One day in the weight room, Michigan State University basketball player Anthony Ianni couldn’t take any more ribbing from his teammate, future NBA champion Draymond Green. Although Green had intended it as a good-natured joke about Ianni supposedly needing extra conditioning, Ianni took it seriously. Green said if Ianni couldn’t take a joke, he shouldn’t be on the team. A shoving match ensued. That’s when the team’s strength and conditioning coach, Mike Vorkapich, explained to Green that Ianni is on the autism spectrum, which makes it hard for him to understand when someone is joking and when they are not. Ianni had kept his autism from most of his teammates. He was initially upset about the disclosure, but it cemented lasting understanding and friendship. The first college basketball player in Division I identified as being on the autism spectrum, Ianni is now a Michigan State graduate and a motivational speaker. He shares his life story in a new memoir, Centered: Autism, Basketball, and One Athlete’s Dreams, written with Rob Keast.
“A couple days later, [Green] came back to me,” Ianni remembers. “He asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about it?’ I said I did not know how he was going to respond. So often, people in my life, they found out and treated me differently. He looked at me and said, ‘Kudos to you, look at how far you’ve come.’ From that day forward, it changed our relationship forever, not just as teammates but friends.”
In the book, Ianni reflects on his childhood diagnosis of autism and a prognosis that he would finish high school but not be able to play sports or go to college, and that he would have to live in a group home when he grew up. Instead, he went on to play at the highest level of college basketball, alongside and against future NBA stars, with the Spartans from 2009 to 2012. He sees similarities between his journey to Michigan State and the football narrative of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger at Notre Dame. Today, Ianni is a husband and father of two who met his wife, Kelly, in a serendipitous moment during his college days. His six-year-old son is getting interested in the NBA and likes hearing about the unexpected family connection to Green.
“[Green] and I always make sure to stay in touch about how our families are doing, how our kids are doing,” Ianni says. “It’s not just Draymond I’m in touch with, [but] all my teammates I had. One thing I learned, Michigan State’s a family, it really is – the same guys in the locker room for three, four years, we fight like a family would, joke around like a family would.”
It’s that sense of inclusion that Ianni has looked for since childhood. He writes about difficult moments as a boy, with some classmates bullying him outright and one pretending to be his friend before setting him up for humiliation. Some of the bullying was because of his autism – classmates mocked him for things like continually repeating lines from the Three Stooges – and some of it was due to his height (he eventually grew to 6ft 9in).
Nowadays, when he meets with youngsters as a motivational speaker, he discusses his experiences getting bullied: “The bigger goal is to let students know, show them they are not alone … you know what it’s like, you’re there for them.”
As he explains, “I show people, tell people it was tough for me, but at the end of the day, I was like a much stronger individual.”
Ianni thanks his parents, Greg and Jamie; sister Allison; teachers and coaches for helping him through the tough times. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has been a longtime presence in his life. Ianni’s father – a longtime Michigan State athletic department employee who retired as deputy athletic director – introduced his son to the celebrated coach of the Spartans when the younger Ianni was a child.
As a kid, Ianni unintentionally took Izzo’s place on the team bus. The coach chatted with his seatmate on the ride to a practice, then gently made the youngster atone by helping out the team at the gym. Ianni grabbed rebounds and threw them back to the players, heightening his early love of Michigan State and his desire to someday play basketball there.
Of Izzo, Ianni says, “I probably learned more of life from that man than a lot of other coaches I had in my life – you treat people with respect, how you want to be treated, everywhere you go.”
Ianni played for an Okemos High School team that went on a deep state-tournament run, but when it came time for college, his first stop was Division II Grand Valley State. Yet he grew frustrated and decided not to continue playing basketball there. Michigan State accepted him, but he would have to walk onto the team and follow NCAA transfer rules of sitting out his first season. He ended up not only earning a spot, but receiving a full scholarship, which made him think of Rudy.
“I was officially here, officially part of the Michigan State basketball program,” Ianni remembers of the day he went into the locker room and saw his jersey. “The coach awarded me a full-ride scholarship. I went to my car … I immediately started to cry.”
At Michigan State, Ianni became captain of the scout team and played the starters intensely in practices, which he says prepared them well for the challenges of the regular season and beyond. In his and Green’s senior season in 2011-12, the team got to meet US president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama when the Spartans kicked off their schedule aboard an aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson.
That season, Green was the top player in the Big Ten conference and the team won the Big Ten tournament. The Spartans reached the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament, but lost to Louisville. However, Ianni left a lasting legacy on the program – including what happened after his unexpected run-in with Green.
“My teammates asked more and more questions about what autism is,” Ianni says. “The coaching staff asked what autism is. They wanted to know more. They were probably going to end up talking to somebody with autism again down the road who’s a little bit different [from me]. There are differences inside the autism spectrum. I’m very high-functioning. Maybe [they will meet] an individual who’s either low-functioning or mid-functioning.”
As he explains, his coaches and teammates wanted to know how autism “impacts my life. They wanted to be educated … They did not really know what autism was when they first found out they were going to be around a teammate with autism.”
Today, in addition to being a motivational speaker and author, Ianni also coaches kids with autism in the very game he used to play. He runs a summer basketball camp for autistic youth.
In the book, he writes that individual sports such as running or swimming are often recommended for children with autism. He encourages their parents to consider team sports as well.
“I’m a big fan of it,” Ianni says. “Individuals with autism want one thing in life – to be friends with somebody. You can be a friend with sports … be part of a team in basketball, softball, baseball, football, hockey, whatever the case may be.”
As he reflects from his own life experience, “it was not just teammates that I got to be around, but a friendship bond I’m going to have forever.”