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Autism & Basketball: To the role model who got me to where I am today

This guest post is by Anthony Ianni, a national motivation speaker, as well as a national autism and anti-bully advocate.This post is part of an initiative on our site called “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” which highlights the experiences of individuals with autism from their perspectives. 

Throughout life we’ve all have had a hero, idol or role model in our life that we can look up too. Whether that person is a super hero like Batman, Superman, a great athlete like Kevin Durant, Mike Trout, Calvin Johnson. Heck maybe it’s a great talented movie star or musician like Justin Timberlake, Eminem, Bradley Cooper, or Denzel Washington.

Throughout my life I’ve had a lot of role models and heroes I’ve looked up too. As a kid I looked up to Michael Jordan not because of great he was but because of how hard he worked. My mother and father are other  heroes in my life because of how they taught me to never give up and to believe in myself no matter what I did. More importantly because of how much they believed in me, how they never gave up on me and how they sacrificed so much for me to be the person that I am today is the major reason as to why they’re my heroes. However there’s one role model in my life that I haven’t told a whole lot about until now, and that’s my coach at Michigan State Tom Izzo.

The one question I get asked the most every time I travel and speak, besides how tall I am, is “What’s he like?’ and the he that people are referring to is Coach Izzo. I tell folks all the time that Coach Izzo is the most intense person I’ve ever been around on the court. He pushes his team to the limit every day and he’s the best at what he does and that is coaching. If you don’t believe me just watch his teams in March or take a look at his resume. Off the court, he is the greatest person that I know. He cares so much about his players, past or present, and he wants them all to be successful. Even if he has a player that goes to the NBA draft early he wants them to make sure that they get their degree down the road because there’s more to life than sports. He treats every player on his team the same as everyone else and he changes people every day, because of who he is. My former teammate and good friend Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors put it best, you come to MSU as a kid, and you walk out in four years as a man and a better person because of coach.

Coach Izzo did the same with me. Not only did he change me as a person, but in my opinion he saved my life. During the fall of my Redshirt Junior year my Uncle, who was also my God Parent, was shot and killed. His death really hit me hard for a while that year. My priorities at that time in life were Faith, Family, School and then basketball, but after my uncle’s death they changed from Faith, Family, Basketball, then school. I had the worst year ever academically in my life because my mind was in so many different places that year.

The night before we started spring/summer workouts & classes we had a team meeting. During that meeting coach talked about how some of the guys needed to step up academically and he used me as one example. I then got out of my seat and chewed him out in front of the whole team. My teammates looked at me like what are you doing?? After my outburst coach called me into his office and I broke down as soon as I got in there because I felt so awful about what I did and how I felt like my life was heading south fast. He looked in my eyes and said,  “AI, I'm going to tell you this once and only once. I know your story, I know what was said about you when you were five years old, I know what people have said about you. You have a year left here and I want you to have the best year in school and in basketball. You know a year from today, I want to see you walk across the stage, get your degree and walk off that stage. And you know who the first person is going to be waiting for you to give you a hug? It's going be me.'" I left that office that night upset with myself but I felt relieved and I had a new mind set.

One year later after that meeting, I had the best year in school and also had a pretty successful year in hoops as well. My graduation day on May 5th, 2012 had finally arrived and I proved every doubter in my life wrong that day. The great part about that day was after I got my degree, I walked to the end of the stage and who was there waiting for me to give me a handshake and hug? It was Coach Izzo just as he promised before. This is why Coach Izzo is one of my role models today. Not only because of  how he’s impacted my life, but because he’s taught me to do the same and make an impact on others not just in my hometown, but throughout the country and in my community that I represent 24 hours 7 days a week and that’s the autism Community. In the end there’s the Coach K, John Calipari, Roy Williams and Jim Boehim’s of the world. In my opinion though, there’s only one Tom Izzo and not only am I proud to say that he was my Coach, but I’m also proud to say he is one of my role models that I look up too. 

Have a story you want to share for our “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” series? Email us at InOurOwnWords@Autismspeaks.org.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.