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A suspected heart condition couldn’t keep this Philly basketball star from getting back in the game

Sidelined at Bonner-Prendergast when doctors suspected he may have had Marfan syndrome, Wilson was finally cleared to play. A year at a Georgia junior college has turned into 44 scholarship offers.

Langston Wilson shoots during practice at Georgia Highlands College Floyd Campus in Rome, Ga.
Langston Wilson shoots during practice at Georgia Highlands College Floyd Campus in Rome, Ga.Read moreCAMERON HART

Years before he likely became today’s most sought-after junior-college recruit who never played high school basketball, Langston Wilson was just a boy with a dream that his heart — doctors feared — wouldn’t allow him to pursue.

Now, after just one season at Georgia Highlands College, the 20-year-old Wilson, a 6-foot-9, 210-pound athletic marvel, has his choice of 44 scholarship offers, including suitors from nearly every major conference in the nation. His potential, some say, has even already piqued the interest of NBA scouts.

For four years in high school, however, Wilson could only watch, at times through tears, while his teammates at Bonner-Prendergast improved, excelled, and earned scholarships to play the game that Marfan syndrome had almost kept him from entirely. Almost.

Before practice or after practice, before games, after games, even during halftime of games, Wilson still found ways to play, keeping alive a dream that now no longer needs to be deferred.

“That’s a perfect example of my life,” Wilson said in a phone interview. “My high school chapter ended as a dream deferred. Now, it’s a dream preferred.”

Since his childhood cardiologist cleared him to play in 2019, Wilson has gone from a high school team manager who filled cups, patted backs, and choked back tears, to waking from naps to find 25 missed calls with coaches such as Bill Self of Kansas and Bob Huggins of West Virginia in his call-back queue.

He gave his heart to a game that provided opportunities for others, while his love, for years, went unrequited.

In 2016, his father Ron, who played center at Villanova, said his son was “holding out hope for a miracle.”

Now the wait, Ron Wilson says, is over.

My high school chapter ended as a dream deferred. Now, it’s a dream preferred.

Langston Wilson

“There are miracles happening every day,” Ron Wilson said in a recent phone interview. “And my son is a walking miracle.”

Marfan mystery

Ron Wilson, 48, was a 6-11 center on Villanova’s 1995 Big East championship team. After college, he joined the Harlem Globetrotters and also played overseas.

But around 2010, he needed four open-heart surgeries in about 17 days after complaining of chest pain. Doctors eventually implanted a mechanical heart valve and placed a sleeve around his aortic root, which, he says, had begun to “peel like a banana.”

Doctors also told him that he likely had been living with a connective tissue disorder.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, there are more than 200 disorders that can impact connective tissue. Marfan syndrome is a genetic variant, while other forms can be cancerous or autoimmune in nature.

People with Marfan syndrome who also have abnormal heart valves, according to the Mayo Clinic, could be at increased risk of heart failure that’s worsened by physical exertion.

Genetic testing, Ron Wilson said, revealed that he had an unknown gene that doctors said was most closely associated with Marfan syndrome.

Ron and Leeydra, his wife, also tested their three children, each of whom is named after influential Black authors.

Langston, who was known by his middle name, Jake, in high school, was about 12 when doctors said he was the only child to share the unknown gene with their father.

“It’s tough,” Ron Wilson said in a 2016 interview. “How do you tell a child who loves something that it’s been taken away from them?”

In middle school, soccer was taken first. The saxophone, another of Langston’s loves, was taken next.

When he got to high school, fear of a potential valve problem similar to his father’s led Langston’s doctors and parents, as a precaution, to keep him off the court for all four years.

‘That was my NBA’

When senior season ended at Bonner-Prendie, Wilson felt adrift, unsure of his future but still desperately tethered to his dream of playing Division I basketball.

“I just, always in my head, imagined myself playing,” he said. “The ‘what if’ kind of kept a smile on my face.”

