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Unique Syndrome Builds Friendship

By: Canaan Cadwell
06/06/2015 11:00 AM -

Printed with permission from VYPE

 

Being raised in the basketball mecca of Tobacco Road near Raleigh, North Carolina there was little chance that Owen Gray wasn’t going to be around the sport.

Since the age of five it has been part of his life.

“I don’t remember not liking basketball,” he said.

Within a 25 mile radius fans have their choice of N.C. State, North Carolina, or Duke – declaring one as their team at an early age.

In a twist of fate, Gray has become a fan of the Baylor Bears.

**********

OwenAustin220At the 2014 NBA Draft Isaiah Austin became the face of Marfan Syndrome.

Austin played for Baylor during the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He was named to the Big 12 All-Rookie team as a freshman and to the Big 12 All-Defensive Team as a sophomore while helping the team win the NIT championship.

The 7-foot-1 center declared for the draft and was given a first round grade despite revealing he was also partially blind in one eye. His diagnosis came on June 21, 2014. His time on the NBA stage was just five days later during an emotional ceremonial pick by Adam Silver.

It was around the same time that Gray found out that he also had the genetic disorder.

Marfan attacks the connective tissue within the body. The syndrome is caused when a glycoprotein forms elastic fibers within the tissue – most commonly in the lungs, heart valves, and aorta – causing abnormal function of the vascular system.

It can also attack the skeletal system, eyes, and nervous system. The most serious diagnosis comes when the degeneration attacks the heart.

Outwardly Gray is a typical teen. He likes to hangout, eat cheeseburgers, and play video games. He loves his church, has a talent for public speaking, and says he loves ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich.

Both Austin and Gray have had their career cut short with the most severe of diagnosis’.

**********

Shooting the basketball in his room or on his mini-hoop, Gray started playing the game early.

As he grew the time spent on the court became more serious.

“In North Carolina, it was more of rec league ball,” Gray said. “I always wanted to be in the NBA and that was the huge goal.

“I didn’t think too much of my future in North Carolina until moving to South Carolina where I played rec ball there.”

The desire to play grew as his aptitude did.

The fire was stoked when the family moved to Cypress, Texas when Gray was 10.

Being homeschooled, Gray quickly had to adapt to how competitive basketball was in the Greater Houston Area.

Despite being around the game the entirety of his young life he still had to learn the basic fundamentals. He also had to overcome the struggles that came from not having classmates as teammates.

“I tried to figure out how I was going to stay in the loop with the kids,” Gray said. “I wanted to see how I was going to hang around the kids playing AAU. These kids were going to training camps all over.”

Owen’s dad, Rod, did research on some homeschools around the city of Houston. One school that caught the family’s attention was Homeschool Christian Youth Association.

A familiar name from his former homestate as well as its good reputation pushed Gray to the team.

North Carolina recruit Justin Jackson was the star at HCYA during the time.

“The school seemed very competitive,” the elder Gray said. “Justin was getting looked at by UNC. Then I thought maybe there is some competitive basketball with homeschoolers for kids.”

Gray appeared at some basketball practices for HCYA when he was 12 and found out that the school was competitive.

He also found that he could fit in.

“They were playing teams like St. John’s, Episcopal, and big time private schools,” he said. “They have kids that are in the NBA now.”

After only two years at HYCA, Gray’s basketball career was over.

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OwenGray220It was serendipitous in many ways.

Gray was diagnosed with Marfan the very day that Austin took center stage.

While devastated there was hope. And a famous face to look up to.

“Okay, what is it,” Gray said. “What’s next.”

The doctor tied to explain.

“Well the bad news is the tests came back positive, you do have Marfan, but your heart is not as enlarged for heart surgery yet,” the Gray’s recalled the words of the doctors.

The stages of grief kicked in.

“I cried for probably 20-30 seconds,” Gray said. “But then I realized God has a plan and it will be all good. I was still very mad and angry about not playing basketball anymore.”

Striving not to give up, Gray still wants to be around the game of basketball and being a coach is his main focus at this point.

“Growing up I liked John Calipari, Roy Williams, and Coach Drew,” Gray said. “Coach Drew is a big influence on my life.”

