By Shehan Jeyarajah
Fans knew there was something different about Isaiah Austin’s eyes. You could see it when he played. It was hard to place exactly what, but it was obvious. On Jan. 18, Austin made everything clear in a feature that aired on ESPN’s College Gameday.
Isaiah Austin, former five-star prospect, All-Big 12 and future NBA player, is blind in his right eye.
When Austin was in middle school, he went up for a dunk while warming up for a game. The effect was immediate: Austin could see nothing but red as he came down. He went to the hospital and learned he had aggravated an injury he had received while playing baseball and had, as a result, torn the retina in his right eye.
Austin would undergo four surgeries to try and restore his vision. After each of them, his vision would return for a while, before disappearing again shortly thereafter.
“I just remember the vision in my right side kept getting redder and redder until it was just gone,” Austin said. “After the second surgery, I kind of had the idea that I was probably going to lose my sight.”
The defining moment from the ESPN feature came when Austin’s mother, Lisa Green, recalled telling her then-16-year-old son that he had two choices.
“You can make it your excuse, or you can make it your story,” Green said.
Throughout the recruitment process, Austin was terrified coaches would stop recruiting him if they knew of his condition. To cope, he kept it a secret. In fact, Austin said Baylor head coach Scott Drew and assistant Jerome Tang were the only two coaches who knew about his condition while being recruited.
“I learned about Austin’s condition when he was in high school,” Drew said. “At that point there was still some hope that he would be able to get it restored, but that never really came along. But you knew that you really respected him for how he was competing and how he never used it as an excuse.”
Through hard work and learning to play basketball without depth perception, Austin left high school as a top five player in his class and top two center prospect. His freshman year for Baylor, Austin averaged 13.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game en route to being named All-Big 12.
After the ESPN feature, there was a tremendous outpouring of support for the sophomore.
“I got a lot more support than I expected,” Austin said. “Everybody from coaches to other team’s fans. Texas coach Rick Barnes came to me before our game against UT and said I inspired him.”
Sophomore forward Rico Gathers said the shared knowledge of Austin’s struggle has brought the team closer together.
“I look at it like that’s my brother,” Gathers said. “I have to fight to protect my brother while I’m out there. I’ve never looked at him any differently. He’s a great basketball player, has a great IQ and makes me better every day. He goes hard every day. He’s a kid with one eye, but who has a big heart every time he steps out on the floor.”
If Austin declares for the draft after the season, he could be a first-round pick as a 7-foot-1 player with a soft shooting touch and length. Like his mom said, his story may just be getting started.
“Isaiah has a chance to be a great role model for so many kids,” Drew said. “I know my son Peyton wears glasses and looks up to Isaiah because he wears glasses. I know a lot of people can look up and be inspired and motivated by looking at Isaiah and seeing what he’s been able to overcome.”
The Bears return to the court with a road showdown versus No. 8 Oklahoma State at 1 p.m. Saturday at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Okla.