NBA draft prospect Isaiah Austin’s playing career ended by Marfan syndrome


Isaiah Austin (21) blocks a shot in the NCAA tournament. (Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)

Updated at 3:15 p.m. with Austin being invited to the draft

The basketball career of a player who was expected to be a second-round pick Thursday in the NBA draft has ended because of a genetic disorder.

Baylor’s Isaiah Austin learned that he has Marfan syndrome during pre-draft testing. Marfan syndrome, which affects about one in 5,000 people, affects the heart, eyes, circulatory system and skeleton, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“The draft is four days away, and I had a dream that my name was going to be called,” Austin said (via Baylor’s Twitter account). “I’m sorry [the fans] couldn’t see me play in the NBA. But it’s not the end. It’s only the beginning.”

Marfan syndrome gained greater awareness after it claimed the life of volleyball player Flo Hyman in 1986. Sports Illustrated wrote about the condition, which was first described in 1896 by French pediatrician Antoine Marfan, after her death.

The defective genes that cause Marfan syndrome result in critical changes in the protein that gives connective tissue its strength. This weakens and, in effect, loosens the tissue, producing, in ways that are not always clear, characteristics by which victims of Marfan syndrome are commonly identified: tallness, long fingers, deformities of the breastbone (in some cases protruded, or pigeon-breasted, and in other cases indented) and nearsightedness. Hyman was nearsighted and wore glasses off the court. To some experts, Abraham Lincoln’s long fingers and great height (he was 6’4″) indicate that he may have suffered from the syndrome. It has also been suggested that the long fingers that helped account for Niccolò Paganini’s dexterity on the violin were the result of Marfan syndrome.

Of all the symptoms, tallness is the most obvious. The average height of white males with the disorder is 6’2″. People with Marfan syndrome are often tall even when other members of their families are not. (However, Hyman’s father is 6’1″ and her mother, who died several years ago, was tall—5’11″.) Also, the arms tend to be disproportionately long. With most people, when the arms are extended from the sides, the distance between the fingertips of the left and right hands is about equal to one’s height. For someone with Marfan’s, the arm span is usually much greater than the height.

Hyman’s aorta was weakened and she died unexpectedly in Japan. Like Hyman and the description of Marfan sufferers, Austin is tall (just over 7 feet) and had the longest wingspan (7-4 1/2) of any draft prospect. He also is blind in his right eye after suffering a detached retina.

“The damage caused by Marfan syndrome can be mild or severe,” according to the Mayo Clinic. “If your heart or blood vessels are affected, the condition can become life-threatening.”

After the announcement, Austin spoke on social media about #newbeginnings. On Instagram, he wrote: “This game. It is a platform for anyone and everyone who comes in contact with it. I was blessed enough to play it on one of the highest levels despite the odds that were stacked against me. Blessed is all I can say. Thankful is all I can be. The love from you all is greatly appreciated! I know God has a plan! If I can say one [thing] to anyone, it would be please, please do not take the privilege of playing sports or anything for granted. #NewBeginnings”

Lisa Green, his mother, traveled from Kansas to Texas to tell Austin the diagnosis in person and she was joined by his high school coaches and Baylor Coach Scott Drew.

“They said I wouldn’t be able to play basketball anymore at a competitive level,” Austin told ESPN. “They found the gene in my blood sample. They told me that my arteries in my heart are enlarged and that if I overwork myself and push too hard that my heart could rupture. The draft is four days away, and I had a dream that my name was going to be called.”

On Thursday, his dream may still come true. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has invited him to attend the draft.

After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.
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