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Purdue's Isaac Haas playing for sister who has epilepsy

After averaging between 14 and 15 minutes per game in his first two seasons, Purdue center Isaac Haas is averaging 23 minutes per game this season for the Boilermakers. Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When their son, Isaac, was a baby, Rachel and Danny Haas trekked two hours to an Atlanta-area Target, the only place that carried size 5T clothes with snaps. Isaac wasn't 5; he was barely a toddler. In fact he was still in diapers, but he had outgrown baby sizes, and his parents weren't interested in wrestling their big boy for every diaper change. They needed the snaps.

As their boy grew -- and grew and grew and grew -- Rachel and Danny soon realized that their Alabama home wasn't going to do. So just as the Howards did for Clifford the Big Red Dog, the Haas family retrofitted everything to suit Isaac: The doorways are 7-foot-5, the shower heads loiter somewhere near the ceiling, and Isaac slept in a king-sized bed ... diagonally.

Fast forward to Isaac's freshman year at Purdue. After he suffered through a particularly lousy free-throw performance at a game in Maui, coach Matt Painter carted Isaac off to a small gym to work on his foul shooting. The two returned in time to join the team for a buffet meal. After Isaac left, one of his teammates looked at his coach in awe, "That was the most impressive thing I've ever seen." Perplexed, Painter asked if he meant shooting the extra free throws. "No," his player replied. "He just ate 40 chicken strips. I counted them."

The tales of tall Isaac Haas truly read like tall tales.

And let's get this out of the way, too.

Seven feet, two inches.

Twenty two.

Yes.

Those would be the answers to the three-part question that Isaac hears at every mall, restaurant and airport in America: How tall are you? What size shoe do you wear? Do you play basketball?

So yes, Isaac Haas, all 86 inches and 290 pounds of him, is a big man, like double-take-when-he-walks-in-a-room big.

Except the measure of this man is a lot more than just his height.

"After Erin would have one of her seizures, Isaac would sneak into her room sometimes to comfort her,'' Rachel Haas said. "I'd find him there, holding her like she was a baby.''


SHE WAS THREE months old the first time they realized something wasn't right. By then, by the time the epileptic seizures became obvious, doctors figured Erin had suffered countless infantile spasms that went unnoticed by her parents.

Epilepsy is hardly uncommon -- one in 26 Americans will develop epilepsy or recurring seizures in their lifetime -- but it covers a wide spectrum. Some people can be treated with medications; others need surgery. Erin Haas has what's called intractable epilepsy, which means neither drugs nor the countless brain surgeries she has had over the years can bring her seizures under control.

Isaac didn't understand all of that when his sister was first born. He was 4. He knew only that something wasn't quite right, and his little sister was getting an awful lot of attention, certainly a lot more than he was. He didn't like that very much, either.

When she figured he could at least grasp some of it, Rachel Haas sat Isaac down to explain what was wrong, that Erin wasn't likely to get better, and that the Haas family's new normal would be anything but.

Along with multiple brain surgeries, the most recent in 2012, Erin underwent facial reconstruction necessitated by face-first falls during seizures. Once during dinner she fell so hard onto a hard oak table, the table bounced and moved an entire half inch. Erin jokes she has more stitches than most motocross riders, and for years Rachel feared the bruising on her daughter's forehead would never subside. Before Erin's first surgery, a sudden noise would trigger a seizure, and if Erin expected a noise that didn't come, she'd also have a seizure. Consequently the family's house is quiet and still, the phones all turned to vibrate, the toilet lids made so they don't slam.

All that, and the reality that this would be forever, is what Rachel tried to explain to the boy who loved his baby sister so much that, when she was a few weeks old, he insisted his mom bring her to school for show-and-tell.

"After 30 minutes of me explaining it to him and him crying, he never complained about it again,'' Rachel said. "It caused him to mature a lot earlier in different ways. He's always silly, in a good kid way, but our entire lives have been stressful situations. He can handle stress like nobody else.''

Rather than be jealous of the attention Erin commanded, Isaac decided to be his little sister's champion. Better yet, he would be her hero. Maybe subconsciously at least, Isaac also recognized that by excelling at something, he might swing some of that attention back his way.

So he started to play sports.

Isaac Haas is the kid who looks like a redwood standing in the middle of a hedgerow. So Isaac and basketball were a perfect marriage, perhaps a little too perfect. Understandably he dominated the games and not surprisingly, other kids didn't like that so much. Desperate to find something to make the superior-sized player feel inferior, they zeroed in on his big feet and his big ears.

