Isaiah Austin
Tim Joyce/The Marfan Foundation

Dream again.

That was Isaiah Austin’s chosen motto after he found out nine months ago that he has Marfan syndrome—a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue—which put an abrupt end to his dreams of playing professional basketball just days before he would have heard his name called as a late-first-round NBA draft pick.

A rather astute motto: Even with one dream crushed, the 21-year-old Baylor University student and former center quickly found the silver lining to his circumstances and poured his heart and soul into a new goal: bringing awareness to the disorder that affects him and so many others, and using his star status and the attention brought by the very public diagnosis to spur attention.

“I just know that there’s always a positive side to every situation in life so I’m really just keeping my head up high and walking with God in this amazing journey that he set me on,” Austin tells The Root.

In the past nine months, Austin has fully immersed himself in the Marfan community through the Marfan Foundation, while also keeping up with his schoolwork, supporting Baylor’s basketball team as an assistant coach and starting his own foundation, while working on a book tilted Dream Again, slated to come out in June.

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For the effort he has put in over the past nine months, even amid coping with the loss of his professional basketball career, the Marfan Foundation is preparing to present Austin with the Hero With a Heart Award at its Heartworks Gala on April 16 in New York.

But to Austin, it’s not even about the award.

“It really doesn’t matter what the reward entails. I’m just thankful for the position that I’m in. I know that I’m in a position to be able to help a lot of people … by sharing my story with them and that’s really my main focus point at this point in my life, to just keep … sharing my testimony with as many people as I can to try and uplift them,” he says.

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Thankful in spite of it all, he also acknowledges that even though his initial career path has been lost, had he followed it, he wouldn't have had the opportunities he does today. The way Austin sees it, his being vocal and stepping up to help the Marfan Foundation could possibly save a life. Being diagnosed as early as he was has almost certainly saved his. When his condition was discovered during a routine checkup, the aorta in his heart was enlarged. Continuing to play his sport could have put pressure on that aorta and caused a rupture or tear.

But he says continuing to be accepted on the team has helped ease some of the pain of not being able to play, along with the supportiveness of his teammates.

“Some of the guys, they can probably see … sometimes when I’m at practice, that I’m a little bit down, and they’re the first ones to come and tell me that they’re still supporting me,” Austin says. “Some of the guys will even call me in late at night, when I’m bored at home, not doing anything, and just be like, ‘Can you come to the gym with me?’ … and it feels like old times again.”

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And even when he’s having an off day, Austin just thinks about the number of people he has met who have the condition, many younger than he is, who inspire him in turn.

One such person is 13-year-old Owen Gray, who Austin met at the Isaiah Austin Foundation gala in October in Dallas. Owen was able to raise more than $18,000, bringing along 20 people in total, to help support the fundraiser. Three other boys with Marfan were able to attend with their families. Another eight were invited, along with their families, but were unable to attend because of recent heart surgeries and other conflicts.

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“He has really been one of my biggest supporters throughout this whole journey … we’ve just been close … ever since [the gala],” Austin says. “I call him my family because I really do talk to him basically every day.”

“When I meet people like that, of that stature, it just shows me that I’ve nothing to complain about because all those children are way younger than I am, and they’re handling it better than a lot of adults would,” Austin adds. “It just gives me inspiration to go and continue to try to push and inspire people with my story as well.”  

In the end, the former basketball star has found peace in his world. He has a job at the NBA waiting for him once he graduates, which means that though his career ended on the court, off the court is a different story. He’s also found joy in the Marfan Foundation, which he now sees as an extended family of sorts.

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“I know that my partnership with the Marfan Foundation is going to be for as long as I live, just because of the fact that we really are family now, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help them,” Austin says. “As far as my life goes, I’m really just taking that as a day-by-day process. I’m trying to remain young at the same time, but I know I have to mature a lot faster than a lot of my peers … because of everything that I’ve been through, but I’m still trying to enjoy my life, and enjoy my last year of college with my family and my close friends here at Baylor.”

Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.