December 08, 1997

Big Ike was worn out. He wanted sleep. Who knew stardom could be
so exhausting? Still, he dialed the number right there, sitting
in his truck in the driveway, because this was the only way to
cap off such a night. Yes, right after the game Big Ike had been
his usual humble self with reporters, even though his 33 points
and 22 rebounds for the Miami Heat in its 108-104 win over the
Toronto Raptors on Nov. 22 had gone down as one of the best
all-around games ever by a Heat center and the most
eyebrow-raising performance by an NBA pivotman this season. He's
not the kind to brag. But after the drive home from the arena,
after replaying the game in his head all the way down U.S. 1 to
his house in Coconut Grove, Isaac Austin sat alone in the
darkness and allowed himself this one indulgence.

As soon as the phone rang, Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone knew
who it was. He grinned then, and he grinned when he heard
Austin's voice, and he grinned even more when he heard, from
more than 2,000 miles away, Big Ike smoothing out the wrinkles
in the stat sheet. "He read it all to me: how many minutes he
played [43], what he shot from the field [41.4%], how many
rebounds, how many offensive rebounds [10]," Malone says. "But
he wasn't gloating. He was excited. And I just laughed. When he
read those numbers to me, I had a feeling that I ain't ever had.
It's awesome. Because what he's got coming to him is due. He
made it due."

Malone goes on and on: how proud he is of Ike, how tough it has
been for Ike--and soon his voice gains speed and volume, and
he's laughing out loud because, really, it is one of the best
stories he has ever told. "I love talking about this guy,"
Malone finally says. That's mostly because he's Austin's closest
friend, but Malone is far from alone in his thinking. So far
during this NBA season, there has been no fairy tale more
endearing than the unlikely rise of Austin, a two-time NBA
washout who only two seasons ago was dodging thrown cigarettes
and coins in the Turkish pro league and who last week led Miami
to win-streak-stopping victories over the Los Angeles Lakers and
the Orlando Magic--not to mention a 10-5 record that through
Sunday had the Heat in a first-place tie in the Atlantic
Division with the New Jersey Nets and the New York Knicks.

In a league in which first impressions last forever, the 6'10"
Austin has been a revelation: Once labeled too fat and too lazy,
he is, at the ripe age of 28, emerging as a force. Last season,
after shedding nearly 80 pounds to get to his current weight of
265, Austin moved into the starting lineup at midseason when
Miami's regular center, Alonzo Mourning, was lost for 13 games
with a plantar fascia injury in his right foot. Austin averaged
15.2 points and 8.5 rebounds as the Heat went 9-4. As a result
of averaging 9.7 points and 5.8 rebounds for the season, he won
the NBA's Most Improved Player award. This season, while again
subbing for Mourning, who had surgery in September for a
partially torn patellar tendon in his left knee, Austin has been
making a case for becoming the award's first back-to-back
winner; through Sunday he was averaging 18.6 points and 9.6
rebounds. "Going from being out of the league to one of the top
centers in the NBA?" says Miami forward P.J. Brown. "That's an
unbelievable transformation."

No, Austin isn't in the same class with centers like the Knicks'
Patrick Ewing, the Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon, the Los
Angeles Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal and the San Antonio Spurs'
David Robinson. But with his surprising agility, delicately
effective hook shot, above-average passing and nose for the ball
around the hoop, he could start for most teams in the NBA.
Though the Heat's D isn't as formidable with Austin in the
lineup--very few centers can match Mourning's defensive
prowess--Miami's offense occasionally seems to operate more
fluidly with Austin than with the more deliberate Mourning.

Austin has never felt so good about his play or himself,
especially after his last six games through Sunday, during which
he averaged 22.8 points and 10.2 rebounds. "Last year I was
labeled a backup, and I was a backup, but this year I'm a
player," he says. "I've become the player I always thought I
was. That comes from the work, the adversity I had to face, the
avenues I had to take to get here--from thinking there's nothing
that can hold me back. There's no stopping me now. I've just got
to do it."

Whether he will continue to do it as a member of the Heat is a
question. This season is the second in a two-year deal that pays
Austin the comparatively paltry salary of $384,000, and with the
showcase provided by Mourning's absence, Austin has never been
more marketable. Heat president and coach Pat Riley will soon
face the nice problem of trying to fit Mourning, who is expected
back later this month, and Austin together on the floor for long
stretches. But Riley will be hamstrung in trying to hold on to
Austin, because Big Ike has not played three seasons for the
Heat; thus he's ineligible for the so-called Larry Bird
exception, which would enable Miami to go over the salary cap in
an effort to retain his services. Confronted with an inability
to win a bidding war for Austin next summer, Riley may try to
trade him this season. Wherever he winds up, for the first time
in his life Austin stands to make millions. "The sky is his
limit," says Paco Belassen, Austin's longtime--and now

Early in his career, though, the only thing boundless about
Austin was his appetite. "I ate everything: burgers, shakes,
McDonald's fries... ," Austin says. "I liked the Wendy's double
cheeseburger." Selected by Utah in the second round of the 1991
draft after playing at Arizona State, a pudgy Austin spent two
unproductive years on mop-up duty before being waived in '93. He
still hasn't forgiven the Jazz for that. "I passed every weight
clause, and they never gave me a chance to get on the floor,"
Austin says. "I felt they cheated me. I was wrong, later, in
letting myself balloon, but they were wrong for playing with my
livelihood. If they didn't want me in the beginning, why sign
me? That was a waste."

