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Seeing Is Believing: Half-Blind Isaiah Austin's Unique Journey to the NBA Draft

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Seeing Is Believing: Half-Blind Isaiah Austin's Unique Journey to the NBA Draft
AP Images

Randy Trawnik is a world-renowned ocularist who hand-sculpts prosthetic eyes, either in his office in Dallas or in Germany. Most of the time—60 percent, he says—Trawnik works on trauma victims and patients who have developed eye problems in the early stages of their lives. Some of those have included professional athletes who are still playing today.

But in his 40 years in the profession, Trawnik has never treated someone like Isaiah Austin, 20, who started suffering blindness after injuring his right eye in a baseball accident six years ago. Now, fully blind in that eye, Austin could be one of the 60 players selected in the upcoming NBA draft.

"What he has done is unbelievably unique," said Trawnik, who lost his left eye around Austin's age years ago when he was shot in the face during U.S. military training. Unlike his other patients who play professional sports, Trawnik said that because Austin went blind later on "he didn't have the many years to retrain himself.''

So how did the Baylor big man overcome the loss of his sight to become one of the best shooters and shot-blockers in the country? While Austin experienced months of misery, his recovery was fueled by a relentless drive for a sport he loved, a strong network of family, friends and coaches, some science and good genes.

Jared Zwerling
Isaiah Austin has been a regular at Mo Williams Academy in Dallas in the weeks preceding the draft.

 

The Journey Begins

The root of Austin's disability started with an accident while he was playing a position he had never experienced before: first base. Austin had been attending a summer baseball camp in 2005 when he was 11 years old, and he was placed at first base because of his height.

"I think they thought I was older just because I was so tall, so they put me in the older kids' group," the soft-spoken Austin said over breakfast recently in Arlington, Texas, near where he resides. "I was on first base, and I remember the pitcher kept faking it to me. I was like, 'What is he doing?' I really hadn't played baseball that long, so I didn't know that the pitcher can throw it back to first and try to get the person out.

"So he faked the pitch and he threw it, and I put my glove up like a half-a-second late, and the ball just smashed into my eye."

Austin went to the hospital because his eye swelled up and his contact lens got stuck. Doctors said he had a loose retina. But no surgery was required; he was simply told to monitor any pain. Little did he know, his eye would gradually get worse.

In February 2008, everything came crashing down. It was the last game of his middle school basketball career, and Austin had never dunked during layup lines. That's because there was a strict rule against it: two technical fouls, and you're out of the game. But working off of adrenaline, Austin took off, cuffed the ball back with his left hand and jammed it down.

The crowd went wild and a double tech ensued, but no one but Austin knew what he immediately saw out of his right eye: red. It was blood. The powerful nature of the uncontested dunk had detached his retina, which was the diagnosis the next morning when he went to the emergency room.

Courtesy of Lisa Green

"Throughout the years, we didn't know it, but [his eye] was getting more and more loosened," Austin's mother, Lisa Green, said. "The dunk was the last straw."

Dallas ophthalmologist Dr. Gregory Kozielec, who has treated Mavericks players through the years, was the first to repair Austin's retina the day after his emergency room visit. Dr. Kozielec called the situation "one of the worst cases I had in 20 years." While 99 percent of his consultations involve spontaneous detachments to people who are nearsighted, older in age and have a family history of the condition, Austin was an extremely rare patient.

"When I first saw him, his eye was a disaster. It was a DEFCON 1 detachment," Dr. Kozielec said. "A detachment is almost like wallpaper peeling off the back of a wall. In young kids, that comes off pretty rapidly and becomes a big disaster. He saw red, and he already had an eye that had been injured from his previous baseball injury.

"When he came in, it was completely detached, and he already lost vision. So he basically was blind walking into my office on Monday evening. We fixed it, but unfortunately, as young kids can do, it detached again [later on], and then from that point it was just a struggle effect. He had a bad prognosis to begin with."

Austin went on to have four more operations that year in an attempt to save his eye: to further fix it; to remove silicone oil that's used for serious detachments and keeps the retina intact; to correct a cataract; and then to clean out scar issue, which was the last operation, in June 2008.

