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Chris Dudley: From the NBA to a Superstar for Kids

NBA star helps future champs living with diabetes

Chris Dudley may have been the first NBA player with type 1 diabetes, but he knew he wasn’t going to be the last, so he created a basketball camp to prepare the next generations of what he calls “type 1 overachievers.”

“As far as I know, I was the first NBA player with type 1, and so when I was playing, I’d get letters from parents, kids, and coaches, asking me how to play basketball with diabetes,” says Dudley. “So that’s how it started. My wife, my sister, and I cooked up the idea of a basketball camp just for kids with diabetes.”

Seventeen years later, Dudley is retired from basketball, but the Chris Dudley Basketball Camp he started in Oregon when he was a shot-blocking center for the Portland Trail Blazers in 1995 is still going strong, with a waiting list to get one of the seventy-five slots.

“It can be very difficult in your teen years to have type 1,” explains Dudley, “When kids come to camp, they realize there are lots of other kids in their same shoes. They’re not the only one who is self-conscious about the testing and ‘weird’ meters on them. They’re not the only one who has friends’ parents who don’t want them to sleep over.”

Dudley knows what it’s like. Diagnosed at age sixteen in the 1980s, he had to start injecting insulin and constantly testing his blood sugar – a big difference from the electronically-controlled pump he uses today.

“The technology has improved dramatically over the decades. The players today have it easier than I did, but I think of guys like the Chicago Cubs’ Ron Santo.” Santo played in the 1960s and early 70s, a time when, according to Dudley, “they didn’t even have test kits.” Today, the NBA supports diabetes education through Dribble to Stop Diabetes, which Dudley says is a “great program and I’m thrilled that they’re highlighting diabetes. I’m really proud of the NBA’s involvement.”

Despite all the improvements in diabetes care, Dudley says that diabetes is still a challenge for some of the young athletes at his camp. “It’s not an exact science. You can do the same thing as yesterday but get a different result today, and it can affect your performance. That’s why we teach the kids to test, test, test.”

Dudley says his camp was started to teach kids practical skills for managing their disease, but the community that formed around it was a surprise bonus. Christian Schlenker, a counselor at Dudley’s camp and a sophomore basketball player at Colorado Christian College, returns to camp every summer to reconnect with the friends he’s made there. As Christian says, “It’s great for us to be around people with the same struggles. It’s a diverse group of people and I’ve got friends from camp from all around the country.

Another camp veteran is Johnny Brainard, who was, at eight years old, the youngest camper at Dudley’s inaugural camp – and he hasn’t missed one since, transitioning from camper to coach after high school. “As a younger camper, camp is great because you learn the tricks that the older guys have figured out, for diabetes as well as basketball. Then, as an older camper or counselor, you get to pass that knowledge on to kids who are just learning how to play through it,” says Brainard.

Despite the emphasis on diabetes, Dudley says his camp is still a regular basketball camp. “The underlying message is ‘dream big,’” he emphasizes. “You have to have a dream to pursue, whether it’s to play in the NBA or be a doctor. Don’t let diabetes be an excuse for not chasing your dream.” 

Justin Park is an award-winning health, sports, and fitness journalist and videographer whose work appears in Men’s HealthShape, and MSN’s Fitbie. He currently lives in Alma, CO, the country’s highest incorporated town at 10,700 feet. Park is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewees, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

The Dribble to Stop Diabetes campaign is a Sanofi US Diabetes partnership with the NBA, NBA D-League, WNBA, and the American Diabetes Association.

© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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