Inspirational words from an unlikely sports hero

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It sounded a bit strange when former Michigan State basketball player Anthony Ianni — who at 6-foot-9 and upwards of 250 pounds is a mountain of a man in size-18 shoes — said that he had battled problems far bigger than he.

And it sounded absurd when Ianni, a center on the Spartans’ 2012 Big-10 Conference championship team — now a motivational speaker and the very embodiment of power, courage and confidence — described to the audience of a couple hundred at the Newtown Youth and Family Services annual breakfast and awards ceremony Tuesday morning at Michael’s at the Grove, how fire drills in school used to terrify him. And how he was picked on so mercilessly as a youngster that he would stay up until all hours of the night being consoled by his family.

Those who came to hear Ianni speak about his playing days at Michigan State, alongside current Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green and under the tutelage of legendary coach Tom Izzo, would have to wait a few minutes. Because there was one heck of a story which led up to that.

When he was 4 years old, Ianni was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which is an Autism Spectrum Disorder. At that time, in the early 1990s, specialists knew only a fraction of what they know now about Autism — and there was only a fraction of the treatment options and support systems available to the families of children on the Spectrum. So Ianni’s prognosis was rather bleak.

“When I was 5 years old, a group of doctors and professionals told my parents, ‘Because your son does have a type of Autism, that basically means don’t expect him to do much or be much in life,’” Ianni began, “‘because he’s barely going to graduate from high school, he’s never going to go to college, he’s never going to be an athlete, and eventually, when he’s done with high school, he’ll end up being in a group institution with other Autistic kids like himself for the rest of his life.’

“My parents didn’t tell me that story until I was a freshman in high school, and that kind of became my motivation,” Ianni continued. “I was going to prove those people and the doctors and all the naysayers I had in my life wrong.”

He’s spent a lifetime doing just that.

As a senior at Okemos (Mich.) High School Ianni averaged 10.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game and led the Chiefs to the league championship and an appearance in the Class A state championship game, which they lost by one point in double-overtime. Ianni received fifth-team All-State recognition for his efforts, and went on to play two seasons at Division II Grand Valley State before transferring to Michigan State and walking onto Izzo’s basketball team. As per NCAA transfer rules, Ianni had to sit out the 2009-10 season at Michigan State, but he so impressed the Spartans coaches in the 2010-11 season that they awarded him a full scholarship for his senior year in 2011-12.

As crushing as Ianni’s initial diagnosis must certainly have been to his parents, they rallied around him, not knowing what the future might hold. They never let him use his affliction as an excuse, never let him quit when times were tough.

And in a life on the Spectrum, there were many of those times.

“My parents sacrificed so much for me, staying up until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning helping me with homework, staying up until the wee hours of the morning because I had such a bad day at school because of all the bullying and everything,” he said.

For Ianni, a “bad day” at school was far different from most other kids’ “bad days.”

“When I was in school growing up, I had a tough time with a lot of things,” he said. “Loud noises was one of them. I hated fire drills, hated tornado drills. My mom didn’t throw me a birthday party until I was 10 years old because of loud noises. I had a tough time understanding nouns, verbs, idioms. If somebody had told me it was raining cats and dogs outside when I was 5 years old, I would have literally walked out that door hoping a cat or a dog would fall from the sky.”

What helped Ianni the most through all his struggles was his support system — his family, his teachers, his coaches. His biggest fan all along was his older sister. She played college volleyball, first at the University of the Pacific in California, then back home at Michigan State.

“All the days I doubted myself, all the days I said ‘I can’t do this,’ or ‘I can’t do that,’ who picked me up every day and told me ‘You can do this’ and ‘You will do this.’ Who kept telling me that every day? It was my sister,” he said.

Ianni is proud to be the first known case of someone with Autism playing Division I men’s college basketball. He’s proud to be a husband and a father. And he’s proud, as a motivational speaker, to give a voice to the 3.5 million Americans who are on the Autism Spectrum.

In a quote posted on his website ( Ianni said, “A stat most people don’t know is that 65 to 90 percent of kids with Autism are the prime target for bullies. I myself was one of those victims when I was younger and it continued until I was a freshman in high school. After I heard this stat I knew I had to take action!”

As he wrapped up his presentation Tuesday morning, Ianni said, “I put 3.5 million people on my shoulders every day, because the ASD community needs a voice.”

Fortunately for the ASD community, Ianni has extraordinarily broad shoulders

See the article from NewsTimes here.