"Well, he did have big ears," Rachel said. "We used to joke, 'the better to hear you with, my dear.' But we told him if that's all they got, let 'em have it. If the best they have is your ears and feet, you're good to go.''

As his game blossomed -- and his head grew into proportion with his ears -- the town bullies didn't have so much to say. Isaac started running with the better summer league teams, attracting college scouts to tiny Hokes Bluff, Alabama (population 4,000). With his recruiting ranking rising and his stats improving (he averaged 18.5 points and 11 rebounds as a high school junior), Isaac originally committed to Wake Forest, choosing the Demon Deacons over UAB, Purdue and a host of other schools. But in the 11th hour he opted not to sign with the Demon Deacons, stunning everyone with his decision to go to Purdue.

Isaac said he liked the school and Painter's reputation for coaching big men, but he also saw the cultural shift as an important challenge. Reared in that small town and happily cocooned by his family, Isaac liked the idea of going away for college and experiencing a place completely different -- even snowy Indiana.

At least that's what he thought he wanted.

"Oh man, I was so homesick,'' Isaac said. "Getting away from mom's nest was a little harder than I thought.''

Rock bottom came one night in the first semester. Isaac called home, telling his mom he didn't think he could stick it out. They talked for nearly an hour, and Rachel thought she had quelled the panic. Except no sooner had Isaac hung up when he called back, saying the same thing.

"I basically told him to suck it up,'' she said.


WHEN ISAAC ARRIVED in West Lafayette, Indiana, his physical presence was imposing but his stamina not so much. In games, he'd come out of the gates on fire but tire easily. Painter offered much the same advice to his freshman: Suck it up.

In high school, it was so simple. There weren't a whole lot of 7-foot-2 kids walking around, even fewer who were as strong as Isaac. He would barely break a sweat, score a bunch of points, win a game and celebrate with a big pizza. He figured if he got even bigger and stronger, he could follow the same path in college.

"He would make these comments to me and I'd think, are you serious?" Painter said. "He'd say, 'Aw look at me, I'm stacked. I'm up to 315, 320 [pounds].' I had to explain to him that no, you have to lean down to play to the best of your ability.''

Out went the late-night runs to Papa John's and the wowing teammates with meals of 40 chicken strips. Over time, Isaac learned to maximize his size and use it to his advantage. Where, for example, others have to use an arm bar to defend an opponent, Haas needs merely to place the palm of one hand on someone's back to have the same effect.

"I've done a better job growing into my body and understanding my body, the conditioning needs, the rebounding and physical aspects you have to go into detail with as a big guy,'' he said. "It's like coach always says, you don't put regular gas in a Lamborghini. You have to use premium. It's about the right time and work.''

As Isaac learned the proper balance, he had a buffer. A.J. Hammons, two years Isaac's senior and only two inches smaller, gobbled up minutes and awards, allowing Isaac to grow into his role on the team.

Hammons finished his eligibility last season, and as the season ended, Painter suggested that perhaps Isaac would like to weigh his NBA draft stock as well.

"His response was, 'Next year is my year,' which I thought was pretty mature on his part,'' Painter said. "He's been the best backup in the country, but he hasn't started; he hasn't carried that weight. This is his year.''

So far it looks that way. Isaac has nearly doubled his production, averaging 16.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game (9.8 and 3.7 last season).


THE GOAL IS so close now. Like virtually every other player suiting up for a college basketball game, Isaac long has dreamed of being an NBA player. Isaac admits he gets a warm feeling in his stomach when he thinks about it.

His dream stretches beyond simply stepping on an NBA court. He wants to help Erin.

Now 16, Isaac's sister attends the same public high school her big brother did, but she is developmentally delayed and struggles socially. Her social circle consists mostly of her cousins. Her big brother, as he once hoped, is her hero and best friend. Erin loves seeing Isaac on television and rooting for the Boilermakers, but her life has limits. Erin struggles with math, doesn't have the same filters that the rest of us do and because of the severity and frequency of her seizures, won't be able to live alone.

Finding a cure for epilepsy remains elusive. Research is critically underfunded, and the disease, once viewed as a mental health issue or even possession by the devil, is still very much misunderstood. Isaac hopes to change that and dreams of spearheading a foundation that will raise money for research.

"I want to be able to provide for her so she never has to worry about anything ever again,'' Isaac said. "But I also want to find a cure. My sole purpose, honestly, is to help Erin have the best life she possibly can.''

Yes, the tales of tall Isaac Haas are pretty tall tales, but the measure of the man is far greater than how tall he measures.