By Kim Constantinesco
Just because there might be a deficiency in communication doesn’t mean there has to be a defect in human connection.
Anthony Ianni, 26, is living proof. As the first person who falls on the autism spectrum to play division I college basketball, Ianni has exposed collegiate sports, more specifically Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo, to a unique type of player — one who sometimes has trouble with the most important part of communication — hearing what isn’t said.
Diagnosed with pervasive development disorder, or a higher form of autism, at the age of 4, Ianni struggled most with communication and socialization when he was younger.
“In school, I had trouble understanding nouns, verbs, idioms, and sarcasm,” Ianni said. “For example, if someone said to me when I was in first grade ‘It’s raining cats and dogs,’ I would literally think that there was a dog or a cat falling from the sky, or like ‘living on cloud 9,’ I would think that there was actually a cloud nine and somebody was living on it.”
Today, Ianni is better with understanding language, but he still struggles with sarcasm and deciphering whether someone is joking around or being serious.
Despite what doctors told his parents, Ianni not only graduated from high school, but he went on to graduate from college with a degree in sociology, and he even reached the Final Four with the Spartans in 2010, and won two Big Ten titles (2010 and 2012).
It certainly wasn’t a smooth ride getting to those milestones, however.
Fear of the Unknown
Anywhere from 65 to 90% of children with autism are bullied growing up.
When Ianni was diagnosed in 1993, the general population didn’t know much about autism. The early 90’s was more of a time for the ADHD diagnosis, and in fact, that’s what doctors diagnosed Ianni with at first.
Regardless of the diagnosis, kids knew Ianni was different, even as early as first grade.
“I had a fifth grader who stuck up for me and then he betrayed me because he knew everything about me,” Ianni said. “He and his buddies tricked me into sticking my tongue on a frozen pole at recess one day.”
Then later on in his elementary years, the now 6’9″ Ianni got teased for being significantly bigger than everybody else.
“There was one kid who teased me about being bigger than everyone else when I was in 6th grade, and I was contemplating going to school one day, and just knocking this kid out because I was so sick of it.”
Ianni has enough stories to occupy hours, and so do his parents.
Ianni learned from his parents in high school that doctors and psychiatrists made comments about how he was barely going to graduate from high school, how he was never going to go to college or be an athlete, and how he was going to be placed into an institution.
“My dad stood up to those people and said, ‘I respect what you’re doing because it’s your job, but as far as your words go, our son is going to graduate high school, he will go to college, and he will graduate.’ My parents had really high expectations for me.”
On the Court
Ianni had high expectations for himself as well. Growing up in East Lansing, Michigan, he always dreamed of playing basketball for Izzo at Michigan State.
He spent his first two years at division II powerhouse, Grand Valley State, where he kept his autism a secret mostly, because he didn’t know how people were going to treat him. Aside from his roommate knowing, only two other teammates knew about his struggles and offered him help on and off the court.
While there, he even beat Michigan State during his freshman year, to claim an official 1-0 record against Coach Izzo.
Two years in, Ianni felt like a change was necessary.
“I left because some of the coaches there didn’t quite understand my situation because it’s not every day a college basketball coach is going to have a kid on the autism spectrum on their team,” Ianni said. “It’s very rare. I had nothing against those coaches whatsoever. I still continue to have a close relationship with every single one of them.”
It was time for Ianni to pursue his ultimate childhood dream — suiting up in white and green for the Spartans and playing for the one and only, Tom Izzo.
He got a spot as a walk-on, and worked his tail off until Izzo offered him a full-ride scholarship just before his senior season. It was also during that season that Ianni told his whole story to his teammates.
The team embraced him.
“There’s a reason why Tom Izzo is great, the best at what he does,” Ianni said. “Not just because of coaching, but who he is as a person. He knew what was said about me and how many doubters I had in my life. If I didn’t understand something in practice, he would pull me off to the side, and walk me through the play himself. Same thing with our assistant coaches at Michigan State.”
A degree and a fulfilling college basketball career later, Ianni was ready for his next step.
One in 68 children in the United States has autism. The need to speak to these children and to their peers is critical, and that’s why Ianni works as a full-time employee and national motivational speaker for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
In his two years since graduating, he’s spoken to over 115,000 students in the state. Last year alone, he went to over 300 schools. The number of children that he’s reached goes beyond that, however. His Relentless Tour takes him out of state to spread his message.
Once of his main messages to students is that everything comes full circle, so be careful how you treat others.
“That 5th grader I was telling you about, he came up to me after one of our basketball games, and asked if I could autograph a basketball for him,” Ianni said. “He said it was for his little brother, but he didn’t have a brother or sister. He just wanted that ball for himself, but didn’t say it. Then the kid in 6th grade who constantly made fun of me for being bigger than everyone else, he had to guard me in little league basketball and I ended up scoring 20 points on the guy. When I went to school Monday to shake his hand, he didn’t shake my hand. He just turned and walked away because I got the best of him.”
The other message from Ianni is rather simple: LYD, which stands for Live Your Dreams.
“At the end of the day, we don’t dream our lives, we live our dreams,” Ianni said.
Other than Temple Grandin, the autism community doesn’t have a major face of the disorder. Ianni would like to change that.
“If you look behind her, there’s no one really there for the community to look up to,” Ianni said. “When she steps down and stops doing what she does, I want to be that guy. I want to carry the torch after her. I don’t only want to be the hero that kids and parents look to, but I want to be the idol that the autism community needs.”
Ianni and his wife just had their first child, a son, three weeks ago. Being an inspiration undoubtedly starts there for Ianni, but his literal and figurative wing span reaches much further.
He’s become a master of communication, both in what’s said and what isn’t.