By then, Austin's vision had actually been restored—but not before going through days of excruciating pain after each surgery.

Courtesy of Dr. Gregory Kozielec

"It felt like needles in your eye. That was the most painful part," he said. "The first four-to-five days after the surgery, it was terrible. They give you some painkillers after, but it doesn't really help. You try to sleep it off as much as you can."

After going under the knife each time, Austin went through a longer extreme challenge. For his eye to heal afterward, he was required to lay face down for essentially 24 hours a day for weeks at a time. No exercise was allowed in order to prevent any stress to his eye. He could really only get up to use the bathroom.

His father, Ben, would pick up his homework at the middle school and help him study while he lay down. His family even placed a mirror on the floor next to a special massage-like table he had to lay on so he could watch TV and see who was coming into his room.

It was Austin's close-knit family, who had recently moved to Texas, who helped him get through the ordeal—even though there were many tough, teary-eyed nights.

But they prayed a lot together, with the positive-minded Green always reaffirming to her son, "The belief part is easy; the trusting is where the journey begins."

Austin's brother Noah, who's now 15 and a standout track runner, and his sister, Narrah, who's 11 and a talented artist, entertained their oldest sibling by making him laugh and smile. For Mother's Day that year, Narrah decorated a colorful shoebox for Austin to express her love for him. Noah would call Austin "his superhero," and they played video games together.

"They were always by my side," Austin said. "My little brother and sister would come in my room and just spend hours of the day just to be with me."

The biggest motivator was Austin himself. "He just toughed it up," Green said.

The light at the end of the tunnel was basketball.

Courtesy of Lisa Green
The Austin family: Noah, Isaiah, Ben, Lisa and Narrah.

"It's just like any other person: They'll do anything for something that they love," Austin said. "I loved the game of basketball and I didn't feel like giving up on it, so I just wanted to continue to play. ... And my two best friends, who are twins, Elliot and Elijah Dickrell, were like, 'Man, you're the best basketball player we know. You can't give up or quit on us.'"

Following his final operation, which repaired his vision, Austin was the weakest he had ever been, but he had the rest of the summer to regain some of his strength and conditioning. By November 2008, at Mansfield Legacy High School, he returned to the court and was the only freshman to make the varsity team. A big plus was that he was 6'11".

That season, Austin had his coming-out party when he finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds in a win over top-ranked Duncanville High School.

 

Life Changed, Forever

Austin's right eye remained stable until September 2009, when he was a sophomore at Grace Prep Academy. At that point, scar tissue was pulling the retina back off again.

That's when Austin's real moment of truth arrived: He could go through another surgery—maybe more than one—with no guarantees, or cope with the reality that the vision in his eye would eventually be lost with nothing done.

"That's when he said, 'Enough's enough,'" Dr. Kozielec recalls. "He had already been through hell. He had reached his level of acceptance.He reached a level of I can't do anything more for this eye, which requires more face-down, more time away from sports. He felt like 'I know who I'm going to be—I'm going to be great at what I do and I need to move on.'

"It was a tough decision to say, 'I'll see you in six months [for a checkup],' rather than, 'I'll see you next week [for surgery].'"

Austin, especially, couldn't imagine laying down for long stretches again. In fact, he avoids sleeping like that today.

"I never lay on my stomach anymore, like ever," he said.

Jared Zwerling
Isaiah Austin credits his high school coach, Ray Forsett, with inspiring him to play despite the loss of vision in his right eye.

When it came to basketball, though, Austin began to struggle adjusting to his diminishing sight. He needed a push, which came from Grace Prep's basketball coach, Ray Forsett. Austin said before that time he was too much of a passive player, but Forsett "really brought that dog out of me."

"My biggest thing with him was, 'You made it this far, so why give up? You have a special gift. Keep pushing, keep working, hold your head up, there's nothing to be afraid of,'" said Forsett, who had never coached a player with a disability before Austin.

"On the court, I've never given him that as an excuse. It was always, 'You're a player. When you get on the floor, you're just like everybody else—two eyes, everything—so you're going to make plays happen.' When I first got him, he said, 'You're crazy, coach.' But he was able to do it with no excuses and no complaints."

