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It’s wonderful that Isaiah Austin was the star of the NBA Draft

June 28, 2014 Columns No Comments

The show on NBA Draft night was stolen by a player who will never play a minute in the NBA. And that’s perfectly fine for a lot of reasons.

There are many things we can talk about from the NBA Draft. It was a deep draft, there are players with a world of potential taken at the top, and there was a subplot with a late first-round pick who led the national champions.

We could talk about all of that and more. But I’m surely not alone in thinking that Isaiah Austin’s place on this night is the highlight, and well worth talking about in looking back.

By now, everyone knows Austin’s story. Already living with a prosthetic right eye after failed attempts at repairing a detached retina, less than a week before the draft his world was rocked when tests revealed that he has Marfan syndrome. His playing career is over, as that is a rare genetic disorder that affects the heart, and playing basketball could heighten the risk of a heart rupture.

Austin came into college very highly regarded. He was an elite player in his high school class and a McDonald’s All-American, and had seemingly limitless potential. In fact, some were surely pronouncing him a bust because he wasn’t projected to be a top-three pick after his freshman season. That says more about them than Austin, but it gives you an idea of what he appeared to have in front of him once upon a time.

The young man will tell you he still has plenty in front of him. He’s 100 percent correct. And that can’t be lost in all of this.

“Everything,” was what the 20-year-old said is next for him. “I mean, I have a whole life ahead of me. I’m not going to sit here, and I’m not going to sulk about not being able to play basketball anymore because I can still be involved with the game somehow or some way.”

It would be easy for him to take for granted that he would be in the NBA one day. It would be easy for him to think he had it made and be entitled. You sense none of that in listening to him. Instead, you sense that this is someone who appreciates the opportunities this has afforded him and will continue to afford him. As such, he seems to have grasped all of this as well as can be expected.

No doubt, he was hurting when he first got this news; he admitted he “wanted to break down and cry,” but couldn’t because his younger siblings were there. But for many who pin their hopes on reaching the NBA, they might never be the same and all the worse for it. In Austin’s case, he won’t be the same, but there’s every reason to think he will be all the better for it.

A world of opportunities has opened up. He can go into coaching. A foundation about the syndrome wants him to be a spokesperson. He’s met numerous people in the game in recent days that are supporting him and want to support him more, and there are undoubtedly many he hasn’t met who want to help him. Athletes are a fraternity, and at a time like this it shows, because he’ll probably have many more players and coaches reach out to him.

While this undoubtedly helps put things about life into perspective, you get the sense Austin already had a lot of that. Certainly, having already experienced a scare with his eye probably helps him there. He also reportedly has a $1 million insurance policy that will allow him a buffer against money issues in the short run. But all of what he said Wednesday night after the terrific action by NBA commissioner Adam Silver comes across as genuine as you can get.

We should appreciate that we got to see Austin play for as long as we did. Even more so, we should appreciate that this discovery, while keeping us from seeing him play more, prevented a more tragic ending to this story.

“To be blessed to play this game for as long as I did, I’m just thankful,” said Austin. “I’ve really had time to sit down and think a little bit, and God has truly blessed me because He could have continued to let me play basketball, but instead He saved my life.”

We can all learn from Austin’s perspective on life. He understands the blessings he has had and that adversity will happen. A bright young man, he probably already understood that there are many ways he can be involved in the game even before this happened. Now he’s looking at the many options he will have, and knows that the choice is a blessing nonetheless.

Playing the game has opened up a new world for him. He’s met many people – fellow players, coaches, people in the media, administrators – he would have never met otherwise. Through the game, he has built and will continue to build many relationships that will help him not only on current and future jobs, but even in everyday life matters. Finishing up his degree (he is studying business) will help him further.

Through all of this, it’s natural to feel for Austin given that he lost an opportunity. But we all should learn from him in a few ways. Certainly, he will live, and that’s most important by far. He will overcome further adversity, and seeing that should be an inspiration for others. The old saying, “when one door closes, another one opens,” is never more true than it is for him. We should understand that he is not just a basketball player – he’s a young man, a bright one at that, and one who will now give to all of us what the game gave him.

And as he goes on to more success – everything he has done gives us reason to believe that is what lies ahead for him – we should be reminded once more that at some point, the ball will stop bouncing for everyone. In his case, it stopped sooner than in some others. Now, he will go about being remembered for something bigger than a jumper or a rebound.

It remains to be seen if any players from this draft will be Hall of Famers or busts. That’s something to think about 10-15 years down the road. From this night, we should all remember Isaiah Austin, however, even though he’ll never play a minute in an NBA uniform. He stole the show on the evening and is ready to contribute a great deal to the world all the same.

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