6’9” former Michigan State center Anthony Ianni took college basketball to new heights as the first player known to be on the autism spectrum. Now, he’s one of the nation’s leading motivational speakers with a real-life message about changing the game by believing in yourself.
Pervasive Developmental Disorder, doctors said to five-year-old Anthony Ianni’s parents; sorry, but he won’t amount to much. Specialists confirmed: PDD is on the autism spectrum, so graduation from high school is doubtful, and college? Impossible.
Oh, and with this diagnosis, he will never play a sport.
You’ll be lucky, the medical professionals agreed, to find him a nice residential home for when he gets older.
The Iannis took their little boy, packed him in the car, and drove home. The family took a good, hard look at the facts and came to a conclusion of their own: Anthony would decide who he would be. Not doctors. Not specialists. Not the PDD.
And by the time he was seven years old, Anthony Ianni knew exactly what he wanted—to be a ballplayer for Michigan State University, the greatest college basketball team on Earth, coached by The Most Powerful Man in the Universe, Tom Izzo.
Baller, Shot Caller
For a child whose sensory sensitivities amplified sounds like end-of-quarter buzzers, multiple squeaking sneakers, and crowd chatter into terrifying explosions in the nervous system, such a dream would mean overcoming a lot of nightmares along the way.
Anthony’s mother, who was three-time All American in basketball at MSU, has her number retired and remains the college’s all-time leading point scorer—women and men—as well as Anthony’s father, a well-known athletic director for college sports, rallied behind their son’s vision for himself. It would be hard. There would be challenges. Anthony would have to learn techniques to calm himself, to solve confusion, to read sarcasm and subtle body language.
But the important thing was to face the challenges, move forward, block out the noise, and focus on the goal.
“Nothing was going to stop my parents from getting the resources I needed,” Anthony says. “They believed in me, and they believed in the people around me—my principals, my teachers, the administrators in my school. I just pretended I was like Michael Jordan and focused on getting better at getting the ball in the hoop. The gym became my safe place.”
“I just pretended I was like Michael Jordan and focused on getting better.”
By the time he was 11 years old, Anthony was 6 feet tall with a size 13 shoe. Bullies targeted him with cruel names. They made fun of him and tried to pick fights. But Anthony stayed true to his dream: he went to the gym; he practiced lay-ups in his driveway; he got in the competitive ball circuit in Michigan. He played basketball. He trained. He focused in school. He took every ounce of help from teachers and coaches who believed in him.
He got better. He got taller. He got stronger at calming himself through buzzers and horns, sneakers squeaks and rapidly-shifting plays. The bullies fell by the wayside as Anthony pushed himself closer and closer to the day he would finally feel that Spartan jersey slide over his head. But when that time came, Anthony didn’t get the scholarship he needed for Michigan State. If he was willing to walk-on, the Legend Himself Tom Izzo told Anthony, he’d have a spot on the team.
After two years on a full-ride scholarship at another college, Anthony turned down a separate full ride to a different school to take Coach Izzo up on his offer. As a junior, Anthony was a walk-on at Michigan State. He gave the team, and Coach Izzo, everything he had.
By the time his senior year rolled around, Anthony earned a full-ride scholarship to MSU, fulfilling the promise he made to his seven-year-old self that he would one day wear that Spartan jersey as part of the team.
“I knew how much the dream of being a Michigan State Spartan meant,” Anthony says. “There were so many years of hard work, of people telling me I couldn’t make it … what the doctors told me as a kid. It was emotional.”
He laughs. “I don’t mean any disrespect to anybody else, but I probably took more pride in wearing that uniform than any other player.”
Athlete and Advocate
Anthony’s story inspired not only the disability community but everyone who heard it. Michigan’s Lt. Governor asked him to speak at an autism gala during that senior year as a Spartan, and Anthony’s conviction for believing in yourself no matter what people say launched him into his post-collegiate career as a powerful advocate for people with special needs and for anyone who knows their dream is worth fighting for.
“All my heroes now are in the autism community,” Anthony says. “The people I look up to are people like professional runner Mikey Brannigan or NASCAR driver Armani Williams. They have autism and broke barriers. These are the stories of our community.”
“I want to tell our stories,” Anthony says. “And say hey—this is what we achieved. Autism doesn’t define us—we define it.”
Here’s to Anthony Ianni, dunking on haters. Nothing but net, baby, when you see yourself for who you truly are and have the courage to take the long shot.