Green called Austin's meeting Forsett the "turning point in Isaiah's basketball career."

"Ray Forsett was really the one that gave Isaiah the confidence to be the best that he can be, and saying that nobody can challenge him and he can get just better and better," she said.

Forsett encouraged Austin to establish himself further on the national scene at the prestigious City of Palms tournament in the winter of 2010. After being down 20 points at halftime to top-ranked Mater Dei High School, Forsett had a heart-to-heart talk with Austin, who said, ''But I can only see out of one eye.'' Forsett responded, ''Stop making excuses for it.''

Austin shot around 80 percent for the rest of the game, and Grace Prep came back to win in overtime. The next day, they upset another powerhouse, Montverde Academy.

"That moment in him is when he became a superhero," Forsett said. "He just controlled and just dominated the game, and he was playing against guys with both eyes."

Over time, without any more procedures, Austin's eye started drooping more and changed color from brown to gray to finally blue—the process of an eye dying. It had shrunk to the point where he had no pupil during his junior year. He was officially blind in his right eye—a moment he knew would come.

Jared Zwerling
Randy Trawnik and his son, John, at their Dallas lab.

"That's when he said, 'Mom, you've got to do something because people are going to start talking,'" Green recalled. "And so that's when we went to get a prosthetic eye at the end of his junior year [in 2011]."

Luckily for Austin, he had the local cosmetic services of Trawnik, who along with his staff of two—his son, John, and colleague Sarah—designs prosthetic eyes by hand.

"We paint the iris with different colors of pigment," said Trawnik, to whom Austin was referred to by Dr. Kozielec. "The eye is lots of pigment all pushed together. Digital ones look flat. Ours look 3-D."

When Austin came to the office, Trawnik took an impression of his eye socket—the only step required for a patient, which is not painful—and then his team went to work, designing his prosthetic eye made of polymethyl methacrylate (acrylic glass) in about a day.

Trawnik vividly remembers Austin's and Green's reactions upon seeing him look in a mirror with his new prosthetic eye when they were together in his office.

"Isaiah is not very demonstrative, but what's more fun than anything else is putting a mirror in front of him and seeing a smile on that young man's face," he said. "And his mother was crying. She's a great lady."

Trawnik added a special design element for Austin: an appropriate gaze so that when he looks down, which he does a lot being that he's taller than most people at 7'1", it still looks like a normal eye. Because the nerves behind his right eye still work, the prosthetic—which is removable, professionally cleaned once a year and needs to be replaced every 5-10 years—moves along with it.

Jared Zwerling
A sampling of the prosthetic eyes Randy Trawnik designs at his clinic in Dallas.

"What we do is art," Trawnik said. "See, we paint an illusion. If we all do our magic, no one knows we were there. My hope for Isaiah is that he looks so good, his opponents will forget which eye is real and which one is a prosthesis. In the rapid play and movement of basketball, that illusion is easy to do. Isaiah is a master of movement."

That movement is based on triangulation for someone like Austin, who only has one functional eye.

"You can't get 3-D vision, but what you do is compensate by movement," Trawnik said. "He's always moving. By movement, he's changing angles, checking this and that. If he sits still, his depth of vision is reduced, but if he's constantly moving, he has calculations going on all the time."

Even though Austin tested 20/20 in his left eye at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, it hasn't become stronger to compensate for his other eye, according to Dr. Kozielec. Instead, Austin has learned to pick up certain cues, such as basing distances on shadows in comparison to other objects. That's why he takes the court much earlier than other players before games to gauge the arena's lighting and depth perception behind the basket.

"It just takes me a couple shots to get used to where I'm at," he said. "I can't just walk into a gym and just have perfect depth perception. I have to go and test it out."

Green believes that through the disability he's improved other senses as well.

"It's mind over matter," she said. "When you lose a sense, they always talk about that sixth sense. If I'm walking on the right side, before he wouldn't even hesitate to know I'm there. But now I think he's more aware that someone is on his right side even if he can't see them. And because he's so mathematically inclined—his favorite subjects were math and science—I think in his head he's always calculating things when he's playing. He always keeps his head on a swivel. So I think he's become a better player overall."