Scott Drew has invited the Gray family to visit Baylor practices.

“The thing that spoke to me as parent is how the coach had a servant heart,” Rod Gray said. “Most coaches at a high level aren’t like that. It is not like they are rude because it is business.

“Every coach and player was nice to us by shaking our hands.”

The family-oriented team inspired the Gray’s.

Drew has invited Owen to sit with him and the staff to watch Baylor basketball film.

“They pray after practice,” Rod Gray said. “Even in the film room, they picked a player out to pray and even the player prayed for Owen.”

Meeting Isaiah Austin – and how the relationship transformed to an everlasting friendship – has become a special moment for the family.

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Aaron Thomas, a friend of Rod Gray, first introduced the two.

Thomas is a season ticket holder for the Bear’s basketball and football team. It was during the first football game at McLane Stadium that he saw Austin at the concession stand. He approached, armed with the knowledge that Owen has Marfan, too.

“Hey, could you call my friend,” Thomas recalled asking Austin flatly. “He just found out he has Marfan syndrome.”

“Isaiah just said, ‘Yeah, sure man’.”

It was a call that seemed natural on both ends.

Owen recalls the first time they talked.

“He was just like, ‘Hey what’s up man’ in a deep voice,” Owen said.

“I was like, ‘Who is this?’ and then we talked for a while. It was cool.”

The unbelievable feeling was surreal after finding out it was Isaiah Austin.

Owen said that it was something special to have someone reach out.

“I just heard that you found out you have Marfan syndrome,” Austin said. “I am just calling saying I am praying for you to get through it.”

After speaking with Austin, that is when Gray started thinking about the Isaiah Austin foundation.

Being able to find out how to help people with the syndrome is the positive approach to the situation that Gray had imagined he’d find.

With more research, Gray discovered the foundation was hosting a dinner.

Two months before the dinner the family was fortunate enough to raise enough money to donate significantly to the foundation.

With the help from family and friends, they raised over $10,000.

The plan was to have kids from the Texas Children Hospital with Marfan Syndrome to attend the dinner.

A week before dinner, the family raised over $50,000 and had three tables reserved.

“I kept thinking that I have to invite more people,” Gray said. “I was going to have a whole empty table left.”

Gray was able to have his own foundation as one of the three sponsors for the dinner.

The Gray’s youth pastor came, friends, and two children with Marfan syndrome and their families were in attendance.

Reading the brochure and seeing his name with a full page ad was an indescribably feeling for Owen.

During the event came another.

“I would like honor one person at the dinner — Owen Gray,” Austin said.

After being honored by Austin and Coach Drew, Gray received an autographed ball from the Baylor team and an ovation from the crowd.

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OwenAustin250This year, Owen will be hosting several fund raising and social events in Houston to raise money, awareness and bring the Marfan community together through the Marfan Foundation.

The family said that awareness of Marfan Syndrome is still at a low level and everyone should check for signs of it.

This disorder is more predominant in people with features like long arms, legs, and fingers; being tall and thin body type, curved spine, flat feet, and those who are more flexible than others.

Isaiah Austin has been offered a position with the NBA by commissioner Adam Silver contingent on his graduation from Baylor.

Owen Gray and his family have been invited to New York for the 2015 NBA Draft as a guest of Austin and the league.

MORE ON MARFAN: The Isaiah Austin Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides support for the awareness and research of Marfan syndrome and those affected by it.

Established in 2014 by Baylor University college basketball star Isaiah Austin, the Foundation will also support related disorders and other charitable causes.

Its mission is to inspire others to DREAM AGAIN. Visit his site by clicking here.

Before the founding of The Marfan Foundation in 1981, Marfan syndrome was largely unknown or misunderstood, but our tireless efforts have led to many life-changing advances in our fight for victory over Marfan syndrome and related disorders. We tirelessly advance the research for treatments that save lives and dramatically enhance quality of life for affected people. We provide a supportive community for everyone affected by Marfan syndrome and related disorders. We always have the latest and most accurate information, and we educate everyone—from patients and families to medical professionals and the general public—about Marfan syndrome and related disorders.

Click here to learn about the Marfan Foundation and its life-saving work.



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