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Zeke’s in for Gilas

Gilas head coach Chot Reyes confirmed yesterday that Isaiah (Zeke) Austin will go through the process of naturalization to become eligible to play with the Philippine national team in FIBA-sanctioned competitions. Based on his performance at the recent FIBA Asia Champions Cup in Chenzhou on and off the court, Austin looks like a fit in Reyes’ system.

Austin himself said he’s open to the idea of joining Gilas as a naturalized import. But for sure, he won’t be in the lineup for Gilas’ first FIBA World Cup qualifying away game against Japan on Nov. 24 and the home outing against Chinese-Taipei on Nov. 27 because the naturalization process will take at least three months going through the House of Representatives and Senate before reaching the President.

“November is out of the question for Zeke,” said Reyes. “Our choice for a naturalized import will be either Andray (Blatche) or Chris (Standhardinger).” But if Austin’s naturalization pushes through, he could be ready to play when the Philippines faces Australia in an away contest on Feb. 22. Gilas then hosts Japan on Feb. 25, plays Chinese-Taipei on the road on June 29 and battles Australia at home on July 2.

Reyes said during the FIBA Champions Cup, he spoke to Blatche about the possibility of rejoining Gilas for the FIBA World Cup qualifying series. Blatche played in two games for China Kashgar in Chenzhou. However, Reyes said there are lot of considerations to iron out, like compensation and schedules. Blatche has a year left in his contract with Xinjiang in the Chinese Basketball Association whose season runs from October to April.

In Chenzhou, Austin was a positive influence on the makeshift team that Reyes assembled as a late replacement for Japan. “Before the tournament started, coach Chot asked Zeke to talk to the guys,” said a team insider. “Zeke told his teammates to stand strong, not to be intimidated by Kazakhstan’s size, that we’re all just players who wear shoes, socks, shirts and shorts. We’re no different from any other human being. That’s what’s so inspiring about Zeke. Because of his medical condition, he wasn’t even supposed to play anymore but was miraculously cleared by doctors. So he considers it a blessing to still be able to play and it’s why he plays every game like it’s his last.”

The team insider said it’s appropriate that Gilas’ battlecry is “Puso” as Austin plays with a lot of heart. “When Zeke was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, doctors were afraid that the enlarged arteries in his heart could just burst,” he said. “For two years, he stopped playing until he was cleared to play again last November. So playing with heart means a lot more to Zeke than just a slogan.”

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Austin, 23, doesn’t only have a heart condition, he’s also blind in the right eye. When he was in eighth grade, he went up to dunk and suffered a spontaneous retinal detachment that led to losing his sight. He underwent four surgeries to save his vision but the damage was irreversible. Austin kept his blindness a secret until three years ago because he didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him and played through the handicap.

While with the Baylor University varsity, Austin had surgery for a shoulder injury and that postponed his entry into the NBA draft by a year. When he finally decided to forego his collegiate career to turn pro, Austin was declared unfit by doctors five days before the draft. NBA commissioner Adam Silver learned of Austin’s plight and made him an honorary first round pick in the 2014 draft. Silver also offered Austin a job in the NBA once he earned his college degree.

When doctors gave Austin the go-signal to return to action, he went to Serbia and China to play as an import. Austin is still required to get twice-a-year eye checkups and annual heart examinations. An aortic valve replacement is an option for the future. After an impressive showing in the Chinese minor league, he got the call to suit up for Chooks To Go at the FIBA Asia Champions Cup.

In Chenzhou, Austin averaged 20 points, 13 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 3.1 blocks in 33 minutes over seven games. He hit 50.9 percent from the field and 73.2 percent from the line. Austin knocked down 2-of-12 triples. The 7-1 center led Chooks to a 73-65 win over Kazakhstan with 17 points, 18 rebounds and six blocked shots. In the playoff for fifth, Austin erupted for 37 points to pace Chooks to an 89-79 decision over Mono Vampire of Thailand.

What impressed his Chooks teammates was Austin’s close relationship with his mother Lisa Green, a vice president of a cosmetics company. “Zeke’s a mama’s boy,” said the team insider. “He’s very close to his mom. After we lost to Palestine, Zeke phoned his mom who told him not to put his head down, to go back out there and to fight like a dog. That’s exactly what Zeke did. He fought like a dog in our next game, scoring 27 points against Mono Vampire.”

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