My life was always basketball. As a seventh-grader, I was 6-foot-4. In high school, I was one of the best basketball players in the world. I attended Baylor University on a full scholarship and after two years, declared for the NBA draft.
As an eighth-grader, I had what I thought was a freak injury. As I dunked the basketball in a game, I came down and could only see red. The next thing I knew I was sent for immediate surgery after tearing my retina. I had to undergo 4 surgeries in 2 years and spent pretty much the entirety of a year face down in a contraption to help my eye heal. I was basically blind in my right eye. Simple things became so difficult. I thought my dream of becoming an NBA basketball player was over.
Thankfully, I recovered, and although I had to wear a special prosthetic over my damaged eye, by the time I was a sophomore in high school I was back to dribbling, shooting, and dunking. I tied to keep what happened to myself because I did not want it to be how it defined me – I wanted my basketball skills to do that. Despite getting back to basketball, this time was a new challenge and was very difficult for me.
I persevered and excelled at Baylor University, both on and off the court. I was finally ready for the next level – the NBA. As I entered my name into the NBA draft, I anxiously prepared, full of excitement and optimism. This is when becoming an NBA basketball player finally felt real. My hard work and dedication were paying off. My lifelong dream was finally being fulfilled. I was going to be an NBA basketball player!
As part of this process I went through routine medical testing at the NBA combine. Each team had their own doctors evaluate us. One doctor kept looking at me and then just said “Have you ever heard of Marfan syndrome”?
Marfan syndrome? I had no idea what it was.
I continued to work out and prepare for the draft. A lot of teams were interested in taking me very early, so I had to be ready.
Just 5 days before the NBA draft, on June 21, 2014 I returned home to what I thought was a celebration. I opened the door to my house expecting to see smiling from my parents, agent, coaches, and friends. I learned quickly no one was there to celebrate. As I looked around at the crying faces, I kept thinking “what’s wrong”? Never could I have imagined what I was about to hear.
My mom pulled me aside and told me the devastating news – I was positive for Marfan syndrome. I still had no idea what this meant for my future. As I continued to wrestle with this news, I was informed by the NBA and Marfan Foundation that I should never play basketball again. The fear was that my aorta could rupture, and I could die on the court.
I thought I had faced the toughest challenge of my life in eighth-grade. But now, it was worse. Basketball was my life. In a split second, it was taken from me. I became depressed immediately. I couldn’t be this tough guy anymore. I had no control over the situation and that was the hardest part. I went from being this extremely athletic person to being told by the NBA that I was not allowed to play. “How is that possible”, I kept thinking? I thought about committing suicide every day for an entire year. As you could imagine, this was the toughest challenge of my life. In the year and a half following this news I did not touch a basketball.
As I continued to learn more about the disease, I knew there had to be a way to play basketball again. I also learned that the tearing of my retina could have been a symptom of Marfan syndrome. Nonetheless, I was determined to get my life back. I met Dr. David Liang at Stanford. He was the best thing that ever happened to me. He evaluated me and put me through echocardiograms and other tests. These showed that my aorta was only 1 millimeter above the normal range. Dr. Liang realized I was more than just a disease. He took into account what my life would be like without basketball and ultimately cleared me to do light scrimmaging and slowly play in recreational leagues. I still had severe restrictions, but I also had a glimmer of hope.
I was determined to prove I could do this. Finally, after follow-ups and more testing, Dr. Liang cleared me to play professional basketball in November of 2016. Dr. Liang helped try to make my dream of playing in the NBA a reality. He wrote a letter telling the NBA my risk was not high. We met with cardiologists in NYC, but they still would not let me play. This was devastating.
Just as I thought my world was over again, I got a call from a team in Serbia – FMP. They wanted me! It wasn’t the NBA, but it didn’t matter. I was going to be playing professional basketball! After playing for 2 seasons in Europe, I moved over to play in the Chinese National Basketball League in June of 2018, and then to the Chinese Basketball Association in October.
Although I am not an NBA basketball player, I am still living out my dream of playing professional basketball at the highest level. I still wish I could play in the NBA, but I also realize the NBA’s decision is out of my control and it’s better for me to focus on what I can control.
It has now been almost 6 years since I found out I had Marfan syndrome. This whole experience has taught me so much. As a kid in eighth-grade I thought I had experienced enough for a lifetime. Then as a potential NBA basketball player I had my life flash before my eyes. I’ve gained so much perspective for what is really important in life. I’ve never been so happy for those little things I used to take for granted – going to practice, hugging my son and talking to my family. This road has definitely had it’s challenges, and it definitely hasn’t been easy. But it’s made me who I am today.