By Roy Collins
Chris Dudley played basketball in the NBA for 16 years. The Yale graduate gained notoriety around the league as a voracious defender, energetic rebounder, and formidable shot blocker. He played Center as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the New Jersey Nets, Portland Trail Blazers, New York Knicks, and the Phoenix Suns. Dudley was born in Connecticut, but grew up primarily in the San Diego area of California where he started playing basketball. A bit of a late bloomer, Dudley played Junior Varsity basketball through his junior year of high school when he was first diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 16. Committing to Yale University during his senior year, Chris Dudley played for the Bulldogs from 1983 to 1987 before becoming the first ever Type-1 Diabetic to play in the NBA when we was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the fourth round of the 1987 draft.
Dudley’s professional career achievements include playing in a total of 886 games, scoring 3,473 points, 375 assists, 1,027 blocked shots, and 5,457 rebounds. The NBA rewarded Dudley with the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 1996, and USA Today named him the Most Caring Athlete in 1997.
I was fortunate enough to interview Chris Dudley about his experience playing basketball as a type-1 diabetic.
It was in his spring semester in 1981 after his sophomore year that Chris Dudley started to experience the classic symptoms of increased thirst and frequent trips to the bathroom. His close uncle had diabetes, so after advising Dudley and his dad to test his blood glucose level (BS) at a home test kit from the local pharmacy, he realized he had T1D.
Initially shocked, Dudley remembered that the life expectancy for diabetics was well below that of non-diabetics in the early 80’s. Nearly as important to the 16-year-old was the question of whether or not he would be able to keep playing basketball.
Lucky for Dudley two main factors kept his spirits high in this tumultuous time. One, his endocrinologists in San Diego were fairly progressive in that knew the value of athletics in maintaining steady glucose levels. Although not a lot had been confirmed in this time as it related to the effect on sports and diabetes, his doctors did not deter Dudley from continuing to play. Second, Dudley looked to National Hockey League star Bobby Clarke for inspiration. Bobby Clarke was drafted into the NHL in 1969 as a diabetic, ultimately winning two Stanley Cup Championships and being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987. Clarke inspired confidence in Dudley that achieving athletic success was possible for a type 1 diabetic.
Most diabetics typically receive their insulin through two methods: multiple injections via an insulin pen or syringe, or through an insulin pump. Through the bulk of Dudley’s career, he received his insulin through multiple injections, as pump use had not been as highly advertised until the early 2000’s. Dudley commented that he wears the pump to receive his insulin currently, and would have considered wearing the modern day pumps back in his playing days, had they been available.
Other than his impressive doctors back in San Diego, Chris Dudley credits a particular nurse, Molly Meyer (who worked at Yale where Chris played in college) as incredibly instrumental in helping him out to manage his diabetes when it was most important and the level of play was at its highest. When asked about the most important person who currently helps Dudley the most with his diabetes management, he notes that his wife, also named Chris, is responsible for keeping him on top of his health.
Exercise of any kind with diabetes can be arduous. Playing basketball at the highest level for 16 seasons certainly presented unique challenges for Chris Dudley. When I asked him what the hardest aspects of his career were, he spoke about all the spikes in bis blood sugar from adrenaline he experienced, playing night after night in front of ten of thousands of screaming fans. The schedule of an NBA player also presents plenty of variables that may affect his glucose level management, from altitude of certain cities to back-to-back games on the calendar. The lag time for insulin in the 1990’s was also closer to 45 minutes, rather than the 15 to 20 minute absorption rate diabetics are blessed with today. This meant Dudley had to operate with a tremendous amount of foresight to try and keep optimum BS levels for game time.
I asked Dudley to share with me his average game day schedule, including testing times, in order to get a better sense on how regimented an NBA player with diabetes’ agenda must be.
Assuming the game was at home:
- Dudley would wake up and test
- Eat Breakfast
- Prepare to drive into the arena for a pregame shootaround and test
- Arrive at the arena and test
- Participate in the pregame shootaround and test
- Complete a quick workout, this might include a light lift and/or a solid stretching session, all while testing
- Drive back home and test
- Take a nap, wake up and test
- Eat a balanced meal, chock full of protein
- Relax for a bit and test
- Drive back to the arena for the actual game and test
- Get more shots up, complete pregame workout is necessary to get loose and test
- Prayer/Mediation in the pregame Chapel and test
- Pregame meeting with the team and test
- Right before game time test
- The Trainer will test (4x) throughout game
- At Halftime test
- After the game, get changed, test, and drive home
- At Bedtime, test
If you’re counting at home, that’s roughly 20 times a day that Dudley tested his blood sugar. He notes how convenient it would have been to have been playing professional basketball in the Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) era where he could read a continuous plotting of his blood glucose levels.
Unlike golf, swimming, or singles tennis, playing basketball as a diabetic is complicated in that you are a member or a team. With that team aspect, comes a level of responsibility and accountability to your teammates. It can certainly be intimidating to talk about your issues as it relates to your disease when you are the only diabetic surrounded by others who know very little about your needs. A member of many different teams in many different cities, Dudley asserts that his teammates everywhere were largely supportive. Even though many of peers never quite understood his condition, they showed a genuine interest. When I asked Dudley what may have contributed to such a positive response, he recalled back to early in his career, when he purposively didn’t miss any games or practices. Dudley credits his durability, at a time when his reputation had yet to be fully molded, to be responsible for players around the league to recognizing Dudley would not lean on diabetes as a crutch or excuse to not work hard and hustle.
