By: Mary Milewski
When retired NBA center Chris Dudley was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1981, the high school sophomore’s first concern was whether he would be able to continue playing sports.
“The doctor was very supportive,” says Dudley. “That was a relief to me. I knew then that I’d be fine, because sports were very important to me. Not everyone was as fortunate back then with having doctors and nurses encouraging them to keep playing sports.”
Dudley played for 16 years in the NBA as a center for teams including the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers. Dudley now runs the Chris Dudley Basketball Camp for children with diabetes in Vernonia, Oregon.
‘I really want to offer that same support to kids with diabetes to let them know they can still play sports.”
Athletes with diabetes are unlike their nondiabetic peers, because they are up against an unusual two-fold challenge. It takes nearly as much work to successfully manage one’s diabetes every day as it does to achieve athletic goals. Dudley shares his strategy for success in sports.
Wide Open With Diabetes
During his playing days, Dudley said his best strategy for avoiding low blood glucose during a game was testing in the locker room—and even on the bench when necessary.
“It was important—I always stress this at camp—to be open about diabetes,” he says. “My teammates knew I had it, but most important, my trainer knew I had diabetes.”
Being prepared was also key to staying on top of his game. His trainer’s bag held extra supplies, including a test kit and juice, ready for him at the bench.
“In games, if I didn’t feel right, I could test on the bench,” Dudley says. “Sometimes you have symptoms and you don’t know why you don’t feel right. Especially with 82 or more games in a season, you might not always know what’s going on. If I was low, I had Gatorade or juice, which has 35 grams of carbohydrates for an eight-ounce serving.”
Dudley says he would target a blood glucose level of 180 mg/dl for the game.
“If I was much lower than that, it would come down, and if I was much higher than that, it would go up from the adrenaline,” Dudley says. “If I was lower, it could be because I had residual insulin in my system. I’d be scared to go out there on the court if I was at 120 or so. It was hard to play with the thought in the back of my mind that I could be going down.”
But, he says, testing at 140-150 mg/dl in practice was fine. He always made a point to test during water breaks, as well.
Dudley advocates regular doctor visits. His typical A1C was around 7%.
“I’d like to see it lower, but I was so scared of lows during games that I always kept it higher.”
Staying in the Game
At times, Dudley’s blood glucose numbers were low enough to require him to drink some juice, but they were never low enough to take him out of the game—thanks to frequent testing and planning.
“I’d fight through lows because I didn’t want my diabetes to affect my game,” he says, looking back. “But I don’t think that’s the smartest thing to recommend. The most important thing is that the people who are close to you should know that you have diabetes.”
Dudley often asks his young campers to imagine that their best friend has diabetes. Then he asks them, wouldn’t you want to know about it in order to help your friend?
“With diabetes, you feel a lot more self-conscious and worse about it than the people around you,” he says. “They just want to help you get through it.”
Diabetes Was a Blessing
“I think in some ways it has been a blessing for me,” Dudley says of his diabetes. “With the camp, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the kids. Plus, I’ve had coaches who work at all sorts of camps tell me that the kids at my camp are the best kids they come in contact with. I think it’s partly because with kids, getting diabetes at young age gives them maturity and appreciation of life.”
Going through the hardship of diagnosis and learning to balance meals with insulin injections makes them especially good, he says. “I feel fortunate being able to interact with these children and their families.”
Plus, with technological advances, Dudley says, the outlook is much better for the future of the children who are diagnosed with diabetes today.
Chris Dudley’s BasketballCamp for Diabetic Children
Chris Dudley’s basketball camp for diabetic children ages 10-17 is entering its 10th year at Cedar Ridge Camp in Vernonia, Oregon—about an hour west of Portland. The camp’s mission is to encourage children and to give them the confidence to know that they can do anything they want to, he says. In its 10 years of operation, the camp has hosted children from 48 of the 50 states.
Dudley is now working on a DVD to teach coaches how to work with and help children with diabetes.
“You’ve got to embrace your diabetes. It’s not going to go away. Provided that you take care of yourself, you can do whatever you want to do.”
This year’s camp will be held August 6-11. Tuition is $540 per camper. For information about the Dudley Foundation, sponsor of the Chris Dudley Basketball Camp, call (503) 626-4007 or go to the web site at www.chrisdudley.org.
Carbo-Loading Wasn’t for Dudley
Carbo-loading—eating large quantities of pasta, pizza or other high-carbohydrate foods before an athletic performance—was commonly recommended by sports nutritionists early in Dudley’s professional basketball career. However, the popular high-carb pre-game diet didn’t sit well with Dudley.
“I don’t think that was the best thing for me,” Dudley says. “I ate well-rounded meals. I don’t want to give advice, but for me, having a balanced meal with protein was very important. It gave me long-term energy, rather than a shorter up-and-down thing. Typically, I’d try to have lunch before a game—usually a sandwich with meat in it.”
Glucose and the Game
“I test about six or eight times on a typical day,” says Dudley, who uses an ACCU-CHEK Aviva glucometer. “When I was playing basketball on a game day, it was more like 13 or 14 times a day. Now, like back then, when I’m more physical, I test more.”
On game days, Dudley would wake up, test his blood glucose levels, eat breakfast and then go to practice, which included some light shooting and a review of team and opponents’ plays.
“I’d test before playing, test before I left the gym, go home and nap, test when I awoke, eat a meal, hang out, and then around 5 p.m., I’d test before leaving for the arena where we’d get taped,” Dudley says. “I’d test again, warm up, come back in and test again. We’d then go out and play the game. I’d test again during the game, at halftime, after the game and at bedtime.”
Dudley always stuck to his professional outlook that playing basketball was his job. He encourages young people to take athletics seriously, as well.
He says, “When you’re playing, it’s your job, and you want to do well in front of 20,000 people” at the typical arena game—not to mention the broadcast audience. “You want it to be as good as possible, and you definitely don’t want to get a low blood glucose. You don’t want [your diabetes] to hinder your performance in any way.”
Dudley injected a combination of Lantus and Humalog insulins during the last years of his professional basketball career. This is his third season out of the NBA.
“I used to test so much just to avoid lows,” he says.
Chris Dudley doesn’t run the only diabetes camp. There are many throughout the United States. See the Diabetes Camp 2006 complete listing.