MANILA, Philippines – Isaiah Austin's dreams were never dashed; they were only deferred.
Of course, it must have seemed that way for the 23-year-old center in June 2014 when he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome just as he was all set to enter the NBA Rookie Draft, and take the path he seemed all but destined for since making his mark as a prep star in Arlington, Texas.
Instead, Austin was made an "honorary draft pick" by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, making an emotional walk to the stage between the 15th and 16th picks.
Austin's basketball dream could have ended there. After all, he was still dealing with Marfan syndrome, described as a genetic disorder of the connective tissue. In Austin's case, it was his arteries that were most affected; he was warned that if he overworked, his heart could rupture.
He already had a job lined up, as well: Silver apparently offered him a job in the NBA, provided that he finished his degree in Baylor.
Yet Austin never really gave up on basketball, and his efforts paid off in November 2016, when he was medically cleared to again play the sport that he loves. Two months later, he signed a contract to play basketball in Serbia. In July 2017, he made his way over to China, and played in the National Basketball League.
Another two months passed, and this time, Austin travelled to Manila. It was a 19-hour flight from San Diego that included a stopover in Tokyo. He arrived on Tuesday night; on Wednesday evening, he set foot for the first time at the Meralco Gym, where he met his teammates in the Chooks-to-Go Pilipinas team.
Austin put on his goggles, his "No. 1" jersey and went to work. His dream, which looked dead in the water as recently as three years ago, was coming true.
-- 'Dream again' --
"My first dream was to play in the NBA," Austin told reporters after the team wrapped up practice.
It was not an easy practice for Austin. Oh, the 7-foot-1 center dunked with ease, and swatted shots briskly with his go-go gadget arms. But the long flight to Manila took its toll on him; Austin admitted that he felt "really, really sluggish."
"My legs, they weren't with me today," said Austin, who nevertheless eagerly engaged in drills and scrimmages with the rest of the Chooks-to-Go Pilipinas squad.
Austin is not one to complain about the tough practice. For him, simply being able to lace up his kicks once more, to palm the ball and step onto the basketball court again, to dunk and shoot and dribble and pass – these are all reasons to be grateful, to give praise.
After all, while his dream to play in the NBA "was taken away from me," he found another dream.
"God placed another dream in my life, to go around and inspire people with my story," says Austin. "Just to share my testimony to as many people as possible. He's let me do that, and over time, I prayed and I prayed, and I've asked God to bring basketball back into my life somehow, some way."
"With His gracious hands, He rewarded me with being able to play again," he added. "That's what it means to dream again – just never giving up, always having faith in your God, that He's gonna have a plan in your life."
Austin believes that his involvement in the Philippines' men's basketball team is no coincidence, that it is still part of that plan – that the lanky kid whose NBA dream ended before it began because of a heart issue will wind up playing in a hoops-crazy country whose battle cry is "puso."
-- 'Best fans in the world' --
Austin was playing in China when the powers-that-be of Philippine basketball first sent feelers to him about possibly playing for the country.
"I couldn't turn it down," he said. "It was such a great opportunity, not only for me, but also for my family. I've been through a lot in my career, and this is taking a big step for me. I couldn't be any happier."
Like most American players, most of what Austin knew about the Philippines was about basketball. He knew that it was a "nice country," to be sure, but he knew more about the people - that Filipinos are "insane and crazy" basketball fans.
"I read an article a while back that FIBA voted them the greatest fans in the world," he said. "Who wouldn't want to play for the greatest fans in the world?"
Those same fans have inundated Austin with love through social media ever since word got out of his involvement with the national basketball program. Austin said it has simply been "endless love" from Filipino fans, who have flooded his Facebook page with supportive comments, tweeted him, and even sent him direct messages through Instagram.
"I haven't seen one negative thing about me," he added. "And I'm very thankful for that."
Of course, the Filipino fans have also taken the opportunity to teach Austin a few words in Filipino. First up, inevitably, was "puso."
"Everybody's been telling me that 'puso' means heart," says Austin. "That word is going to mean something not only for me, but also for my family for the rest of our lives."
-- An audition --
Austin's first practice with Chooks-to-Go Pilipinas got good reviews from national team coach Chot Reyes, who noted that the player was "in good basketball shape" and lauded him for battling jet lag.
Moreover, Reyes was all praises for Austin's character, calling him a "very good kid." The coach also stressed that Austin is very willing to play for the Philippines.
"When we contacted him, right away he sent his passport and birth certificate immediately. We really know how much he wants to play for Team Pilipinas," Reyes said.
But naturalizing Austin is unlikely to be a swift process. Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) vice-chairman Robbie Puno will take the lead in the proceedings, but Reyes said they have yet to pull the trigger on the entire deal.
"We still have to take a look at this," he pointed out.
The upcoming FIBA Asia Champions Cup in China, where the Philippines will compete against the continent's best club teams under the banner of Chooks-to-Go, will essentially serve as Austin's audition for the national team, and for the country.
There, Reyes and the rest of the national team coaches will get a look not only at Austin's skills or how he fits in with the team inside the court. They will also get the chance to gauge his attitude, and how he can get along with the rest of the players outside of the court as well.
"There are a lot of things you can only find out when you're out of the country playing," Reyes said. "That's why this tournament is very important to us."
If Wednesday's practice is anything to go by, however, Austin's audition is off to a good start. Reyes was impressed with his shooting and noted that he would be a "perfect" fit for Gilas Pilipinas, because he can play alongside any of the Filipino big men.
"The reason we got him, it's almost like having an Andray Blatche who is very versatile," Reyes said. "Pwede sa loob, pwede sa labas."
-- Austin's vow --
Austin knows what's at stake in the FIBA Asia Champions Cup, and he promises to give all that he can possibly give for the team.
"I'm just going to show them my passion," he said. "I'm not too worried about how I play offensively. I know that I can score every once in a while. I know that I'm a great mismatch on the court."
"But most importantly, I've been working on trying to be the best teammate that I can be. I've been working on trying to be the best father that I can be, I've been working on trying to be the best friend and son that I can be," he added.
He did not guarantee dominant performances. "It's basketball," Austin pointed out. "You're gonna play good, you're gonna play bad."
"The only thing you can control is your attitude, and how hard you play," he explained. "So, I'm gonna play extremely hard. I'm gonna have a great attitude while doing it. I'm not supposed to be here in the first place, but I'm here, and I'm very thankful."
Austin has only been in the Philippines for a day, most of which was spent either recovering from jet lag or playing basketball. But already, he has felt welcomed – by fans on social media, and by his teammates and coaches who already treat him as family.
It does not come as a surprise, then, that Austin himself is already enamored with the country, and is only too willing to compete for the Philippines – first with Chooks-to-Go Pilipinas and perhaps one day, for Gilas Pilipinas.
"It's just really, really nice to see a lot of people who don't even know you, who just know your story and know about you, want to support you," Austin said.
"I'm going to give my all for this country, and for this team," he vowed.
After all, it is in the Philippines that Austin's dream, once deferred, will once again gets its wings.
"I think that God had a plan for me my whole life," he said. "He put me in this position for a reason. He put this opportunity in front of me for a reason – for me to chase it, for me to give my all for this country and for this team, to try to get the best out of it."
"That's exactly what I plan on doing."
(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.)