Baylor sophomore center Isaiah Austin called his mother, Lisa Green, after the Bears walloped Creighton on Sunday to advance to this week’s West Regional semifinal against No. 2 seed Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament.
"He was so excited, and he said, ‘Mom, can you believe we’re in the Sweet 16?’ " Green recounted. "And I said, ‘Yes, honey, I do believe it. You just have to trust.’ "
She reminded him of his favorite bible verse: 2 Corinthians 5:7 that reads "For we live with faith, not by sight."
The words are a compelling touchstone for the 7-1 Austin, who, just two months ago, went public with the fact that he’s been blind in his right eye since a middle school injury. Since letting his secret out, Austin has received an outpouring of feedback from people who say he’s inspired them.
Austin’s production and shot-altering interior presence helped the Bears (26-11) win 12 of their last 14 games to recover from a 1-7 midseason slide.
"Our team right now, we have a tremendous amount of confidence," said Austin, who averages 11.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.2 blocks and co-led the Bears with 17 points against third-seeded Creighton. "Everybody has bought into the one goal that we have in mind — and that is winning a national championship."
According to Bovada, Baylor’s odds of winning the title at the Final Four are 20-1, hardly the best of the remaining teams.
But Vegas’ take on the sixth-seeded Bears will hardly affect Austin, considering what he’s been through.
Austin first revealed in January on ESPN why he wears goggles during games. He’d previously glossed over the reason to reporters, citing an old eye injury. His coaches and teammates knew the truth, of the prosthetic over the injured eye, but few others did.
Austin first suffered eye damage when a baseball hit him when he was a sixth-grader. The hit loosened the retina, which detached two years later when he went up for a dunk before a middle-school basketball game. Multiple surgeries were unable to repair his sight.
"He loved the sport," Green said. "Him thinking that he couldn’t play was devastating."
It took time to digest his tragedy and start to move on.
"There’s a shock factor that you have to get over," Austin said. "Once you build the confidence to actually step up and face your fears, that’s what gets you over the hump."
With no peripheral vision on the right side, he keeps his head constantly moving on the court. He’s honed his other senses to compensate. Baylor coach Scott Drew said he was initially concerned opponents would try to take advantage of Austin when he revealed the blindness.
"I’ve adapted so well to it, I’ve adapted my game on and off the court," Austin said. "This is something I have to deal with every second of my life. That makes it that much easier for me to operate on the basketball court."
During his freshman season at Baylor, Austin started every game, recorded 11 double-doubles and averaged 13.0 points and 8.3 rebounds. He was set to leave early for the NBA when he found he needed surgery to repair a torn posterior labrum in his right shoulder. He decided to come back to Baylor. Then he and his family decided it was time to tell his story.
"We knew we needed to get the story out because of the NBA scouts," said Green, who lives in Kansas City with her husband and Austin’s younger siblings. "We didn’t want people to think we were purposely hiding the situation. But we didn’t do it for that reason. We had never come forward because we didn’t want people to make it as an excuse for him. We wanted him to be able to accomplish what he’s accomplished so far, and people can understand that if he makes it to the next level, it’s because he’s good enough to be there."
Austin now openly shares his story — he’s been asked about it countless times during the NCAA Tournament’s myriad media sessions.
A class of students who deal with dyslexia watched Austin’s story and then attended a Baylor game and visited with him. Parents who have children with eye conditions bring their kids to games to root for Austin.
"My 6-year-old Peyton looks up to him because both of them have glasses," said Drew, who calls Austin by his nickname Zeke. "He’s a big kid. I think he’s played harder, tried to do more and be a better role model for those kids because he’s got a big heart."
Austin, who set a Big 12 tournament record with 18 blocks in four games, said last week that he’ll turn his thoughts to his NBA decision after the Bears’ season. Green said they’ll hold a family meeting, but that Austin has promised her he’ll get his degree if he leaves early.
Green, who will be in Anaheim, Calif., for the game Thursday, said she’s seen her son mature since sharing his story.
"If I were to get hurt or something and I couldn’t play basketball tomorrow," Austin said, "then I would be super thankful for the career that I’ve had. Not a lot of people get to play in my shoes or make it to this level. For me to make it to this level with the injury I had is a complete blessing."