Draft prospect Isaiah Austin was just days away from seeing his dream of playing in the NBA come true. Instead he becomes another sad but true reminder why all college student-athletes should prepare for life after sports. And it’s another reason why colleges should do more to help prepare these young men for what lies ahead.
In a terrible turn of events, the 20-year-old, 7-foot-1 center from Baylor was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a career-ending condition “caused by a genetic mutation that leads to problems in connective tissues throughout the body.” Marfan.org states that “about 1-in-5,000 people have the condition that can affect the heart, blood vessels, bones or joints.”
I know the pain of having your life’s dream come to an abrupt end at an early age. I will never forget being a 24-year-old rookie sitting in then-Heat coach Pat Riley ‘s office and having my career come to an end due to an ankle injury.
Riley shared his experience as a former player and talked about how he felt after his body could no longer withstand the pounding in the NBA. “Huck, I have to let you go,” are the words that I’ll never forget. For a 24-year-old who had just signed an NBA contract, it was like dying. I was blessed enough to be able to play for a paycheck in the NBA and Europe, but like so many I had never thought about what I would do when basketball ended.
I’ve heard about some of the quirky questions general managers ask draft prospects in the NFL and NBA (Michigan’s Nik Stauskas said he got a Justin Bieber question). But I wonder if they ask every draft prospect how prepared they are to go out into the general workforce (non-sports-related field) and obtain a job?
I make it a point now to talk to every player I interview while doing games for ESPN about preparing for life after sports. There is nothing wrong with chasing a dream of playing professionally, but it is bad business to not have a succession plan of what you will do afterward.
Unfortunately, Isaiah Austin, like myself, had his career come to an abrupt end. Hopefully he can go back to Baylor, finish his education and share his story with other student-athletes about the importance of a backup plan.
I’ve written other articles on why I think student-athletes should not just be going to class but enrolling in meaningful internships and job-training programs that give them a dose of reality and what it will be like to work in something other than your sport. And make no mistake, playing a Division 1 sport is a job. There is so much going on in college athletics now: Northwestern players forming a union, Ed O’Bannon fighting the NCAA  in court, discussions about whether student-athletes should be paid. To me the discussion should always be about how universities and athletic departments can better prepare student-athletes to make a successful transition into the real world.
Thursday is almost here for the 2014 NBA draft. Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon, a likely lottery pick and rumored target of the Celtics , is one of the most versatile players I’ve seen. In 2013 he played in the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, leading his Archbishop Mitty High School team from San Jose, California, against a very good Lone Peak High School team from Highland, Utah. Gordon was able to guard and shut down Eric Mika, a 7-foot center who went on to start for BYU this past season, then guard Lone Peak’s starting point guard and shooting guard — both high- to mid-major college players — and lock them up as well.
Even more impressive, when I interviewed Gordon on the ESPN set after the game, he was very well spoken and seemed like a young player who would excel outside of basketball. Unfortunately, he is not the norm.
I’m glad college reform is a hot topic now, but I hope the discussion shifts from paying players to how to better prepare players for the news Isaiah Austin received a few days prior to the NBA draft. Because playing days eventually will end, whether it’s due to illness, injury or just not being good enough. And the sooner players start to prepare for that transition the better.