In his 31 years spanning the globe trying to discover NBA players, Ryan Blake has run into all types of potential talent among the many thousands of players who have made their way onto his scouting report.
But he’s rarely run into a player trying to earn his NBA papers while playing with one eye.
Until Baylor’s Isaiah Austin came calling.
Hit in the eye while playing baseball at the age of 12, Austin is legally blind in his right eye. The disability, however, didn’t prevent the 7-foot-1, 225-pound center/power forward from leading the Big 12 in blocks this past season with 119, and from being named to the Big 12 All-Defensive squad.
Blake, though, isn’t sure if Austin’s disability will prevent him from being chosen when the NBA holds its annual two-round draft Thursday.
“It’s not like a bad back or a knee that might get reinjured,” said Blake, who is the senior director of NBA scouting operations. “He plays with it.
“He plays well within himself and those are really strong qualities that we like about him, because with the way that he can move away from the ball and make good decisions, he plays angles well and he’s an intelligent player. Even if he doesn’t get drafted in the second round, he’s going to be coveted for the summer league by multiple teams.’’
Austin worked out for several teams in recent weeks, including the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics, Phoenix Suns and Detroit Pistons.
“Thursday is going to be a real emotional day for me,’’ Austin said. “I’ve been working up to that day ever since I started playing basketball.
“It’s always been my dream to hear my name called on draft night, and tears will probably most likely flow through my eyes because I’m not even supposed to be in this position that I am today. But I feel like I deserve this, I feel like I’ve gone through everything that I need to go through to be able to make it to this point, and I’ve shown people that I’m a strong enough man and player to be able to make it in this league.’’
Austin said the fact that he’s blind in one eye never came up during his workouts with the NBA teams.
“There was nobody that told me it was a red flag,’’ Austin said. “Everybody just said they just can’t believe that I do the things that I do with it.
“It’s not a factor to me any more. At first it was when it first happened, but I pushed through it, I persevered, and I’m here now.’’
Austin was a dominant player at Baylor, where as a freshman he had 19 points and 20 rebounds against Oklahoma and 23 points and 17 rebounds against Lamar. He also set the Big 12 tournament record for blocks this past season with 18, and had nine blocks against Kansas State.
After two seasons at Baylor, Austin applied as an early entry NBA candidate in an effort to pursue his long-range goal. Now comes the waiting game.
“We pray and we hope that it’s in God’s will that he gets drafted,’’ Austin’s mother, Lisa Green, said. “He has his own demons he’s had to fight, because obviously as a young child and this happens to you, you go through that mourning process of why me, and you feel sorry for yourself.
“After that mourning process, then you can gather your thoughts and say, ‘You know what, I can still do these things.’ So he’s had his own demons to fight and through all this I think he’s appreciative of every accomplishment that he’s gone through and every opportunity that’s come his way.”
Other than revealing it to teammates, close friends and family members, Austin and his family didn’t reveal that he was blind in his right eye until January.
So why the secret over the past eight years?
“We chose to do that because we never wanted it to be an excuse,” Green said. “And so if he made it to the next level it was because he deserved to make it to the next level, not because somebody felt sorry for him or they gave him special concessions or anything like that.
“I almost feel like it was worse for us than for him because of the fact that you hear the critics and they say he’s too this, he’s too that, he’s too soft. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘If you only knew how much he had to persevere [through] to get to where he’s at.’
“So that was the hard part definitely, as a parent just looking from the outside in, from seeing everything that he had to go through to persevere, to the endless extra hours he spent in the gym trying to figure out his depth perception.”
Green said Austin endured four surgeries in less than a year in an attempt to save his eye. His sight would return for a few days after each surgery, until Austin had to face the inevitable.
“It’s really just been a blessing from God to be in this position,’’ Austin said. “I can’t really take any other credit for it other than going in the gym and shooting.
“But as far as my depth perception, it’s really incredible that I even have any and that I’m able to shoot the ball like I am. So I really just say it’s a blessing.’’
Baylor coach Scott Drew was aware of Austin’s disability when he recruited him out of Arlington Grace Prep Academy. Although Drew initially had concerns, he didn’t allow those concerns to deter his attempt to make the McDonald’s All-American a part of the Bears’ program.
“Our concern at first as coaches was would people game plan [with Austin’s blind eye],” Drew said. “But with us, there’s no place on the court that he’s limited.
“In fact, at times some of the players joke that he makes more contested shots because he may not see some of the hands. There’s nothing that restricts his basketball play because of his sight.”
Drew said Austin has become a role model for others with disabilities, and he hopes if he earns a spot on an NBA roster that would give him an even larger stage to convey his message.
“He’s great with kids, so to see all these kids’ parents reach out to him and say, ‘Hey, can you write my son,’ or ‘Can you write my daughter a letter, she’s going through something similar, she has limited eyesight or he has one eye,’ ” Drew said. “Or it’s, ‘You’re an inspiration to my son, thanks for showing him he can do what he wants to do in sports.’
“Seeing him embrace that and seeing him not only respond, but seeing him say, ‘Man, I’m a role model, I’m playing for these people as well,’ just seeing what kind on influence he’s going to have in the future based on that is great. That’s just another reason for him and another responsibility he’s taken upon himself to say, ‘I’m going to do this for everybody else out there to inspire, lead and help motivate and be a great role model because of it.’ ”
Because of Austin’s slender frame, Blake believes he’s more suited at power forward than center.
“He’s a long athletic big man who can shoot it from beyond the arc,” Blake said. “He doesn’t do it extremely well, but he has that range.
“He’s a good ball handler for a big man, and he’s a rim protector. He can pass the ball, he has great instincts, he’s got good footwork, he can develop, and he’s intriguing to many teams.”
And most of all, Austin believes because of all he’s endured, he’s destined to play in the NBA.
“I know that I have all the work ethic and I know that I have the love for the game and the desire,” he said. “I’ve put blood, sweat and tears into this, so Thursday is going to be a very emotional day for me.
“It’s really a blessing for me to be able to be in this position and it’s just amazing to see how God is using me to touch people’s lives.”