Marfan Foundation: Life Will Go on for Would-Be NBA Star

While an NBA career isn't in the cards for Isaiah Austin, the Marfan Foundation says the basketball league may have saved his life by testing him for the genetic disorder. The foundation is using Austin's situation to draw attention to the potentially fatal disease.

Baylor University standout Isaiah Austin expected to get drafted by an NBA team Thursday night, but a fateful medical test got in the way.

During a pre-draft physical required by the league, an abnormality was discovered in Austin’s EKG. After undergoing genetic tests, he received a diagnosis of Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects a person’s connective tissues. The condition has a number of physical side effects—sufferers tend to be taller, with long limbs and fingers—but it’s the ones that aren’t visible to the eye that pose the most risk.

The disease can weaken the heart valves and aorta, in some cases  leading to sudden death. It’s for that reason that physicians recommended that Austin quit playing organized basketball.

“They said I wouldn’t be able to play basketball anymore at a competitive level,” Austin told ESPN on Sunday. “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.”

Austin, who is blind in his right eye, had taken out a $1 million insurance policy in case of a career-ending injury; the policy will likely pay out because of the diagnosis.

Life With MarFan syndrome

While Austin will miss out on the opportunity to play in the NBA, the diagnosis may have saved his life, the Marfan Foundation’s president and CEO, Carolyn Levering, said.

“Competitive and contact sports need to be halted to protect the fragile aorta. Otherwise, it is prone to tear and possibly rupture, which would cause sudden death,” Levering said in a news release.

There’s precedent for this: In 1986, Olympic volleyball star Flo Hyman died of an aortic dissection while taking part in a tournament in Japan. Playwright Jonathan Larson died from the same cause as his popular play Rent was making its off-Broadway debut. In both cases, their Marfan syndrome was undiagnosed.

But diagnosing the condition can be a challenge. Larson was misdiagnosed as having the flu in the days before his death, preventing proper treatment.

Levering credited the NBA’s proactive approach to genetic testing, which, she says, may have prevented a tragedy.

Although Austin’s playing days are over, a career in basketball is still possible. Baylor basketball coach Scott Drew said a coaching position will be open to Austin if he chooses to return.

“While it is disappointing for Isaiah that he cannot pursue a career in the NBA, receiving the diagnosis before a fatal episode is truly a gift,” Levering added. “With the diagnosis and treatment, he can live a long, productive life.”

Isaiah Austin, shown right, was recently diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome. (via Baylor's Facebook page)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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