When grins were hard to come by, Wilson found comfort on the court. It also helped that the last class on his schedule was a free period.

Each day without fail, Wilson said, he arranged chairs as defenders in the school’s gym and worked on his skills until school ended and the gym flooded with students who were allowed to play sports.

“I’d be a little upset,” he said. “That was my sanctuary. That was my outlet. For those 50 minutes, I was the No. 1 player in the country.”

But throughout high school, daydreams were the only place he could compete against the best.

He did stay close to the game, however, working as the Friars' team manager for nearly all four seasons, while his dad also coached the junior varsity team. Occasionally during halftime of games, Wilson would dazzle the crowd with an athletic array of dunks after both teams went to the locker room. When coach Kevin Funston and the Friars emerged for the second half, however, questions awaited.

“Everyone was looking around at me, like, ‘Who the heck is that kid?’ ” said Funston, in his third year as Bonner-Prendergast coach after being an assistant for four years.

In 2018, Wilson watched from the bench at the Palestra while his teammates lost a thriller of a Catholic League championship game to Roman Catholic.

“It was difficult, but I didn’t have time to be sad within myself because I had to be there for my teammates,” he said. “At the end of the day, I wasn’t the one playing.”

That Friars team was led by Isaiah Wong (now at the University of Miami), Tariq Ingraham (Wake Forest), and Ajiri Johnson (Rider).

Wilson found watching practice too difficult sometimes. He’d leave practice early if friends who played for fun were headed to the Second Ward Playground near the family’s home in Upper Darby.

“Sometimes they’d get mad because I’d come out there and be dead serious,” he said with a chuckle. “They didn’t understand it … I’d be going hard, and talking trash.”

That emotional outlet helped but only temporarily.

“It’s just park pickup,” he said. “It doesn’t count. But for me it counted, I guess. That was my NBA.”

Opportunity knocks

He felt lost once again after he graduated from high school. He still hadn’t been medically cleared to play and, Ron Wilson said, he didn’t seem interested in college.

He worked instead. His mother, Leeydra, a chef, connected Wilson with a family friend who gave him a job at a seafood restaurant. For almost 10 hours a day, he said, he gutted and cleaned fish, unloaded trucks, and sometimes helped with food prep. His heart, though, still longed for basketball.

Sometimes after shifts, he’d hurry home, wash the stench of fish guts from his body, hop in an Uber, and go play basketball or just work out. Some mornings before work, he’d head to a local YMCA before his shift started.

Gun violence in the Philadelphia area at that time coupled with his parents' fear that his life wasn’t moving forward led them to suggest that Wilson spend some time with his 25-year-old sister, Maya, in Atlanta.

Before he left, Wilson met with his childhood cardiologist, who, he said, caught him by surprise when he cleared him to play after finding no structural changes in the areas of the heart they had been concerned about for years.

“I didn’t know he was being for real,” Wilson said. “I was like, ‘What?!’ ”

“I always thought that I would get the opportunity to play again,” he added, “but when I heard it, it still brought tears to my eyes.”

As a family, Ron Wilson said, they discussed the 1% risk explained by the doctor before Langston left to visit his sister. Ron Wilson heard conviction in his son’s voice, “He said, ‘This is my dream. This is what I want to do, and I have the backing of my cardiologist now.’ ”

Ron Wilson said his son never had vision problems, difficulty breathing, or any of the hallmark problems associated with Marfan syndrome. He added that his son also saw a cardiologist in Georgia, who also cleared him to play.

Still, a parent’s job is to worry.

“Jake doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke,” his father said. “He’s the bill of health. I just pray. That’s all I can do is pray, because my approval doesn’t matter at this point. He’s a grown man now.”

Wilson visited his sister in Atlanta and eventually got a job at an amusement park. He also played pickup basketball whenever he could. About three months after he settled there, Jonathan Merritt, the head coach at Georgia Highlands College, a junior college in Rome, Ga., was texted video of a pickup game by one of his buddies.

