Back in 2014, Isaiah Austin was the focus of a story both tragic and touching. After having played at Baylor in college, he entered the NBA draft and was projected as a possible first-round pick, at 7’1″ and mobile he fit the direction the NBA was evolving. However, during pre-draft medical evaluations he was diagnosed with career-ending Marfan syndrome (one symptom of that is it enlarges the aorta near the heart, so when stressed, as in a basketball game, it is more likely to fatally tear). Austin had a $1 million insurance policy that kicked in, then that June the NBA ceremoniously drafted him and he was put into NBA2K15. The league office even offered him a job once he got his degree.
Austin, however, wanted back on the court and eventually was allowed to play by a doctor.
Now Austin is playing in China and putting up numbers, and he spoke with Leo Sepkowitz of Bleacher Report.
“I’m a complete mismatch on the court,” Austin says. “I haven’t come across someone in this league who can check me.”
Austin, 24, is calling from Guangxi, where he is rising to stardom in exile. In his second season there, Austin is averaging 35.1 points per game along with 10.3 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 0.9 steals. On a super-sized team, Austin plays small forward, and opponents marvel at his versatility. He attempts seven free throws and—yes—seven threes per game, while shooting 53 percent from the field. But most amazing for the man who supposedly risks his life with significant physical exertion: He logs huge minutes, sometimes playing all 48 in a given night.
“I’m in really good shape, which is why it’s really hurtful that people won’t give me an opportunity,” he says. In addition to the NBA, many international teams have been wary of signing Austin so far. “Even after playing these strenuous minutes and working out each day, I’ve had no regression in health. I’m just getting healthier.”
He wants a shot at the NBA again.
Can he play at an NBA level? Maybe. China is not a league known for its defense so a lot of guys put up numbers there, but his size and athleticism have always been intriguing. Teams reportedly have some interest if the league cleared him.
However, the NBA has not and is unlikely to let him play.
Austin and his doctors say in the story that his aorta is just slightly enlarged, that he has a mild case of the disease. I’m not a doctor and have no way of knowing if that’s true and how it might impact him on and off the court, but I do know the NBA and its teams to be conservative on these issues. The risks here are not just his heart, but also the possibility of torn ligaments that are weakened and stretched.
The NBA reportedly did a second test on Austin, which confirmed Austin has Marfan Syndrom. The league follows the guidelines of the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology which say people with Marfan Syndrome should not compete in high-intensity sports with contact.
The NBA works hard to promote the image of it finding ways to keep players healthy (and extend their careers), of doing what is best for the person. Austin may be willing to take on the risks, but the league is not. A team in Serbia did before, a team in China is now, but it’s hard to imagine the NBA changing its position.
Austin is getting to play basketball for a living, which is something, although falling short of his childhood NBA dream for something beyond his control cannot be easy to deal with. He’s impressively overcome a lot, but its unlikely he gets to take that final step to the NBA.