Updated Fri, Feb 15, 2013 7:01 pm
The Ohio University Lancaster Cougars’ starting forward is undersized; at just 6-foot-3 and 175-pounds he certainly doesn’t look like a prototypical big man. Watch him play, though, and you begin to notice the junior has a lot of the skills that it takes to be successful in the paint, despite a genetic disorder that he’s been dealing with since birth.
Nothing stands out when you first walk up to him standing in a crowd of players at basketball practice. But when he holds his hand out to shake yours, you notice something different about Austin Cox. He only has pinkies.
“It's (called) ectrodactyly disease,” Cox said of his disorder. “It's a deformity of all fingers and toes … both (my) hands and feet (are affected).”
Ectrodactyly is a congenital genetic disorder that causes malformations in a person’s hands and feet. According to research published in the Oxford Journal people with the disorder vary from having minor clefts in the hands and feet to missing entire digits.
In Cox’s case he has just six total digits between his four limbs—one pinkie on each hand and two toes on each foot—but it has had little impact on his life on and off the court.
When asked if the disorder posed any problems for him in his life, Cox was quick to answer.
“Honestly no,” he said. “There might be minor things here or there that I might struggle with. But the major things, for example let’s say I have to write or tying shoes, those big things you need your hands for it's just all easy at this point.
“I've honestly never had any problems growing up. It's caused minor things but nothing major and if it has I've adapted in many ways, quickly and efficiently.”
Watch Cox on the court and it’s clear it has no impact on his abilities as a ballplayer. He can shoot, dribble, pass and steal like any other basketball player. After a few minutes it’s easy to forget that he’s doing all of these things despite missing eight fingers.
Cox, a junior at OUL majoring in health administration, started playing basketball at a young age, thanks in part to his father’s love of all sports.
“My dad was always an athlete so it was just kind of in my genes to start (playing) sports early,” he said. “He's an inspirational man in my life as a lot of fathers are. I grew up watching sports with him. Him being interested in basketball, football and baseball—he inspired me to just stay in love with (basketball) as much as I did. For him, I'm just thankful for everything I've accomplished in my life.”
Austin’s father, Robert, also suffers from ectrodactyly, and so does Austin’s older sister. Their support helped shape Austin and push him to keep going despite his physical limitations.
“I amaze my own self honestly,” Cox said. “There's times where I'm going into something and I'm thinking I can't do it and somehow I find a way to do it. I take after my dad. He's one of the hardest-working men I know and if he does it, I put my mind to it… He's definitely my hero.”
Cox played basketball all four years at Canal Winchester High School a small school in a town fifteen minutes southeast of Columbus. He didn’t play his freshman year at OUL, but since joining head coach Don Matheney’s team last season, Cox has proven himself an important member not just through his abilities on the court but the intangibles he brings to the team.
“He brings energy to the team because he's hustling all over the court,” Matheney said. “When you've got energy like that ... it's contagious. We expect him to be one of the guys out there just hustling all over and leading by example.”
Matheney considers Cox a team leader, citing his physical style of play, lockdown defense and high basketball IQ as many of the reasons he looks to Cox to help out the other players.
“A lot of times if we know somebody's a scorer and we're in man we'll put Austin on him because he can guard the smaller guards as well as some of the bigger guys,” Matheney said. “He's what I would call a smart basketball player, so I really don't have to worry about him seeing the plays and being able to adapt and everything … I rely on Austin to be one of the smarter players out there and to help keep everybody focused.”
The team has struggled at times this season and is just 9-16 as they get ready to start their conference tournament this Saturday. Despite the lackluster regular season performance though, Cox thinks his team, which has won three straight games, is ready to make a run.
“We want to win it all, no matter how bad we were or how bad we're playing at the time,” Cox said. “We honestly believe that we can so we're going in thinking that we can win it all for sure.”
Cox’s mentality to help out and push his teammates has translated well to another part of the sport he loves—the sideline. He spent two years coaching an AAU team and hopes to someday work as a basketball coach.
“I coached AAU for the Columbus Hawks,” Cox said. “They were a program that'd been around since they were in second or third, maybe fourth grade. I started with them when they were 16 and 17-year-olds. … It was a blessing. It came on at a good time and it taught me many life lessons, and it was the best time of my life for sure.”
Cox certainly has the patience and experience to translate into a coach, as he often helps his teammates figure things out and deal with issues on and off the court, according to Matheney.
“There's a couple guys on the team that have benefited from his help,” Matheney said. “(Cox) gets them to understand what it is I'm trying to do offensively and defensively. When they're not getting the playing time that they probably want he's somebody they can go and talk to…We have to rely on being a team and team chemistry is important so I rely on Austin to help us with the chemistry.”
Cox is focused on bringing home a conference tournament championship for his team. And when you consider his combination of skills, knowledge and coach’s mentality, it’s hard to see the lack of a few fingers and toes getting in his way.