Seeing Is Believing: Half-Blind Isaiah Austin&x27s Unique Journey to the NBA Draft | News, Scores, Highlights, Stats, and Rumors | Bleacher Report

    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 with trauma victims and patients who have developed eye problems early in life. some of them have included professional athletes who are still playing today.

    But in his 40 years in the business, Trawnik has never treated someone like 20-year-old Isaiah Austin, who became blind after injuring his right eye in a baseball accident six years ago. Now completely blind in that eye, Austin could be one of 60 players selected in the next NBA draft.

    Reading: Baylor basketball player with one eye

    “What he’s done is incredibly unique,” said Trawnik, who lost his left eye a few years ago when he was shot in the face during the US war. military training. Unlike his other patients who play professional sports, Trawnik said that because Austin later went blind, “he didn’t have many years to get back into training.”

    So, how did the Baylor big man overcome vision loss 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.

    the journey begins

    The root of Austin’s disability began with an accident while playing a position he had never experienced before: first base. Austin had attended a summer baseball camp in 2005 when he was 11 years old and was placed at first base due to his height.

    “I think they thought I was older just because I was so tall, so they put me in the older group,” a soft-spoken Austin said over breakfast recently in Arlington, Texas, near where he lives. “I was on first base, and I remember the pitcher kept faking it. I was like, ‘What is he doing?’ he hadn’t really played baseball that long, so he 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 threw it, and I put the glove on about half a second too late, and the ball hit me in the eye.”

    austin went to the hospital because his eye swelled up and his contact lens got stuck. the doctors said she had a loose retina. but she did not require surgery; she was simply told to control any pain. she did not know that her eye would gradually get worse.

    in February 2008, everything fell apart. It was the last game of his high 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 running out of adrenaline, austin took off, hit the ball with his left hand and knocked it down.

    The crowd went wild and a double tech ensued, but no one but austin knew what he immediately saw in his right eye: red. it was blood the powerful nature of the unanswered dunk had detached her retina, which was the diagnosis the next morning when she went to the ER.

    “Over the years, we didn’t know it, but [his eye] was getting looser and looser,” said Austin’s mother, Lisa Green. “The dunk was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

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

    “when I first saw him, his eye was a mess. it was a detachment from defcon 1,” says dr. Kozielec said. “a detachment is almost like wallpaper peeling off the back of a wall. in young children, that comes off pretty quickly and becomes a big mess. he saw red and he already had an injured eye from his previous injury baseball.

    “when it came in, it was completely detached and I had already lost my vision. so I was basically blind walking into my office on Monday night. we fixed it, but unfortunately, like little kids can do, it detached again [later], and then from then on, it was just a fighting effect. I had a bad prognosis to begin with.”

    austin underwent four more operations that year in an attempt to save his eye: to further fix it; to remove silicone oil that is used for severe detachments and keeps the retina intact; to correct a cataract; and then to clean up the scar problem, which was the last operation, in June 2008.

    By this time, Austin’s vision had truly been restored, but not before spending days in excruciating pain after each surgery.

    “It felt like needles in the eye. That was the most painful part,” he said. “The first four or five days after surgery, it was terrible. They give you some painkillers afterwards, but they don’t really help. You try to sleep as much as you can.”

    after going under the knife each time, austin went through a longer extreme challenge. In order for her eye to heal afterwards, she was asked to lie on her stomach essentially 24 hours a day for weeks. no exercise was allowed to avoid any strain on her eye. she could really only get up to use the bathroom.

    his father, ben, would pick up his homework in high school and help him study while he was in bed. His family even put a mirror on the floor next to a special massage table that he had to lie on so he could watch TV and see who was coming into his room.

    It was Austin’s tight-knit family, who had recently moved to Texas, that helped him get through the ordeal, despite many rough, teary-eyed nights.

    but they prayed a lot together, and the positive-minded green always reassured her son, “the believing part is easy; trust is where the journey begins.”

    austin’s brother noah, now 15 and an accomplished track runner, and sister narrah, 11 and a talented artist, entertained their older brother by making him laugh and smile. for her mother’s day that year, narrah decorated a colorful shoebox for austin to express her love for him. noah called austin “his superhero of him” of him and they played video games together.

