Baylor center Isaiah Austin sits on a folding chair in the Ferrell Center, reflecting on an up-and-down season and staring at three letters scribbled on each of his practice sneakers: “RIP.”
In his hands, the Arlington Grace Prep graduate holds his goggles, the ones that protect his good eye from potential damage because he lost sight in his right eye from a sports-related accident in middle school.
The inscription on the shoes, in memory of his maternal grandfather, and the protective eyewear are symbols of the inner drive Austin will carry into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. For the Bears (24-11), the No. 6 seed in the West Region, the journey to a possible Final Four berth at AT&T Stadium in Arlington begins in San Antonio with Friday’s game against Nebraska (19-12) at 11:40 a.m. in the AT&T Center.
For Austin, a 7-foot-1 sophomore with an NBA future, the tournament may be his final opportunity to bring a championship to Baylor before taking his talents to the next level. The 2014 tournament certainly will mark his lone chance to claim college basketball’s ultimate prize in the same city where he led his high school team to two TAPPS Class 4A state championships while being selected a McDonald’s All American.
“Oh, man, that would be so much fun,” Austin said, reflecting on a Baylor net-cutting ceremony at JerryWorld on April 7. “I’ve got so much family and friends who would like to come out and support that.”
But the bigger motivators for Austin, issues that truly touch his heart and elevate his game, are reflected in his practice attire. He seeks to honor his grandfather who died March 12, the man Austin described as “another guardian watching over me” from heaven. And he wants to serve as a role model for legions of fans, especially children, who have hailed him as an inspiration since going public Jan. 18 with his story about being blind in his right eye.
Austin’s retina initially loosened, but he suffered no vision-related issues, when struck by a baseball in a youth-league game. The retina became detached roughly two years later at a middle school basketball game. Austin, who underwent four surgeries in attempts to regain his sight, wears a prosthetic over his damaged eye, plus the goggles.
“When he sees kids and gets emails, I think he’s played harder,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “He’s tried to do more and be a better role model for those kids because he’s got a big heart.”
He’s also done more for his teammates, in all areas of the stat sheet, since learning of his grandfather’s death before the Bears met TCU in last week’s Big 12 tournament. Austin, who has averaged 11.0 points and 3.3 blocked shots per game, exceeded both figures with an 18-point, five-block performance in a 76-68 victory.
He followed with three more double-figure scoring nights in Kansas City, plus a tournament-record 18 blocks. Austin emerged as the lone Baylor player selected to the all-tournament team by averaging 14.0 points, 4.5 blocks and 5.3 rebounds per contest while leading the Bears to the championship game.
In every contest, Austin said he focused on the “RIP” on his shoes and dedicated the rest of this season to his grandfather.
“Definitely,” Austin said. “Because I was so close to him. He’s one of my biggest supporters, so I know he’s up there watching down on me. I’ve just been trying to play for him, trying to play aggressively. My teammates have been pushing me hard in practice and telling me they need more out of me. So I’m trying to produce for them, too.
“We’ve had a rough season and I’ve not really played my best basketball. But I’m getting there. We’re all starting to pick it up at the end and we’re making this run. We’re trying to turn things around.”
For Baylor, the timing could not be better. The Bears, who climbed to No. 7 in the AP poll in January with a 12-1 nonconference record, sputtered to a 2-8 start in Big 12 play. Several starters, including Austin, produced at levels below their career averages. But the team enters the NCAA Tournament on a 10-2 run.
At the heart of the surge has been a resurgent Austin, whose image peers down at visitors when they enter the main doors of the Ferrell Center. Austin stands there, arms crossed, next to a large sign that reads: “This Is Our House.” Bears forward Cory Jefferson cited a late-season pep talk from teammates that, in conjunction with other factors, has helped Austin become more of an intimidator on the court as well as on an outer wall of the Bears’ arena.
“We just told him, ‘You’re thinking too much,’ ” Jefferson said. “He’s not himself when he does that. So we told him, ‘Don’t think. Just play.’ When he does that, he’s a special player.”
Since the report about his eye aired on ESPN, Austin has been special for reasons beyond his ability to block shots or dunk. By sharing his story, he followed his mother’s advice from years ago. After his retina detached, Austin recalled her telling him: “You can make it your excuse, or you can make it your story. You can touch lives or you can be a quitter.”
During the past two months, Austin has touched a lot of lives. After a Jan. 25 game, Texas coach Rick Barnes cited Austin as an inspiration in his life. A junior-high class from the Waco area attended a game, then posed with Austin for a group photo.
There have been hundreds of letters, emails and Twitter messages from individuals with eye-related issues or parents of children who battle them. Drew said they have arrived from “all across the nation.” Austin answers each one personally.
“I’m not really wanting to be remembered as a great basketball player. I want to be remembered as a great person first,” Austin said. “If I can help people and touch their lives in a way other than using basketball, I’d like to do that.”
After a recent practice, Austin huddled with a boy who was struck in the eye by a stick and required multiple stitches. After the visit, Austin posted a message to the father on his Twitter account calling it “a blessing” to meet the child. “He’s a champ!” Austin wrote. “Tell him I said hello, please.”
One response hit especially close to home. Austin recently was contacted by an Arlington family from the church he attended in high school. The family’s 10-year-old son had suffered an eye-related injury and reached out to Austin after hearing about his situation. During his high school days, Austin said, “They didn’t know I was blind.”
“That’s when they opened up to me and how did I deal with it and could I get a little closer with him,” Austin said. “That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been keeping up with him.”
On the court, Austin has thrived by keeping his head on a swivel and relying on teammates to yell “shot” every time the ball goes in the air, in case his blind eye is turned toward the shooter.
“It’s something I really had to work on at first,” Austin said. “I’m so used to it now, I don’t notice I’m blind in my eye unless something severe happens like a pass hits me in the face.”
Although he recalled “a shock factor” when he lost sight in his right eye and feared that his basketball career might be over, Austin said facing his fears has helped him get “over the hump” as a player and a person.
“I just keep positive and keep my faith in God,” Austin said. “He’s really helped me through this. My teammates have been positive with me, no matter if I’m playing great or if I’m playing bad.
“If I couldn’t play basketball tomorrow, I would be super thankful for the career I’ve had. Not a lot of people get to … this level. Just to be able to make it to this level with the injury that I’ve had is a complete blessing.”