During the process leading up to the 2014 NBA Draft, Baylor center Isaiah Austin’s career ended before it could even begin when he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue. The NBA ruled that the chances of Austin’s enlarged aorta bursting were too dangerous for them to medically clear him to play basketball. The discovery was devastating for Austin, and the NBA symbolically “drafted” him in the first round. The gesture of goodwill came with the possibility of a job within the league office, and with that, it seemed that the door was shut on Austin ever having a professional career.
However, Austin began weighing the possibility of playing professionally overseas about a year after his diagnosis, thanks to advice from Stanford Marfan specialist Dr. David Liang. Bleacher Report caught up with Austin for a story that examines how he wound up averaging big numbers in China only a few years after being told he risked dying on the court if he were to play basketball.
Liang tested Austin and confirmed that he had Marfan, though he characterized it as a “very mild” case. Austin began playing in short pickup games and going in for tests. By 2016, Liang was comfortable enough with the stability of Austin’s aorta that he told him he could play basketball, as long as he was aware of the inherent risks. “My philosophy is, it’s not my job to tell people what they can and can’t do. It’s to let them understand what the risks are,” he told Bleacher Report.
Austin then tested the waters in the NBA, and while teams were reportedly interested in seeing what he could do, the Marfan diagnosis was an insurmountable barrier. Many international teams passed on him for the same reasons, until Jan. 2017, when he finally signed with a Serbian team. Since then, Austin has played in Lebanon, with the Philippine national team, and, most notably, with the Guangxi Rhinos of the second-division Chinese National Basketball League. Austin is in his second season with the playoff-bound Rhinos, and he’s averaging 35.1 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game. Austin’s heart is regularly scanned in China, with Liang monitoring the images from California.
“I’m just happy I can play the game again, because that was the main thing missing from my life. It was killing me slowly being away. Pursuing a pro career and making a nice amount of money to take care of my family is something I’m very thankful and grateful for,” he said.
Austin’s situation is a delicate one, and it’s clear that even with a young son and a potentially fatal heart condition, leaving a basketball career on the table was not an option. He’s shown that he absolutely can play at a much higher level, though the risks are so serious that he might not ever be given a chance to prove it.