Despite an incredible display of toughness and durability, like all diabetics, Chris Dudley has certainly had his fair share of hypoglycemic (or low blood sugar) incidents. One can imagine how stressful it must be to in the heat of the moment in a big game, unsure of whether or not you are just tried form running up and down to court or if you’re experiencing an issue beyond your control. What Dudley feared most wasn’t just playing terribly, it was letting his teammates down and embarrassing himself in front of 20,000 fans. When a diabetic’s blood sugar initially starts to drop, the symptoms mirror that of just being tired. Every athlete’s natural response to fatigue is to push through that feeling, to tell your body it can take on more, when in reality there’s a possibility it truly can not. Dudley was fortunate enough to have had these experiences, but was never forced to miss an entire game. The all to familiar act of having to binge drink juice in order to maintain a normal blood sugar level was definitely a phenomenon Dudley says he experienced.
When I asked him about any particular scary moments he’s faced when having a low, he recalled a game he played against the Denver Nuggets. The game was already decided, causing every player to worry less about execution and more about running up and down to the court and scoring to perhaps leave an impression for the games ahead. Dudley’s blood sugar crashed dramatically, and he ended up leaving the game entirely and needing an IV to deliver glucose and replenish lost fluids. In addition to the increased elevation of the Mile High City, Dudley also suggested he might have been a tad ill, which could have contributed to his erratic BS.
Despite occasional hiccups, it is without question that Chris Dudley found success playing basketball in the NBA. In talking about his greatest achievements as a basketball player, Dudley includes his 16 years of playing professionally, being the first ever type-1 diabetic to play in the NBA, leading the NCAA in rebounding while at Yale, and being amongst the leaders in the NBA in rebounds per minute played. Dudley recalls one his most proud moments to be when he won the Eastern Conference Finals playing for the New York Knicks in 1999. It was the first time in NBA history an 8th seed had beaten a 1 seed, beating the favored Miami Heat 3 games to 2 at home in front of their fans at Madison Square Garden.
Outside of the court, Chris Dudley has been serving the diabetic community through his Chris Dudley Foundation for the last 20 years. Operating out of Oregon, he holds camps through which his foundation aims to empower kids with type-1 diabetes. Dudley promotes achieving dreams by through acceptance, staying active, and taking care of yourself. Dudley adds that his foundation has teamed up with the Portland Trailblazers and the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Union to promote healthy activity and encourage diabetics during the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Awareness week.
I asked Chris Dudley what message he would give a newly diagnosed teenager with professional athlete aspirations, like himself all those years ago. Dudley paused and echoed again acceptance.
“You have Diabetes, Diabetes doesn’t have you”
It’s normal to ask “Why me?” but you cannot get too caught up in wondering what cosmic forces aligned for you to be diagnosed with diabetes. Dudley remarks instead that you should work through it.
Looking ahead, Dudley has no end in sight for his annual camp until a cure is found. In fact, he is looking to potentially expand his camp across the West Coast. He will continue to work with the Portland Trailblazer and Pacific Northwest Diabetes Union on Diabetes Awareness week and has some very revolutionary ideas for the NBA. In 2015, American sports leagues have used their influence to bring awareness to such causes as Breast Cancer or Military Appreciation. Dudley has expressed a desire for the NBA to potentially join forces with the American Diabetes Association to raise awareness. The month of awareness is in November, as is the beginning of the season, maybe the two associations could even incorporate a color scheme to be worn throughout the league. I, for one, would be ecstatic to see such a notion actually manifest itself.
Before finishing our interview, I told Chris Dudley that I’ve always kept a dynamic Top 4 diabetic athlete Power Rankings, a Mount Rushmore if you will. Diabetic Athlete Gary Hall Jr. introduced me to the idea that diabetes did not have to inhibit your athletic dreams when he won the gold just weeks before my own diagnosis, so he earns a spot. I was playing basketball in high school around the time of Adam Morrison’s heroic performances at Gonzaga, so he earns a spot. Jay Cutler balances his blood sugar levels while playing in the National Football League. Spot. I added myself last both because I came up with this idea and we need a little ethnic diversity. After laughing at my foolishness, Chris Dudley was gracious enough to offer me his Diabetic Athlete Mount Rushmore:
1. Bobby Clarke (NHL): Mentioned earlier in this piece, Bobby Clarke is an NHL Champion and Hall of Famer who had achieved many accolades around when Dudley himself was diagnosed.
2. Ron Santo (MLB): Santo was a star third baseman for the Chicago Cubs from 1960-1973, the Five time consecutive Golden Glove winner also batted .300 and hit 30 home runs in four of his fifteen seasons
3. Bill Collision (Triathlete): Coming out of California, this triathlete was the first ever to win the competition as a diabetic.
4. Chris Dudley (NBA): Chris Dudley was the first diabetic to ever play in the NBA, paving the way for plenty of others to follow in his footsteps. He’s well in his rights to put himself on top of that mountain.
As a player, Chris Dudley embodied grit and determination, he has taken that effort off the court in the present day to encourage and inspire diabetics like him to flourish at the highest level of competition. We should all take a page out of Dudley’s book and accept the terms our lives have given us, but to not be defined or deterred by them. As we work towards both a cure and better methods of management, let this be our battle cry:
“You have Diabetes, Diabetes doesn’t have You!”
For more updates and tips on how to use fitness for diabetes management and prevention. Follow me on twitter @roycHealth !