Dr. Kozielec said those roughly six months after Austin's retina issue resurfaced in September were the most challenging for Austin, as he attempted to find his way on the court. But even while dealing with some left-eye strain at times, he didn't let up practicing and developed the muscle memory to be successful, remarkably so with shooting—an area which maximizes eye-hand coordination.

James Crisp/Associated Press

By his senior year in 2012, Austin was the No. 3 overall recruit in the country, as ranked by ESPN, right behind current NBA players Nerlens Noel (Philadelphia 76ers) and Shabazz Muhammad (Minnesota Timberwolves), and ahead of Steven Adams (Oklahoma City Thunder) and Anthony Bennett (Cleveland Cavaliers).

"I never thought he'd be at the level he's at," Dr. Kozielec said. "It's almost impossible, because you're so used to your whole life having two eyes and developing all these cues. The level he's playing at and the length of time that he's had this problem, I think he's pretty much almost good as new.''

Austin has taken cues from others who have a prosthetic eye, like Lauren Scruggs, a blogger and fashion journalist who received international attention after she accidentally walked into a moving airplane propeller in 2011 and lost her left eye. They met through Trawnik.

Another time, a movie director with a prosthetic eye—Austin doesn't remember his name—approached him at an airport, and they shared stories.

"We talked for a while," he said. "That was pretty cool."

 

Inspiring Others

Courtesy of Isaiah Austin
Emmanuel Mudiay and Isaiah Austin.

Emmanuel Mudiay—the No. 5 recruit in the class of 2014 and Austin's former teammate at Grace Prep who has signed on to play for Larry Brown at SMU—remembers one time in practice with Austin when he covered one of his own eyes and tried to shoot. He couldn't do it. It was a moment that helped Mudiay further understand "how amazing" Austin was. His trainer, Djamel Jackson, tried the same thing at a different time. No success.

"I was blown away, man," Jackson said. "Being human, I started closing my eye and trying to do some of the stuff. It's tough. I put my hand over my eye and I couldn't do nothing. I started realizing how special the kid was."

Up until this year, Austin kept his blindness private to all but his Grace Prep and Baylor teammates. The colleges that recruited him didn't even know. He never wanted it to be an excuse for people to feel sorry for him.

While Austin knew he would need to reveal his condition publicly before declaring for the draft, he thought this year was the right time to do so because he wanted to first prove that he had matured as a basketball player—not a basketball player with a disability. That was one of two main reasons why he didn't enter the draft after his freshman season—the other was a six-month recovery from last May to September after right-shoulder surgery.

After leading Baylor to the NIT as a freshman, he took them to the Sweet 16 this season by expanding his game on the defensive end.

"I just feel like I'm just a completely different player," he said. "Even though some of my [offensive] stats were down [this season], I still feel like I developed on the court. I have a knack for the game now. My team really didn't need me to be a priority scorer like I was my freshman year. They needed me to block shots and control the paint on defense, and that's what I did. I changed my game. I evolved for us so we could go on a winning streak."

When Austin revealed his blindness on ESPN in January, the letters started pouring into Baylor from all across the country. He said one woman sent him a series of poems about "encouraging, strengthening and having the willpower and faith in God."

Courtesy of Lisa Green
Isaiah Austin won a lot of new admirers with his admission that he is blind in one eye, including a number of young Baylor fans.

"So I've got like a bunch of fan mail with people saying they respect my story and stuff like that," Austin said. "That's really what, for me, what life is about—seeing all the people that you can help, inspire and touch across the world. It's really crazy."

Austin, who didn't expect to have as big of an impact as he did, hopes to motivate many more.

"I think I'm going to come out with a book eventually—me and my mom have been talking about that—but right now, I just want to use [my story] to take me as far as I can go and help inspire a lot of people. I plan on going to hospitals in whatever cities I'm in, I plan on having conversations with elementary school kids. I had a couple of speaking segments when I went to Michigan. I went to a couple of elementary schools there. That's what I'm trying to do right now."