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

    the biggest motivator was austin himself. “He just resisted it,” Green said.

    The light at the end of the tunnel was basketball.

    “It’s just like any other person: he would do anything for something he loves,” Austin said. “I loved the game of basketball and I didn’t feel like giving it up, so I just wanted to keep playing… and my two best friends, who are twins, elliot and Elijah Dickrell, were like, ‘Man, you’re the best player in basketball we know. You can’t give up or give up on us.'”

    After his final operation, which repaired his vision, Austin was weaker than ever, but he had the rest of the summer to regain some of his strength and conditioning. In November 2008, at Mansfield Legacy High School, he returned to the court and was the only freshman to make the varsity team. One 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 the top-ranked Duncanville High School.

    Life changed, forever

    austin’s right eye was stable until september 2009, when he was a sophomore at grace prep academy. at that point, the scar tissue ripped the retina away again.

    That’s when the real moment of truth came for austin: he could have another surgery, maybe more than one, with no guarantees, or face the reality that the vision in his eye would eventually be lost without doing anything.

    “That’s when he said, ‘enough is enough,'” dr. remember kozielec. “He’s already been through hell. He’s reached his level of acceptance. He’s reached a level of I can’t do anything else for this eye, which requires more tummy time, 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 keep going.’

    “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].'”

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    austin, in particular, couldn’t imagine lying down for long periods of time again. in fact, today avoid sleeping like this.

    “I never lay on my stomach again, like always,” he said.

    However, when it came to basketball, Austin began to have a hard time adjusting to his declining eyesight. she needed a boost, which came from grace prep basketball coach ray forsett. Austin said before that time that he was too passive a player, but Forsett “really got that dog out of me.”

    “The most important thing I had with him was: ‘You’ve come this far, why give up? You have a special gift. Keep trying, keep working, keep your head up, there’s nothing to fear,'” he said . forsett, who had never coached a player with a disability before austin.

    “On the court, I never gave him that as an excuse. It was always, ‘You’re a player. When you’re on the court, you’re just like everyone else: two eyes, everything. So you’re going to make plays happen. ‘ When I first got him, he was like, ‘You’re crazy, Coach.’ But he was able to do it with no excuses or complaints.”

    Green called the Austin meeting the “turning point in Isaiah’s basketball career.”

    “ray forsett was really the one who gave isaiah the confidence to be the best he could be, and he said no one can challenge him and he can get better and better,” he said.

    Forsett encouraged Austin to further establish himself on the national scene at the prestigious City of Palms tournament in the winter of 2010. After dropping 20 points at halftime to top-ranked Mater Dei High School, Forsett had a heart. a- heart talk with austin, who said, “but i can only see with one eye”. forsett responded, “stop making excuses.”

    austin shot about 80 percent the rest of the game, and grace prep came back to win in overtime. The next day, they defeated another powerhouse, the Montverde Academy.

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

    over time, without further procedures, austin’s eye began to droop more and changed color from brown to gray to finally blue, the process of an eye dying. she had shrunk to the point where she had no student during her third year. he was officially blind in his right eye, a moment he knew would come.

    “That’s when he told me, ‘Mom, you have to do something because people are going to start talking,'” Green recalled. “And that’s when we went to get a prosthetic eye at the end of his junior year [in 2011].”

    Fortunately for Austin, he had local cosmetic services at trawnik, who along with his two-person staff, son, john, and colleague sarah, design prosthetic eyes by hand.

    “We paint the iris with different colors of pigment,” said trawnik, to whom dr. kozielec. “The eye has many pigments together. Digital ones look flat. Ours look three-dimensional.”

    when austin arrived at the office, trawnik took an impression of his eye socket, the only step required for a patient, which is painless, 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 and green’s reactions to seeing himself in a mirror with his new prosthetic eye when they were together in his office.