Yes and no. Austin arrived in Utah with about as much subtlety
as a bear on a bicycle. During the preseason of his rookie year
he even trash-talked superstar Malone. "He was being a smart-ass
in the locker room, telling guys, 'I could handle that Mailman.
I'm going to show you guys today in practice,'" Malone says. "So
we get up on court, and I dunked on him, and Coach [Jerry Sloan]
got on him: 'Fight! Don't drop your head like a jackass!' Ike
and I started laughing, and that broke the ice."

The two men became extraordinarily close, so close that people
sometimes would snipe that Austin was trying to be Malone. "He's
like a brother," Austin says, except that Malone insists that
Austin is better to him than some of his own brothers. Malone
made Ike and Denise Austin the godparents of his second
daughter, Kylee, and it isn't ceremonial; if Karl and his wife,
Kay, should die, the Austins would raise the girl themselves.
The two players have spent summers working out on Malone's
Arkansas ranch or fishing in Alaska. They talk almost daily. "I
know it's corny, but it's a friendship far beyond basketball,"
Malone says. "When I get off the phone, I say, 'I love you,
man,' and he'll say, 'I love you, too.'"

After he was waived by Utah, Austin needed Malone's support as
the disappointments began to pile up. In March 1994 Austin
hooked on with the Philadelphia 76ers, but his rights were
renounced after the season. "The skills were there, but he
didn't have the stamina," says then Philadelphia coach Fred
Carter. "He was 30, 40 pounds overweight, and he was really
breathing heavy going up and down the floor. And let me tell
you: The trainer was going to be the only one giving him
mouth-to-mouth." Austin didn't help his reputation when he
walked out on the Oklahoma City Cavalry of the CBA and went home
to Salt Lake City. Malone was there for him then and even pushed
him to call Sloan to ask for another chance with the Jazz. Sloan
wasn't interested.

It got worse. After a year playing for a team in Lyon, France,
Austin hit bottom in the summer of 1995, when he weighed 340
pounds and flunked a physical with the Cleveland Cavaliers. His
career was dead. Austin was stunned. "I didn't think I was that
heavy, but I was," Austin says. "It was heartbreaking."

But if he expected more coddling from Malone, he didn't get it.
For years the Mailman had tried to see things through Austin's
eyes. "The days he'd call me when he was down in the dumps, the
days he was playing pickup games, the days he was just hanging
on? I always tried to make him feel like it was happening to
me," Malone says. However, in the summer of 1995 Malone let
Austin have it. He told him to stop blaming everyone else, to
take responsibility and get in shape. Austin listened quietly,
looked at his friend and said only two words: "I will."

"When he walked out that door," Malone says. "I said to myself,
Isaac Austin is ready."

Austin flew to Phoenix and put himself in the hands of fitness
guru Mack Newton, who demanded strict obedience and eliminated
burgers and fries. Austin began working out four hours a day,
drinking only protein shakes for breakfast and lunch, and eating
salads sprinkled with lemon juice. He dropped 40 pounds in 40
days. Then, searching for a place where he would play a lot,
Austin went from cold turkey to Izmir, Turkey, and a hoops
lifestyle at odds with everything he'd ever known. "Very tough,"
he says, remembering the games played amid debris tossed from
the stands. "Poverty, everybody down, same thing every day. The
crowds were rowdy. They'd spit on you." But all the odd road
trips in Asia, all the strange tongues and the loose chickens
under the stands made him resolve that if he ever got another
chance to play in the NBA, he wouldn't blow it.

But who would take him on faith? Riley, for one, wanted proof.
In the summer of 1996 he gave Austin, weighing 290, a look
during one of the Heat's brutal minicamps. "I go through it, and
I'm dying; it's unbelievable," Austin says. "But I always
thought: Don't give up. No matter how hard it is, don't ever
give up. They always want to see you finish. It didn't matter
how fast. As long as I finished."

Riley liked what he saw. Miami would have another minicamp the
following month, and Austin was welcome--if he lost 10 more
pounds and 2% body fat (which would bring him down to about 9%).
If not? Don't bother coming. Austin hit the targets. "I never
wanted to be a failure," he says. The Heat signed him on Oct. 2,
1996, and when Mourning was injured last February, Austin seized
his chance.

This year he looks as gaunt as an El Greco portrait--and he's
more productive. "He keeps reaching deeper and deeper and
deeper," Riley says. "Ike is starting to do things that probably
even surprise him. He's really come a long way."

Three nights after his big game against the Raptors, Austin
scored 19 points while grabbing nine rebounds in the 103-86 win
over the Lakers (who were playing without the injured O'Neal).
But he isn't ready to congratulate himself. "It's not time," he
says. "Everything is not accomplished." (In fact, the Heat's
weak early-season schedule, and O'Neal's absence, meant that
Austin hadn't gone up against any of the league's best centers.)
He wants to help Miami win a title this year. He wants to see
his stock soar. He wants Utah to call and make him an offer. "I
want to be on top," he says. "I want to see every team calling
me, instead of me worrying about getting a contract. Once it
gets to that, then I can say, 'I've done it.'"

Big Ike's appetite never changed, you see. Only what he feeds

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO [Isaac Austin and others in game] COLOR PHOTO: NORM PERDUE Best pal Malone has offered Austin a shoulder to cry on--and given him a timely kick in the butt. [Isaac Austin and Karl Malone]

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