Merritt watched the video. His first thought was that Wilsonhad NBA-level athleticism. He didn’t wait long before responding to his friend’s text, "Hey, man, can I get his number?!”

Wake-up call

His first-ever shot in college basketball was a three-pointer from the corner that Wilson said “bricked” hard off the back rim. A few possessions later, he went up for a dunk. His ability to rise had already earned thousands of eyeballs on social media, so why would this be any different?

His opponent, however, was one of the best shot-blockers in junior college. Wilson’s dunk was rejected.

“I went up weak,” he said, “like it was going to be easy.”

At some point, when his nerves settled, he looked around the gym and thought, “Damn, I’m really here. OK, now it’s time to wake up.”

That was November 2019, when Langston started at forward as Georgia Highlands began its season against the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie in Wilmington, N.C. There weren’t many fans, but Wilson knew several high-major-college coaches were in attendance.

He finished that first game with 11 points and nine rebounds. The next day he had 20 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocked shots. Two games later, he led the team with 26 points.

He struggled with consistency in his first season, though. After all, this was his first real experience. At Bonner-Prendie, he simply watched the game unfold before him.

Eventually, Wilson suggested something that Merritt hasn’t seen in his 13 years in coaching. After years of waiting for the chance to play the game he loved, Wilson asked to come off the bench.

“He said, ‘I think I can provide a lot of energy, and it might also help me see the game a little bit better just by watching where I can pick my spots,’ ” Merritt said.

The Chargers won their next 13 games. Wilson finished the season averaging 10 points and seven rebounds.

View from the inside

By the time his freshman season ended at Georgia Highlands, Wilson’s recruiting prospects had slowed. Several schools such as Alcorn State and Grambling were among the first to offer scholarships. Iona coach Rick Pitino offered as well.

Schools from high-major conferences, however, were in contact but not yet willing to offer. That is, until Merritt provided a nudge on Twitter.

Wilson said the University of Maryland offered the next day. “Then the flood gates opened,” he said.

Suddenly, he had gone from high school basketball manager to junior-college hopeful to a recruit besieged by texts, calls, and Zoom presentations from high-major programs across the nation.

“It’s kind of ridiculous,” he said. “I just never would’ve thought it. I knew I’d get some Division I interest, but at this level, not at all.”

The game in its entirety is just so beautiful to me. A lot of people don’t get that to see it from both perspectives. I just quietly saw it from the outside looking in. Now, I’m on the inside looking out, and I just love everything about it.

Langston Wilson

Ron Wilson also fielded calls from coaches who sought his son. During practices at Bonner-Prendie, Ron still remembers, he’d look over to see his son, tears in his eyes, devastated because he wanted to play so badly.

“It was heartbreaking,” he said. “We look back on it now, and there’s a reason why he’s as good as he is. I don’t know if he played high school basketball, if he’d have the same fire that he has right now.”

No matter what school he chooses, Langston Wilson said, it will get a young man who is low-maintenance, dependable, hardworking, unselfish, and resilient.

“It hasn’t always been pretty,” he said. “I’ve struggled with depression at times.”

Later, he added: “If I could do it all over again, I would. I just feel like it made me the man I am today.”

That man also understands there’s a risk his heart could be broken once more.

In high school, his parents encouraged him to learn about Isaiah Austin, the former Baylor center who wasn’t selected in the 2014 NBA draft after league doctors diagnosed Marfan syndrome. In 2016, Austin reportedly consulted with a Marfan specialist at Stanford and returned to basketball overseas. By 2018, he had averaged 30-plus points in China and reportedly still hopes to play in the NBA.

Does Wilson fear that someone, some day could take his dream once more?

“Yes, but I just hope. I just pray to God that it never happens.

“The game in its entirety is just so beautiful to me,” he says. “A lot of people don’t get to see it from both perspectives. I just quietly saw it from the outside looking in. Now, I’m on the inside looking out, and I just love everything about it.”