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From Autism to the Final Four

Anthony Ianni | Michigan State Basketball

It seems that whenever people in society hear the word autism, they quickly think of a label, of a preconceived image of what autism looks like. They hold doubts that those individuals will ever achieve anything of substance, let alone become elite athletes. After all, how could they handle the crowd noise, or remember the plays? How would they be able to keep focus and maintain their pace in a high-stakes competitive environment? If you think this seems difficult, you’d be right. If you think this is impossible, I’m here to tell you otherwise.

My name is Anthony Ianni, I am the first NCAA Division I basketball player to have an autism diagnosis, and I played for Coach Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans.

When I was four years old, I was diagnosed with Pervasive-Developmental Disorder (PDD-NOS), which is a higher function type of Autism spectrum disorder. I was diagnosed in 1993, and during that time period, autism was hardly talked about, and even less so understood, and consequently, many kids were mistakenly diagnosed with ADD.

 “Your son does have autism and we’ve come to the conclusion that he’ll barely graduate from high school, never go to college, never be an athlete, and eventually when he’s done with high school, he’ll end up in a group institution with other autistic individuals like himself.” 

Those are the exact words the doctors told my parents when I was five years old. All of the things I was never supposed to do, all of the things that they told my parents would be beyond what I could ever accomplish. According to those doctors, my fate was sealed. 

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According to those doctors…

         Just before the start of my freshman year at Okemos High School, my parents brought me into our living room and they told me the story of what those doctors said that my “future” was going to be. It was difficult to process. At first, all I could think about was “Why would anyone say this about a 5-year-old? I hadn’t developed different classroom skills yet? Like, who would seriously say this about someone’s child?” It was tough to hear all of these things about myself. There was a reason why I was bullied so tremendously throughout elementary and middle school. There was a reason why people doubted me every day early on in my life. And when my parents told me what was said about me when I was five, it all made sense. I was determined to go out and shut all the doubters and haters up.  I wasn’t going to let autism define me; I was going to do the impossible.

         After working hard my freshman year in high school on the court and in the classroom, things were starting to head in the right direction. I played my first summer of AAU ball for the Michigan Mustangs out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and before I knew it, I went from playing on the freshman team to the varsity team in just one year of high school. During my time on the varsity basketball team at Okemos, I won two league titles, two district titles, a regional title, and went to the state finals my junior year where we were defeated 85-84, in double overtime. It was a tough loss, but also one of the best games in my career, where I had 23 points and 9 rebounds. The hard work and preparation paid off when I was named all-state in both my junior and senior seasons. And after all of the time I’d spent working and improving myself, the idea of playing basketball beyond high school became much more of a reality when I began to be recruited by schools like Valparaiso, Toledo, Oakland University, Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State, St. Joseph, Grand Valley State, Eastern Michigan, and Central Michigan.

         Michigan State was always my dream school and where I always wanted to play. When I was coming out of high school, Coach Izzo offered me the chance to be a walk on and earn a scholarship down the road, but instead I took the full ride scholarship offer to Grand Valley State. Part of the reason why I took the offer from Grand Valley was not only for the full ride, but because it was also a way for me to move on from Okemos and become my own person. And for someone like me who’s on the spectrum, that’s was a very big step for me to become my own person; to live on my own, to do my own laundry, and get out of my comfort zones that I had in life. My first two years at GVSU were some of the best times of my life. The relationships that I made not only with some of my teammates, but the other athletes and administrators are ones that I still hold near and dear to my heart today. 

On the court, we had our ups and our downs. Though we went 36-1 my freshman year, my sophomore year was a downer, partially because things just weren’t working for me on the court. Truthfully, I think it came down to communication issues with some of the coaches. Some of them were great, but some just didn’t know how to coach someone like me, because, let’s be honest, you don’t see a lot of college basketball players with autism. Some of my struggles I had with understanding jokes, processing sarcasm, and taking things very literally really affected me a lot. Some of the coaches were sarcastic with me and didn’t explain things well to me, and I really struggled with that. I was miserable, and I decided to make a move. A move to leave Grand Valley, and go to the place where I wanted to be at from day one.

It was time to go home to Michigan State.

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         After I met with Coach Izzo, he told me that he was going to push me to work harder than I ever have before in my life and that I was going to have to earn a lot of respect from some people. I told him it wasn’t going to be a problem because I love hard work and challenges; hell, I’ve been challenged my whole life! I had to sit out my junior year due to the transfer rules, but I got to be a part of winning the Big Ten Title and make a run to the Final Four in Indianapolis. My redshirt junior year, I finally got to suit up in my first ever game for Spartan Nation, and I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget running out of the tunnel with the band playing our fight song; I took a lot of pride wearing the green and white every time I stepped onto that floor. I even scored my first points as a Michigan State Spartan, with the assist coming from none other than MSU legend Draymond Green! Fast forward to my senior year- not only did we win the Big Ten Regular Season and tournament Titles after coming off a down year (which is very rare at MSU), but I was also put on full scholarship before the season as well. I had finally achieved my dream of not only playing for Michigan State, but to be on a full athletic scholarship for the school that I dreamt of going too since I was a kid. Not only was I on scholarship, but I was also told that I had become the first Division 1 Basketball player in NCAA history with autism. To this day, I hold that honor with pride and I’m even more proud I did it at Michigan State.

         Now as much fun I had wearing the Green and White and being a part of some great championship teams, there was one other experience that took the cake. That experience came on May 5th, 2012 at the Breslin Center. I got to wear something green that day, but it wasn’t a jersey. It was a green gown with a cap; it was my graduation day. A day the doctors said would never come for the kid with autism, the kid who was meant to end up in a group home. A day that will never leave my mind. I’ll never forget walking across the stage and seeing my family in the stands, watching me receive my bachelor’s degree in Sociology. After I walked towards the end of that stage, I received a big hug from Coach Izzo, who earlier in the year had promised me he’d be there on my day of proving the doubters and haters wrong again. 

         Today, I am a national motivational speaker, traveling all over the country telling my story of overcoming obstacles and being relentless. I want to inspire people to achieve all of their goals in life, despite whatever challenges or obstacles may be in their way. I represent three and a half million people in our country who have autism, and I’m proud to say that I put my community on my back every day because the autism community is one filled with people who can do extraordinary things, and frankly, this community deserves the attention and respect of our society. It’s time for society to realize that there are some talented individuals on the autism spectrum- not even just in sports, but in music, art, and technology, too- and they are coming to show the world what they are capable of. I’m proud of how far we’ve come, and I can’t wait to continue to watch my community earn the respect it deserves.

         As I close this piece I’m proudly writing to Sideline, I wanted to take a minute to say some words to those who read this. To any athlete (or non-athlete) that has a dream or a goal in life to be the best at what they want to be, embrace that! Go out every day and do what you love to do simply because you’re passionate about it. However, if you have high expectations, dreams or goals for what you want to be great at, you need to be relentless every day, and attack those dreams, goals and expectations. You don’t sit in a chair hoping that your dreams and goals come to you, because that’s not how life works! That’s called the lazy approach, and I think sometimes we, as athletes, take that approach sometimes because of our god given abilities. Don’t be lazy, and don’t every take your abilities for granted in life. Be relentless in everything that you do in your life. Be relentless when you go to sleep, when you wake up, when you go to school, work, practice, play in a game, be relentless and go get those dreams and goals that you have in your life. I’ll be completely honest with everyone who reads this post; at the end of the day we don’t dream our lives…………. WE LIVE THEM! 

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