By Tom Ballato
Everyone has a story. For Anthony Ianni, his story goes beyond the basketball court. Anthony was diagnosed with autism and many doctors believed that he would not be able to live a normal life. Anthony set out to prove people wrong, but it didn’t come without obstacles. He was bullied for being different, but that didn’t stop Anthony from chasing his goals and dreams. Anthony became the first Division I basketball player in NCAA history with autism. He transferred to Michigan St. and played under coach Tom Izzo. He played for some really good teams while in college and after his playing days were over he became a motivational speaker.
I first heard of Anthony’s story from friend and Michigan St. alum Kevin Negron. Kevin shared with me that everyone knew Anthony, that he was a fan favorite, and he had a special story. I reached out to Anthony about his story and I also got to ask him some questions about Michigan St. basketball.
From what I’ve read Coach Izzo was a role model for you. What is your relationship with him like?
Ianni: Coach Izzo and I have a very good relationship. Like with all of his players, current or former, he always has my back on things and he’s always checking in on me to make sure things are going well and that my speaking career is still going well. He separates himself from other coaches just by the relationships he’s developed with his players and the family atmosphere that he’s created not only at our program, but throughout the university.
You were on some great teams during your time at Michigan State. Last guy off the bench that all the MSU fans knew. Describe the atmosphere in the Berslin Center and your time on the team.
Ianni: There’s no other college basketball atmosphere that compares to the Breslin Center. It’s our student section, “The Izzone”, that makes the atmosphere at the Breslin so crazy and above every other place in the country. That’s including other places UNC, Duke, Kentucky and Kansas. We have, in my opinion, the best fans in the country and they’re the reason why playing at the Bres is so tough to play at. As far as my time in the program, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. It was always my dream to play at Michigan State and be on scholarship. Both of those things were able to happen for me and I’m incredibly blessed for the opportunity I got to wear that jersey. Every time I put on my jersey I took a lot of pride in it because I knew that playing for the name on the front was a heck of a lot more important than the one on the back. In my opinion, there’s not a person who took more pride in wearing the Green and White more than I did.
You played on the same team with Draymond Green. How was he as a teammate and did you see him becoming a star like he is today?
Ianni: Day Day was an incredible teammate. There’s a reason why in my opinion he’s one of the greatest leaders in the program’s history. He treated others around him with respect and he always had everyone’s back. Whether you were a coach, player or team manager he was there for you. That’s the one thing people don’t see with him today because all they see is what he does on the court, but if you got to know him off the court, he’d be your favorite right away. I knew just from playing against him in practice and seeing how hard he worked, I knew he was going to do great things in the NBA. Right when he was taken in the second round of the 2012 NBA Draft, I quickly thought to myself that the other teams that passed up on him, are quickly going to regret it.
Now lets move on to your person life. You were diagnosed with Autism at a young age and doctors told your parents you wouldn’t graduate, become an athlete, and believed eventually you would have to live in a group home. You were also bullied for being different when you were younger. How did you overcome all the bullying and limitations you were given?
I endured a lot of bullying and disrespect from a lot of people when I was in school. A lot of the bullying was because of my autism, I would say and do things different than others, and my height was another reason because I was six feet tall and wore a size 13 shoe at 11 years old. No matter how tough things would get, I would just let my actions to the talking for me because I was taught to never use my hands, feet or words. Just let my actions do the talking for me and that’s what I did.
Autism is very big today and there is still a lot we don’t know about it. Did you have to step outside of your comfort zone to play basketball and become a motivational speaker?
Ianni: Early on in my basketball days, I had to step out of my comfort zone because I was a shy kid and I knew that I had to get along with my teammates and play a team game. As far as motivational speaking goes, I never had to step out of my comfort zone or anything of that matter because I knew that this is where I belong and this is what I wanted to do. Plus playing in front of big crowds in college help me get used to speaking/performing to crowds as a speaker.
Today you are a motivational speaker across the country and an anti-bully advocate. Tell us about what you do and is this something you always wanted to do? What would your message be to children with Autism or disabilities whose goals or dreams still might be limited by others?
Ianni: So I’m a National Motivational Speaker and I do all of my work through the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. I’m on the road at most 5 days a week and I speak to schools, colleges/universities, conferences, business and sports teams about my life with autism. I do speeches on different topics such as Autism, bullying, transitioning and motivational talks. So some people might just think I’m only an Anti-Bullying speaker, but I’m actually more then that and I wanted to be more then a one dimensional speaker. At first being a speaker wasn’t even on my list of what I wanted to do after college. I actually wanted to work in NCAA athletics just like my father has for over 30 years.