    “isaiah is not very demonstrative, but what is more fun than anything else is to put a mirror in front of him and see a smile on that young man’s face,” he said. “And his mother was crying. He is a great lady.”

    trawnik added a special design element for austin: an appropriate look so that when he looks down, which he does a lot because he’s taller than most people at 7’1″, it still looks like a normal eye. because The nerves behind her right eye still function, the prosthesis, which is removable, professionally cleaned once a year, and must be replaced every 5 to 10 years, moves along with her.

    “What we do is art,” Trawnik said. “Look, we painted 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 is a prosthetic. In the fast game and the basketball move, that illusion is easy to do. isaiah is a master of the move.”

    that move relies on triangulation for someone like austin, who only has one working eye.

    “You can’t get a three-dimensional view, but what you do is compensate with movement,” Trawnik said. “it’s always moving. because of the movement, it changes angles, checks this and that. if it stays still, its depth of vision is reduced, but if it’s constantly moving, it has calculations going on all the time.”

    although austin tested 20/20 in his left eye at the nba draft combine in chicago, he hasn’t gotten any 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 compared to other objects. That’s why he gets out on the court much earlier than other players before games to measure arena lighting and depth perception behind the basket.

    “It just takes me a couple of tries to get used to where I’m at,” he said. “I can’t just walk into a gym and have perfect depth perception. I have to go and try it.”

    green believes that through disability he has also enhanced other senses.

    “It’s mind over matter,” he said. “When you lose consciousness, 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 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 in a spin.I think he’s become a better player in overall”.

    dr. Kozielec said those roughly six months after Austin’s retinal problem resurfaced in September were the most challenging for Austin as he tried to find his way on the court. But even as he dealt with some strain in his left eye at times, he didn’t stop practicing and developed the muscle memory to succeed, notably with shooting, an area that maximizes hand-eye coordination.

    As a senior in 2012, Austin was No. 3 overall recruit in the country, as ranked by ESPN, just 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 it would be at the level it is,” says dr. Kozielec said. “It’s almost impossible, because you’re so used to having two eyes your whole life and developing all these signs. The level he’s playing at and the length of time he’s had this problem, I think it’s almost as good as new.”

    austin has followed the example of others who have a prosthetic eye, such as lauren scruggs, a fashion blogger and journalist who received international attention after she accidentally hit the propeller of a moving plane in 2011 and lost her eye left. they met through trannik.

    Another time, a movie director with a prosthetic eye (Austin can’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

    emmanuel mudiay—the no. 5 recruit in the class of 2014 and a former teammate of austin’s at grace prep who signed up to play for larry brown at smu, he remembers a time in practice with austin when he covered one of his eyes and tried to shoot. he couldn’t do it. it was a moment that helped mudiay better understand “how amazing” austin was. His trainer, Djamel Jackson, tried the same thing at another time. without success.

    “I was blown away, man,” Jackson said. “Being human, I started to close my eye and try to do some of the things. It’s hard. I put my hand over my eye and I couldn’t do anything. I started to realize how special the boy was.”

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    until this year, austin kept his blindness private from all but his grace prep and baylor teammates. the colleges that recruited him didn’t even know it. he never wanted it to be an excuse for people to feel sorry for him.

    although austin knew he would have to publicly disclose his status before declaring for the draft, he thought this year was the right time to do so because he first wanted to show that he had matured as a basketball player, not as a basketball player. with a disability that was one of the two main reasons he didn’t enter the draft after his freshman season; the other was a six-month recovery from last May through September after surgery on his right shoulder.

    after leading baylor to the top as a freshman, he led them to the sweet 16 this season by expanding his game on the defensive end.

    “I feel like I’m a completely different player,” he said. “Even though some of my [offensive] stats were down [this season], I still feel like I’ve developed on the floor. I have a knack for the game now. My team didn’t really 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 have a winning streak.”

    When Austin revealed his blindness on ESPN in January, letters began pouring in to Baylor from across the country. He said a woman sent him a series of poems about “encouraging, strengthening, and having willpower and faith in God.”

