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 it.