Slam Dunk for Diabetes

Slam Dunk for Diabetes campers
Twenty-one girls and 46 boys, all with diabetes, recently attended a week-long camp free of charge, courtesy of the Bulls, who also provided equipment, coaches and refreshments.

Posted November 3, 2004 | Visit

In 1994, former Portland Trail Blazers center Chris Dudley, who at age 16 was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, decided to start a charitable foundation for diabetic kids. Just as he had dreamed of one day growing up to play NBA basketball, Dudley wanted others, especially children inflicted with this insidious disease, to be able pursue their dreams. Two years later, The Dudley Foundation sponsored the first basketball camp for kids with diabetes, drawing campers from around the world.

Monica Joyce is a Chicago-based registered dietitian and diabetes educator who had dreamed of providing a similar experience for kids in Chicago. “I couldn’t help thinking how silly it was that there was only one basketball camp for children with diabetes in the entire U.S.,” recounts Joyce.

However that all changed earlier this year, when one day Joyce chatted with a patient, Joan Judelson, who’s had diabetes for over 35 years. In passing, Joyce brought up her dream of establishing a local basketball camp for area diabetic kids, not realizing that Judelson’s husband Robert is a member of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Bulls. Mrs. Judelson requested that she put her camp idea down on paper, and then presented the proposal to her husband, who loved it.

“I thought it was a great idea so I showed it to (Chicago Bulls Chairman) Jerry Reinsdorf, who asked how the Bulls could help get this started,” says Robert Judelson. To make it a reality, Reinsdorf assigned the camp idea to Larry Stewart, general manager of basketball operations for the Chicago Bulls/White Sox Training Academy located in west suburban Lisle.

Slam Dunk for Diabetes campers
One of the coaches commented on how he was amazed at just how resilient his campers were.

After many late-night meetings, with Stewart in charge of the basketball aspect of the camp and Joyce organizing the medical side of things, the Moses E. Cheeks Slam Dunk for Diabetes basketball camp was born.

The inaugural session took place from August 2-6, 2004, at Chicago’s De La Salle Institute on South Michigan Avenue. Twenty-one girls and 46 boys attended the week-long camp free of charge, courtesy of the Chicago Bulls, who also provided equipment, coaches and refreshments. The morning session for “rookies” served kids ages 5 to 10, while the afternoon “veterans” session was for 11 to 17-year-olds. Besides a full medical staff of five diabetes educators and one endocrinologist, four coaches from the Bulls/Sox Academy—Eddie Fay, former University of Illinois basketball standout Jerry Hester (1993-98), Jack Saslusarz and Ed Leonard, under the supervision of Stewart—coached the kids in basketball fundamentals.

The medical staff had four stations set up around the gym, with all the supplies for blood glucose monitoring, emergency kits for hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and insulin available for the campers. Every 30-45 minutes, campers would leave the court to test their insulin and blood sugar levels, and determine if they needed food, juice or medication to continue.

“They became very involved in managing their diabetes because they knew that to play ball and play well, they had to have their blood sugars within a certain range,” explains Joyce. “They became savvy at adjusting insulin doses up or downward and at eating the appropriate amount of food.”

Many campers experienced low blood sugars the first couple of days because they didn’t know what effect the exercise would take on their bodies. When they felt sluggish, fatigued or impaired in some way, the camp’s medical staff would quickly spring into action to determine what that child needed, then discuss with the camper how to prevent the situation from happening again.

“That’s how we turned every episode into teaching moments,” says Joyce. “Even for the little ones.”

Coach Stewart says he was amazed at just how resilient his campers were.

“I’ve experienced the affects of diabetes up close and personal. My grandmother died because of the disease and my dad currently has it, but the one thing I hadn’t experienced before was working with diabetic kids. This awful disease really takes on a whole new twist when it hits children.”

In many ways the camp was just like others Stewart and his staff run for non-diabetic kids; the coaches covered specific topics each day, including a series of skill sets, and talked about self-esteem and confidence building. The unique thing this time was that the coaches had to allow time for campers to leave the court to check their blood sugars if they felt faint.

“They’re no different than any other child other than that they have diabetes,” says Stewart. “They could execute what we asked of them and we treated them like any other normal kid. We always promote that they should believe in themselves, have a positive attitude, and we worked toward giving them the strength and encouragement to make it in life.”

Slam Dunk for Diabetes coaches
The coaches, including former Illini Jerry Hester (center), covered specific topics each day while talking about self-esteem and building confidence.

The camp was named after Moses Cheeks, a patient of Joyce’s as well as the father of Portland Trail Blazers Head Coach Maurice Cheeks. Moses also helped plan the camp’s activities and each day the kids would check in with him.

More than 4,000 children in Illinois have diabetes, which Joyce calls a growing epidemic. Nationally, nearly 1.3 million new cases are diagnosed annually, and nearly 625,000 individuals in Illinois have the disease. Unfortunately, a huge number of diabetics don’t receive any formal education on how to manage it, though this basketball camp was definitely a step in the right direction.

“You can teach kids in an office setting about the disease, but it just doesn’t have as much impact as when they actually work through it,” says Joyce. “Diabetes is a huge disruption. The kids are constantly thinking about when and what to eat. It’s an enormous task, especially when you throw in a sport, and especially one as intense as basketball.”

Despite the challenges, exercise is critical to good health for diabetics and non-diabetics alike, and the kids loved playing ball, says Joyce. They also enjoyed hanging around peers who had the same issues to deal with. One camper wrote Coach Stewart the following note:

“I really enjoyed the diabetes basketball camp. I enjoyed it because I learned a lot, like how to check for ketones and how to play basketball. Plus, I learned I am not the only kid with diabetes.”

Parents, many of whom could never have afforded to pay to send their child to a basketball camp, were also grateful. Another letter Stewart received that was signed by 14 camp parents eloquently stated:

“We truly appreciate this time that our children are allowed to feel “normal,” and to be able do something that other kids take for granted. Having a knowledgeable medical staff at camp put all our minds at ease, knowing that our kids were being properly and promptly cared for. That allowed each us to watch our kids smile and have fun and participate with a little less worry….Coaches Fay, Jack, Ed and Hester pushed our kids to be their best, encouraged them when their spirits were flagging and reminded them that they can do anything as long as they keep trying. Those lessons will serve each and every one of them not just on the basketball court, but later in life as well.”

Joyce hopes to add a West Side camp site next summer in order to serve more Chicagoland kids in need. The Judelsons are also hopeful that the camp continues not only next year, but for years to come. “There’s not enough of an effort to teach young people how to live and deal with diabetes,” Bob Judelson says. “You don’t want them to be afraid to live normal lives, because they really can.”

By Anne E. Stein