about the team that selects him than when his name is called.

"It’s not about where you get drafted or anything like that; it’s about a team giving you an opportunity, and that’s all I’m looking for," he said. "I just want one team to love me and I’m going to give my all to that team as long as I’m with them."

What Austin will bring to an NBA team is a versatile defensive stopper, a raw offensive talent and a 7-footer with plenty of potential - Austin was ranked No. 4 in the 2012 recruiting class. At just 20 years old, the best is yet to come and he should fare better in a more open NBA setting than a Baylor team that played at one of the slowest paces in the country.

But more than that, the NBA team that selects Austin will get an ambassador for all athletes, at every level, competing with a handicap. There'll be hardships for him that all rookies will face, but Austin has been through the toughest already. As his mother told him shortly after he went partially blind, he plans to make his struggle his story, not his excuse.

"Coming out with my story has been the best part of my life, he said. "Just seeing how many people I can touch and inspire across the world. I get 10 to 15 emails today. And I try to respond to each and every one of them, because I know that I look up to people, and I know that if I were to send out an email to somebody that inspires me I would love for them to hit me back. So I try to do that for them, and it’s just been an honor to glorify God and my story."

Soon he'll be telling a new chapter of his story in the NBA.