- Associated Press - Saturday, January 31, 2015

WACO, Texas (AP) - Isaiah Austin has gone from potential first-round NBA draft pick to getting on his hands and knees during Baylor practices, wiping up sweat when players fall to the floor.

“I’m a manager,” Austin says with a chuckle. “I bring them water whenever they’re thirsty, give them towels whenever they’re sweaty. I do the little things for the team.”

These aren’t exactly the big basketball dreams once imagined by the 7-foot-1 Austin, who succeeded in the Big 12 with a prosthetic eye only to find out days before the draft last summer that he was done playing because of a rare genetic disorder that can affect his heart.

“Never, never crossed my mind one time that I wouldn’t make it to the NBA,” Austin said.

Not even when he publicly revealed a year ago during his sophomore season that he was blind in his right eye from a previous injury aggravated doing a routine dunk in middle school. Multiple operations couldn’t fix the detached retina and save his vision. Still, NBA scouts were aware of his partial blindness.

Then, during a physical before the draft, he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, which affects the body’s connective tissue. Austin could understandably be bitter, but instead relies heavily on his Christian faith while sharing his story.

He works to raise awareness of Marfan syndrome through his foundation, doing so with a positive attitude he hopes will help others overcome their own obstacles. One of the foundation’s missions is to inspire others to “Dream Again.”

“I want them to know that if they’re going through a difficult time in their life … it’s not the end of the road at all by any means,” the 21-year-old Austin said. “You might not know where to turn, but if you bow your heard and you get on your knees and pray, God will open another door for you, he’ll guide you in the right direction.”

Baylor restored Austin’s scholarship so that he could return to school to complete his business degree while working with the team.

On game days he wears a suit. Just like when was playing, he is often in the middle of things, hyping up the players in the locker room before taking the court. He sits behind the bench, offering tips and encouragement throughout games.

“That’s why he’s so special, because he’s overcome a lot and he does it with a smile,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Each and every day, I know that he makes people around him feel better.”

During practice, Austin occasionally gets to do shooting to help in drills. There are also post-midnight trips to the gym with teammates wanting to do extra work and needing someone to rebound for them.

“I know that they’re all chasing the same dream I was,” Austin said.

Austin got to hear his name called at the NBA draft, when midway through the first round he was made a ceremonial pick and presented an NBA cap by Commissioner Adam Silver. The Boston Celtics presented Austin a jersey and named him an honorary Celtic for life during their season opener. He has also been added as a playable free agent in 2K Sports’ NBA 2K15 video game.

And, yes, he has played the game - “Pretty good, fairly decent,” Austin said.

Brooklyn Nets rookie Cory Jefferson wears No. 21 in the NBA to honor his former Baylor teammate.

“No. 21 reminds me, it reminds everybody, that anything that you do is not really promised,” Jefferson said. “What you love to do can be taken away from you. … He’s had a positive attitude towards the whole situation.”

There is also still a No. 21 on the court for 20th-ranked Baylor. Taurean Prince switched from the No. 35 he wore the last two seasons while playing with Austin.

“He’s the same Isaiah now … loyal, a godly man, tough through anything,” Prince said. “He has an effect on all of us. We play for him.”

Austin has admittedly “gone through my moments” since being informed by his family of the Marfan syndrome diagnosis. But he quickly exchanged his NBA dreams to be a role model for others by how he handles his situation, including his 15-year-old brother and 11-year-old sister.

His memoir is set to be published this summer, and speaking engagements fill some of his time between a full load of classes and Baylor games.

“I want people to know that with a lot of faith and a positive attitude and the right people around you that you can push yourself through any obstacle,” Austin said. “I want to be that one person that maybe somebody meets, or I shake their hand, or I smile at them, that I can probably change their life, or turn their day around.”

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AP freelance writer Antonio Harvey contributed to this report from Sacramento, California.

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Online:

Isaiah Austin Foundation: www.isaiahaustinfoundation.org

Marfan syndrome: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/marfan-syndrome/basics/definition/con-20025944


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