    “so i get a lot of fan mail with people saying they respect my story and stuff like that,” austin said. “That’s really what, to me, what life is about: seeing all the people you can help, inspire and touch around the world. It’s really insane.”

    Austin, who didn’t expect to have as big an impact as he did, hopes to inspire many more.

    “I think I’ll eventually get a book out, my mom and I have been talking about it, 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 go to hospitals in whatever city i’m in i plan on having conversations with elementary school kids i had a couple of lecture segments when i went to michigan i went to a couple of the elementary schools there that’s what i’m trying to do right now.”

    Austin’s brothers have been touched 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 help other people,” Green said.

    even dr. Kozielec was moved by Austin’s rise.

    “I can’t figure out where he is. It’s just unreal,” he said. “It has 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 as everyone else who came across him: how do you do it?

    austin said he was taken aback by the general reaction.

    “I was surprised by how many people said they were on my side and supported me,” he said. “Even the teams that had no interest in me said they supported me and hoped I would have a long career.”

    that positive vibe has carried over to austin 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 from 2008 to 2010, before Austin came to campus. Clifton said teams are looking past his eyes.

    “A lot of them like him at this point,” Clifton said. “It’s in the mix for everyone. The feedback hasn’t been, ‘Hey, this guy is ready to play right away,’ but all you need is a team that believes in you as a project to give you a shot, and the rest is up to of him.”

    austin said the thought of hearing his name on June 26 gives him goosebumps. She could travel to New York City for the big night or stay to watch with her family in Dallas or Kansas City, where she lives on green.

    with austin’s obvious skills (his size, 7’3″ wingspan, shooting and shot-blocking), there is an idea that he could further revolutionize the stretch 5 position, as did the center but antic of 6’11” this season for the Atlanta Falcons, who nearly upset the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. Then there’s the New Orleans Pelicans’ versatile star big man, Anthony Davis, who Austin sees a lot on video.

    clifton said teams have also been impressed with austin’s footwork and finishing in the low post.

    jackson has challenged austin to learn the kind of back-to-the-basket moves made famous by hakeem olajuwon and dirk nowitzki. Sometimes Jackson will watch a clip of one of those two NBA legends and text Austin about what he sees.

    “‘we need to go over this olajuwon thing in the morning,'” jackson said he will tell austin. “And he’s like, ‘I’m awake. I can be in the gym in 10 minutes.'” We have worked until two in the morning. learns fast. I can cover a lot of things with it.”

    while jackson said there are times when austin looks nervous after missing a couple of shots in a row, he said his student never complains about his eye; he just compensates. Mudiay saw the same quality in high school and learned that if he “just gives him a couple of touches early on, he’ll feel good about himself as the game goes on.”

    “He plays through [frustration],” Jackson said. “he’s a tough guy.”

    Austin has adopted the same mindset by approaching a draft that could have seen its stock drop after he admitted to being half blind.

    “I just want the 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 good career. But at the same time, I know basketball isn’t for everyone.” I know the ball will stop bouncing, so I just want to use it as a springboard for my life.”

    mental power

    On one of Austin’s arms is tattooed the passage from 2 corinthians 5:7: “for we walk by faith, not by sight”, along with other biblical words on both arms. they are written in front of him, so he can read them whenever he wants.

    “Every time I get off, I look at my arm and it reminds me of what I’ve been through,” he said.

    while austin isn’t likely to damage his left eye from straining to compensate for his right and will continue to wear protective eyewear during games, that’s the least of his worries. Even if someday advanced technology becomes available for an eye transplant, Austin is pleased with the man he has become.

    “I’m not afraid of anything,” he said. “I’m not afraid of getting hurt or anything because whatever happens is going to happen. I have a strong enough mindset to get through anything. The fact is I’m not even supposed to be here in this position.” I am, so I feel very blessed to be able to say that I’ve been through all of those things.

    “life goes on, man.”

    jared zwerling covers the nba for the bleach report. follow him on twitter and instagram.

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