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Hoyas star Austin Freeman is far from alone in living with diabetes

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By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010

You don't need to be an athletic marvel to successfully manage diabetes.

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More than 285 million people, or 6.4 percent of the world's adult population, live with the disease right now, and it's safe to presume most of them can't make a layup on a 10-foot basket to save their lives.

Having said that, the traits that have helped Austin Freeman become a productive Division I basketball player, an elite college athlete, should serve him well in managing diabetes.

Undoubtedly, the diagnosis Freeman received recently must have scared him half to death. It scares all of us, me two years ago at 49 when doctors told me I had Type 2 diabetes and would have to change my lifestyle forever . . . or else. Freeman, his diagnosis so new, probably hasn't even gotten to the point at which he's formulating complicated questions. But he will. And he's going to hear from doctors, from friends and neighbors and perhaps even relatives who have the disease that diabetes should not slow him down, should not limit his life's options, should not make him infirm or physically unable to pursue most, if not all, of his passions.

Don't get me wrong: Diabetes kills, especially if undetected or allowed to go untreated. And amazingly, the number of incidents of diabetes-related deaths has risen since 2007. People lose limbs, like my childhood idol Ron Santo, the former all-star third baseman, whose legs had to be amputated below the knees. But diabetes isn't pancreatic cancer or AIDS. It's not a plague. And as Coach John Thompson III reminded reporters Thursday in a news conference at Georgetown, Freeman will have access to a leading endocrinologist, during practices and games, and whenever else.

It's been a while since diabetes for an athlete, even one with aspirations of playing professionally, was the Boogey Man. It probably will surprise most people to learn that some accomplished athletes have been diabetic during their careers. You can go all the way back to Ty Cobb. Joe Frazier and Arthur Ashe, according to diabetes literature, received diagnoses while actively competing. NHL Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke is diabetic and was during some of his career with the Flyers.

Jay Cutler, the quarterback of the Chicago Bears, learned he had diabetes about the same time I did, a couple of years ago. We've seen Adam Morrison, then of Gonzaga and now of the Lakers, taking insulin; his diagnosis came at age 13 as Type 1 diabetes. The testing was prompted by seizure-like symptoms he had at the end of an eighth-grade basketball game. Gary Hall Jr., the Olympic gold medal swimmer, is diabetic. So is Kelli Kuehne, the professional golfer. So is Brandon Morrow, pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays.

I bet every one of them has a story, a scare if you will. Kuehne's blood sugar level dropped so low during a tournament once that her brothers had to carry her into a restaurant. I once felt pretty proud of myself for consistently checking my blood sugar three times a day until I found out that Morrow sometimes checks his between innings. Morrison calls his checks "pit stops" and has sometimes checked his blood sugar level during timeouts. Morrison is seen as something of a role model because of the discipline he has to eat meals at the same time every day, rarely if ever slipping off his routine. Chris Dudley, the former Yalie who played in the NBA, tested himself a dozen times or more on some game days.

And that's where athletes, most anyway, have an advantage over us plain folk. I'm ready to bet right now that Freeman already rises pretty early and has some kind of routine. Most Division I athletes do, no matter what skeptics think about college jocks. Most have a schedule, most are goal-oriented and don't lose patience as quickly as the rest of us. When they grow tired or bored of doing wind sprints or laps, they'll buckle down and do more. While the rest of us -- okay, let me speak for myself and say "I" -- will stray or indulge or "fall off the wagon" as they say, athletes usually have greater resolve. It's how they got to be where they are. There's a greater determination. They're a different breed of folk; they have to be. If you tell an athlete his A1C needs to be under 7.0, chances are he or she will see it as another number that has to fall.

Bobby Clarke once told Sports Illustrated the disease "never affected" the way he played. "If anything, the more and harder you can work as a diabetic the better you'll be."

Freeman will come to hear these stories, now that he's in a fraternity he didn't want to join and nobody wanted to recruit him into. We all have our diabetes mentors, if you will. Mine is Liz Clarke of The Post, who went from dear friend to confidant when I had it diagnosed. Liz's byline is on the Freeman story, which is a damn good thing for readers of this newspaper because I don't know of a lay person who knows more about the disease. Liz picked up the phone and told me that my eating habits in the month of March, more than any month in the year, had to change if I was going to successfully manage the disease. The first year I did fabulously, then I got cocky, which is reflected in the daily blood sugar testing and A1C results, and the numbers do not lie. The struggle is constant and certainly not easy, not for me anyway.

The diagnosis of diabetes will change Freeman's life: his habits and choices, his attitudes, what he allows his children to eat if he has any. Maybe he has to wear a pump, maybe not.

But now that he knows the deal, it doesn't have to lessen the quality of his life. As Dudley told SI a while back: "You can't let diabetes stop you, but you also don't ignore it. You just have to embrace it and learn how to deal with it."

That process, whether or not Freeman was ready for it, has already started.


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