Isaiah Austin was holding court at the NBA Draft Combine in May, reminiscing about the last time he had been inside this very gym on the west side of Chicago. It was two years ago when he was going through practices for the McDonald's All-American Game. That was when Austin was the No. 3 recruit in the country, a 7-footer with a sweet shooting stroke and the type of limitless potential that inspires daydreams.
A reporter asked if he ever thought he'd be in the position to become a late first-round draft pick last time he was here. Austin took a few moments to consider his response.
"Back then, no. Back then, I thought I was a lottery pick," Austin said. "As I matured throughout my years of college, I know there's few people who are ever in this position. I know that I'm very blessed to be where I'm at today. I'm thankful for it. I'm just out here enjoying my time on this Earth and enjoying the time God has given me to play this game that I love.
"No matter who I'm up against, I go hard. I'm playing it like it's my last play ever to play the game. I'm just out here enjoying myself, man. Today is the most fun I've had in a long time, for real."
Austin's words sound harrowing now. On Sunday, just four days before he would have been selected in the 2014 NBA Draft, Baylor announced Austin had been diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that will end his basketball career immediately.
It's the type of bad luck that could easily break anyone, let alone a 20-year-old. The mental anguish of knowing you were just days away from being guaranteed a few million dollars as a first-round pick must be torturous. The thought of losing the one thing you've worked for every day you can remember might be even worse. If there's one person who can spin a personal tragedy into something bigger and more positive, though, it's Austin. Overcoming adversity is all he's ever known.
Austin was in fifth grade in 2005 when he was playing first base in a youth baseball league. He hadn't been around the sport much and wasn't familiar with the concept of a pickoff attempt. When his pitcher fired the ball to first to try to nab a base runner, the ball hit Austin in the right eye and loosened his retina. The eye continued to get worse until it stopped working completely in 2008. When Austin dunked in a middle school layup line, all he saw was blood. The retina was completely detached.
He endured five surgeries that year. To heal, Austin would have to lie down on his stomach for most of the day. By the time he was set to begin his junior season, he was wearing a prosthetic eye made of acrylic glass. It was protected by the goggles he wore on the court every game while at Baylor.
None of this was public knowledge until Austin finally shared his story in January. From a basketball perspective, it raised one big question: How was Austin ever able to be this good of an outside shooter with no depth perception?
It's all a testament to Austin's work ethic and will power. Shooting with one eye came naturally, the result of hours in the gym meeting the instinctive touch of his right hand. At the combine, he maintained he'd become an even bigger three-point threat once basketball became his full-time job.
Now Austin's heartbreaking new reality will prevent it from ever happening. It may take months or even years to come to grips with the meaning of his newfound disorder, but trust that Austin will only come out stronger. The same thing that helped him get through countless surgeries and a partial loss of vision is exactly what will get him through this. When Austin was asked at the combine what he thinks he can bring to an NBA team, he didn't hesitate to bring up his faith.
"I'm a strong Christian man, deep in my faith," he said. "We prayed before the combine today. We know that without God we're nothing. We're not even in this position without him. We're thankful. We're trying to help spread his word through this game of basketball."
From the scripture verses tattooed on his arms to the prayer rituals he routinely led at Baylor, Austin's commitment to his faith is the most important thing in his life, beyond even basketball and money. It takes a lot of conviction for someone to really believe that, but hang around Austin long enough and you'll realize his words aren't empty.
Many athletes like to remind you of their faith whenever they're in front of a microphone. It makes sense: they wouldn't be where they are without winning the genetic lottery. For Austin, it isn't just lip service. Faith means different things to different people, but for Austin it has always been a way to cope with and conquer the adversity life has thrown his way. He's made it this far. What's next only serves as another invitation to inspire and overcome.