MANILA, Philippines – The newest face in Philippine basketball cannot be missed.
Standing at 7-foot-1, Isaiah Austin will be making his debut as a member of Filipino club Chooks-to-Go in the 2017 FIBA Asia Champions Cup that will be held on September 22 to 30, 2017 in Chenzhou, China.
The American professional basketball player's presence in the squad not only provides the vital offense and defense needed in the young delegation, but the consideration of naturalizing Austin will be a pivotal move for the Gilas program.
Isaiah Austin practices his outside shooting with Kiefer Ravena in Gilas Practice
Aside from being blessed with a vertical advantage, Austin honed his basketball skills all his life until he made a breakthrough performance as a freshman in Baylor University. His two-season stint with the Baylor Bears even led him to be declared for the NBA Draft in 2013 and 2014.
However, just as Austin was on the road to becoming the next big thing in the NBA, the author of his life had to stop and pause for a moment to rewrite his "supposedly" fairytale ending.
Isaiah Austin's basketball journey was not a rising linear path. Mishaps loomed the 23 year-old's career ever since he was a young boy, starting from when he was hit by a baseball in 2005. This resulted to a loose retina which completely detached when he attempted a dunk years later, causing his right eye to be permanently blind.
Austin continued to play basketball with a prosthetic eye in Baylor University that saw him lead the team to their first National Invitation Tournament (NIT) championship. The Baylor Bears stalwart then received his first opportunity to reach the ranks of NBA players, as he was selected for the 2013 draft pick.
However, Austin had to delay his ticket to the NBA, as he suffered a shoulder injury that opted him out of the draft pick. Austin returned to Baylor and started his second season with the Bears.
The following year, Austin was declared to be part of the 2014 NBA draft. As he thought that he had finally booked his ticket into the premiere men's basketball league in the world, Austin found the biggest boulder of his life sitting right in front of his path 3 days before the draft.
Isaiah Austin was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome.
He had to stop playing competitive basketball.
Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder that affects the connective tissues of the body. For Austin, his arteries were found to be enlarged due to this disease that might cause his aorta to rupture if he continued playing the sport that he loves.
"It was really heartbreaking just because of the fact I've worked my whole life to get to that point of my life and the doctor just told me 3 days before the NBA draft right before my career was about to come true," said Austin.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver invited Austin as his guest during the 2014 NBA Draft Pick. Silver recognized Austin's talent as he was selected to be the NBA's ceremonial draft pick.
Two years passed since the 2014 NBA Draft, and Austin experienced the most difficult period of his life without the sport that made him who he was back then.
"It was tough you know– not being able to play basketball. There were times that I was in deep depression and those types of things are scary for people because it's like you're in a black hole and you don't know which way or how to get out," recalled Austin.
It took a lot of reflection for Austin to cope with his disorder, enough for him to realize that basketball does not define him who he is as a person.
"Basketball has never defined me as a man and never will. What defines me as a man is my character, how I achieve my goals, being the best son I can be, being the best father I can be, being the best friend I can be and things like that," said Austin.
Austin also added that he owes it to his mother for supporting him throughout his career and ultimately, teaching him the real meaning of life that he was only able to realize during his troubled time.
"I grew up very privileged with my mother. She worked very hard to support me and my family. She always grew me up on knowing the real meaning of life. That is finding happiness and who you are, what you are. And basketball has never been who I am."
Austin drove this adversity into a different path, where he chose to share his story to people and inspire them to dream again.
"I knew that it was not going to be the end of my life. I just new that I had to go on a different path and the path I chose to take was trying to inspire people with my story and help them get past any obstacles that they will be facing."
"An experience I will never forget"
On November 2016, heavens opened on Austin, as he was medically cleared by his doctor to play basketball once again.
"I was actually in Minnesota when I found out that I will be able to continue basketball. It was really like an experience that I will never forget. After all the check ups that I have, after all the times he has monitored me, you know all the things that I was going through, he was happy to be able to tell me that I'll be able to play basketball again.
"I am really really happy to be able to play basketball again. This game has brought me so much joy. It's allowed me to be able to touch and inspire people around the world."
In January 2017, Austin tipped off his first stint after his clearance with the Serbian club FMP, where he averaged 7.6 points and 3.9 rebounds per game over 12 games in the Basketball League of Serbia.
Although his numbers were not as impressive as his pre-diagnosis form in 2014, Austin recalled the overwhelming feeling he had in his first professional practice.
"In Serbia, I remember my first practice – my first professional practice. I was just so excited you know. I cried before my practice and I cried after. I couldn't believe this – this whole situation – it just seems so surreal to me."
Isaiah Austin's #PUSO
After all the setbacks Austin had experienced in his career, the God-fearing center does not regret the painful episodes of his life that he had to go through. Although it hindered him from the accolades he could have collected in the two years of not playing basketball, his growth and the relationships he had made was priceless.
"I really feel like God had a plan for me since the very beginning. That's why I constantly tell people that when they're always asking me like 'if I could go back and if I can change it, would I?' So that I can play in the NBA, I can earn millions of dollars and have a chance to be an All-Star. I wouldn't give this up for anything," said Austin.
"Just the growth that [was given to me], the relationships that have brought me [here]. Those types of things are priceless."
The Chooks-to-Go import was amazed to immerse himself in the culture of "PUSO" in the Philippines, and claimed that he felt that everything fell into place as he entered this team.
"For me to be here, I feel like it's picture perfect, especially when I found out that 'PUSO' is what you guys are for," said Austin.
Isaiah Austin more than ready to don the colors of the Philippines and inspire Filipino fans with his basketball experience that will bear fruit in the upcoming 2017 FIBA Asia Cup Championships.
"That's my word. I'm giving my all every second I am on that court. I know what it is like to have basketball taken away from me. And I know that there are hundreds and millions of people who grew up somewhere that are basketball fans, but never had the opportunity to play. It's not a fun feeling so I am not taking any second on the court for granted."
Just like that, Isaiah Austin's life story was written to have a better "fairytale" ending that he could have imagined. – Rappler.com
More commonly known as “Bee”, Beatrice is a multimedia sports reporter for Rappler, who covers Phillippine sports governance, national teams, football and the UAAP. Stay tuned for her news and features on Philippine sports and videos like the Rappler Athlete’s Corner and Rappler Sports Timeout.