Austin's siblings have been moved by their older brother. They both want to be doctors when they grow up: Noah, a neurosurgeon, and Narrah, a scientist.

"Isaiah really inspired them to want to do better and to help other people," Green said.

Even Dr. Kozielec was touched by Austin's ascension.

"I can't wrap my mind around where he's at. It's just unreal," he said. "He's motivated me to know that maybe there is hope in very difficult situations with other patients."

 

The Next Step: The NBA

When Austin was at the NBA combine in Chicago, team officials wondered the same thing anyone would crossing paths with him: How do you do it?

Austin said he was taken aback with the overall reaction.

"It surprised me how many people said that they were on my side and rooting for me," he said. "Even teams that didn't have interest in me, they said that they were rooting for me and hoped that I had a long career."

That positive vibe has carried over to Austin's workouts with the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Detroit Pistons, Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs. He has about six more to come, according to his agent, Dwon Clifton, who worked for the Baylor basketball team between 2008 and 2010, before Austin arrived on campus. Clifton said teams are looking past his eye.

"At this point, the teams that he's worked out for, a lot of them like him," Clifton said. "He's kind of in the mix for everyone. The feedback hasn't been, 'Hey, this guy is ready to play right away,' but the only thing you need is a team to believe in you as a project to give you an opportunity, and the rest is up to him."

Austin said the thought of hearing his name called on June 26 gives him "goose bumps." He might travel to New York City for the big night or stay back to watch with his family in Dallas or Kansas City, where Green lives.

With Austin's obvious skills—his size, 7'3" wingspan, shooting and shot-blocking—there's the thought that he could further revolutionize the stretch-5 position, like 6'11" center Pero Antic did this season for the Atlanta Hawks, who nearly upset the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. There's also the New Orleans Pelicans' versatile All-Star big man Anthony Davis, whom Austin watches a lot on video.

Clifton said teams have also been impressed with Austin's low-post footwork and finishing.

Jackson has challenged Austin to learn the type of back-to-the-basket moves made famous by Hakeem Olajuwon and Dirk Nowitzki. Sometimes, Jackson will be watching a clip of one of those two NBA legends and text Austin about what he sees.

"'We've got to go over this Olajuwon stuff in the morning,'" Jackson said he'll tell Austin. "And he's like, 'I'm up. I can be at the gym in 10 minutes.' We've worked until two in the morning. He learns fast. I can cover a lot of stuff with him."

While Jackson said there are times when Austin looks flustered after missing a couple of shots in a row, he said his student never complains about his eye; he only compensates. Mudiay saw the same quality in high school and learned that if you "just give him a couple touches early on, he's going to feel good about himself as the game goes on."

"He plays through [the frustration]," Jackson said. "He's a tough kid."

Jared Zwerling
Isaiah Austin works on the Vertimax machine to improve his vertical leap.

Austin has adopted the same mentality approaching a draft that might have seen his stock drop after he admitted to being half-blind. 

"I just want an opportunity to play for a team," he said. "Only 60 people get picked, and half of them don't even stay in the league. So I really just want to stay in the league and have a nice career. But at the same time, I know basketball isn't for everyone. I know the ball is going to stop bouncing, so I just want to use it as a stepping stone for my life."

 

Mind Power

Tattooed on one of Austin's arms is the passage from 2 Corinthians 5:7: "For we walk by faith, not by sight," along with other Biblical words on both of his arms. They're written facing him, so he can read them whenever he wants.

 "Whenever I get down, I just look down at my arm and it reminds me of what I've been through," he said.

While Austin is not likely to harm his left eye from straining to compensate for his right and will continue to wear protective glasses during games, that's the least of his worries. Even if one day way down the line technology for an eye transplant is available, Austin is satisfied with the man that he has become.

"I'm not scared of anything," he said. "I'm not scared of getting hurt or anything because whatever happens is going to happen. I have a strong enough mindset to get through anything. The fact of the matter is I'm not even supposed to be here in this position that I am, so I'm really blessed to even say that I've gone through all those things.

"Life goes on, man."

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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