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 , what he shot from the field [41.4%], how many rebounds, how many offensive rebounds ," 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 NBAs 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 overjoyed—agent.
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.' "