The 2014 NBA draft boasted one of the most hyped classes of the past decade, and perhaps the most talented since 2003 (LeBron, Wade, Carmelo, and Bosh). A string of freshman phenoms highlighted the early picks, and multiple proven college stars were still available by the later rounds. Yet the biggest story of the night was the pick that wasn’t even from a team, when midway through the first round, Adam Silver selected Isaiah Austin with the fifteenth-and-a-half pick.
Seeing the Baylor star walk across the stage would not have been out of the ordinary until this week, when Austin’s medical story was widely reported. Austin was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, the genetic condition that affects an important protein in the body’s connective tissue. Austin was found to have enlarged blood vessels in the heart, a serious condition that, upon strenuous exercise, can lead to sudden death in seemingly-otherwise healthy athletes.
So the diagnosis that may have ultimately saved Isaiah Austin’s life was the same heartbreaking message that he would stop playing competitive basketball; not in the NBA, not at Baylor, the D-League, or his company’s summer rec team. But not before Adam Silver gave him the chance for one part of his dream: to walk across the same stage as the players did who would have become his future teammates. The gesture was filled with grace and class, just like everyone’s support of Austin over the past few days.
Yet his story is not just about one player forced to give up his dream (or if you prefer a more positive spin, given the chance to chase a different one). This is a player who has overcome obstacles his entire career (Austin is blind in his right eye and has endured multiple surgeries). This was supposed to be the culmination of his entire life of perseverance, picked in the first round of the NBA draft, another great story that reminds us the best parts about sports. Instead we are left with a sad reminder of quickly times can change, how difficult the journey is, and how suddenly it all can be taken away. The NBA draft is a time for each player with his family, coaches, and supporters to see a long journey finally pay off. Everyone sees the highlight reels and press conferences, but not many see the countless hours in the gym, the two-a-day practices, and the sacrifices of parents who want their kid to have a shot. For every name called on Thursday night, there are thousands who worked just as hard, and won’t quite make the final cut. And it probably wasn’t the danger of heart failure that stopped them either.
Adam Silver’s gesture was, by all accounts, the right move; another great action during the first year of his tenure. It was thoughtful and supportive to a young man going through what may be the most difficult week of life. But on that night, it was much more than simply giving Austin the moment he deserved. It was a recognition of just how difficult it is to make it to the top level of competition. Austin’s story, like the majority of many players who dreamed since their AAU and prep school days, won’t end in the NBA. But not because he wasn’t good enough to play. Isaiah Austin will not play in the NBA, but he deserved to be part of the NBA. He will not sign a multi-million dollar contract or win an NBA championship (at least not as a player). He will return to school and finish his degree, giving him more opportunities than thousands of underpriveleged kids would love to have. He will remain involved with basketball, and take with him the positive attitude than rightfully won him the support of an entire country this week. It’s humbling to think how much of one’s life or experiences are shaped by little chains of sugars and phosphates that we call deoxyribonucleic acid. When it comes to a person’s physical abilities, a few lucky genes can be the difference between superstar and almost. And one unlucky gene was the difference between triumph and heartbreak. AN