If you followed professional basketball during any of Chris Dudley’s 16 seasons in the NBA, you’ll remember him as one of the best rebounders and shot blockers in the league. What you may not know, however, is that even at 6’11”, it was pretty remarkable that he played at all. You see, Chris holds the distinction of being the first person with type 1 diabetes to play professional basketball.
Chris was diagnosed with diabetes at 16 in the spring of his sophomore year in high school. “I was a decent player,” he says of his JV days, adding that “basketball was my life.” The diagnosis, he explained, came when he found himself with the usual symptoms— especially constant thirst and running to the bathroom all the time. That first doctor visit was the toughest for Chris. “My first question was, ‘Am I going to live?’ And, of course, the answer was yes,” he told us. The second question, though, which Chris deemed nearly as important as the first, was "Can I still play basketball?”
Chris was greatly relieved to hear the doctor answer in the affirmative because back in the early 1980s, that was not always the case. “The combination of athletics and diabetes was often seen as too risky,” he said, “but my doctor was a sort of a forward thinker in those days and encouraged me to keep playing.”
That was all he needed to hear. Chris played during his four years at Yale and shortly thereafter landed a spot with the Cleveland Cavaliers, becoming the first Ivy League grad to play in the NBA. By then, it’s safe to say he was quite a bit better than just “decent.”
In addition to the Cavs, Chris Dudley’s NBA career included stints with the New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets, Phoenix Suns, and Portland Trail Blazers. Since his retirement from professional sports in 2003, Chris has been working diligently to empower and educate kids with diabetes and encourage them to live active and successful lives through his non-profit Chris Dudley Foundation (www.chrisdudley.org) which he founded in 1994 when he signed his first long term basketball contract and knew he was in a position to do some good.
One of the foundation’s many programs is its wildly popular summer basketball camps, where Chris teaches kids from ages 10 to 17 that hard work and perseverance pay off, even with the challenge of diabetes. The Portland-based camp has just celebrated its 20th anniversary and boasts a waiting list each year. In recognition of his significant contributions both to the league and through his foundation, Chris has received the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award and USA Today’s Most Caring Athlete Award.
Among the values Chris was raised with from childhood was the idea of giving back, so creating his foundation was a natural extension of his success in achieving his own dream. “It started with a focus on education and the focus remains the same today,” Chris says, “since I get letters from kids and parents all the time about sports and diabetes. 'How do you play?' 'What blood sugar level should you be looking for?' 'What do you do if you get low?'”
Chris says, “I feel blessed to be a part of the camp. The friendships I’ve made with great kids and great parents mean so much, as well as the friendships they’ve made with each other. This may be the one week during the whole year that these kids feel totally normal and at ease rather than isolated and in any way ‘different.’ And now with social media, the kids stay in touch all year and do a count-down until camp starts for the year,” he explained. “Our campers are the best. They have such an appreciation of life and have shown us how to turn hardship into a blessing. I feel honored just to be a part of it.”
After many happy years in Lake Oswego, Oregon (which included a run for governor), Chris and his wife (also named Chris) and their three kids have settled in the San Diego area, but maintain close ties to Oregon.
The foundation’s free online newsletter, Playing Through, is a great way to keep up to date with events and other information for parents, kids and young adults with diabetes. Sign up at www.chrisdudley.org.