The Madness of March is here, once again! It’s the time of year when college basketball fever consumes the world and businesses lose countless hours of employee productivity thanks to bracketology and all forms of NCAA fan activity.
I’m a sports fan myself, and while pro baseball and hockey are my first two loves, tying for a close third would be college basketball and football.
Now, I’ve never been one to go to the extreme of memorizing stats and standings like many of my friends (hey, I’m distracted enough by diabetes math!) But yes, I like to keep tabs on college basketball, and when March Madness rolls around, I definitely feel the fever myself. Like so many other fans, I was glued to the TV set this past weekend during the highly-anticipated Selection Sunday when 68 teams are matched up for the first round, which begins today.
Of course, as a PWD, I’ve kept my eye especially on a number of athletes who’ve succeeded in their respective sport while living with type 1. In fact, following their journey over the past decade has motivated me to start better managing my own health, and also delve more deeply into the Diabetes Community.
What I’m getting at here is that I was privileged to recently have the chance for an interchange with one of those type 1 college stars by the name of Tom Gisler, who played Division III basketball for the University of Northwestern in Minnesota up until his graduation last year.
Tom made a big impact in that college basketball division, becoming one of the best long-range shooters that helped lead the Northwestern Eagles to a third consecutive berth in the NCAA Division III tournament. Or, as stat-watchers may appreciate: Standing at 6′-4”, Tom made 48.3 percent of his three-point attempts, just 3 percentage points shy of the Division III record.
Today, in honor of March Madness, we bring you an inside look at Tom’s story of surviving the competitive world of college basketball with a type 1 diabetes diagnosis in the mix.
Can I Still Play?
Tom’s diagnosis story will sound familiar to many: it was the summer just before he started 7th grade in the late 90s when he began experiencing those classic symptoms — weight loss, extreme thirst, and waking up 5 to 10 times a night to use the bathroom. His older sister played basketball and the family was driving back from a tournament in Iowa, and they had to stop many times so Tom could pee. That’s what raised eyebrows, and led to a doctor’s visit and the diagnosis.
No one in the family had diabetes, except one deceased grandpa who’d had type 2, so Tom says his family was caught off-guard. Their very first question: Could he still play sports? Tom had been playing basketball since he was very little, when his dad was the coach, and the thought of losing his ability to play sports was what stung most.
But an 11-year-old Tom and his family learned with relief that diabetes wasn’t going to take him off the court. Living in the small town of Stewartville in southeast Minnesota, Tom says he had a family doctor they knew well and that he was encouraging.
“He told me that diabetes won’t have to get in the way of life if you don’t let it, and that it’s not limiting. He told me life would change a little bit, but really it’s more of an an annoyance that I’d have to keep an eye on. It’d be kind of like living with an inhaler, that you have to have with you all the time and work into your life,” Tom says. Pretty good approach from the doctor’s standpoint, IMHO.
But for Tom, it wasn’t psychologically quite as easy as that; he was able to keep playing basketball, but he admits that his “first instinct” was to keep his diabetes a secret.
“Initially, it hurt me and it felt like a bigger deal than it really was. I wanted to just be myself, and not have diabetes hanging around my neck. I was naturally shy, and I didn’t want anyone to think I was weird or couldn’t do something.”
It was until almost two years later, in high school, that Tom remembers taking an insulin shot during half-time in full view of his teammates. They were amazed that they hadn’t known before. But nothing negative happened, and from then on Tom says his close friends on both the high school and college teams were supportive of his diabetes needs.
He says some of them could even spot blood sugar changes, and would run to get a Gatorade. Tom says he’s been fortunate with being very sensitive to his own highs and lows, and therefore never once had a blood sugar incident that impacted his basketball performance (!) He says he was able to keep his blood sugars between 100 and 150 mg/dL before and during games by checking often and making adjustments.
His routine? He would check before a game, but not multiple times unless he wasn’t feeling OK — because “that can mess with your head, to constantly wonder what your blood sugars are doing and to basically ‘chase the numbers’ instead of focusing on the game,” he says.
Not wanting to lug an insulin pump around during games, Tom says he’s been on injections since his diagnosis — although he’s now considering an insulin pump for the first time since he’s no longer playing competitively.
“I always said that as soon as I got done with sports, I’d start looking at an insulin pump,” he said, adding that the timing’s somewhat unfortunate, since he’s just recently been taken off his parents’ insurance.
Now graduated from college with a degree in accounting, Tom’s in the thick of tax season now (so sitting a lot!) but he still tries to play as much basketball with friends as he can. But he’s also studying to become a CPA, so that takes up a chunk of his time.
“I love playing basketball, and diabetes doesn’t change that,” he said. “I’ve had great control, in large part because of the activity and exercise I’ve had in my life. Now, if I’m feeling crummy, I get up and move and it helps with blood sugars and just overall with health.”
Tom’s an inspiration for many, and we wondered, who inspired Tom? The first person he mentioned is another PWD basketball star whose name is familiar to many of us: Adam Morrison. He was making headlines a decade ago, and I vividly remember back in 2004, the year I’d moved to Indianapolis, seeing a Sports Illustrated feature with a multi-page spread on Adam’s life with diabetes and basketball. He was on the cover a couple of years later, while at the top of his game.
As Sports Illustrated wrote: “His struggle with type 1 diabetes turned him into a hero for millions who also suffered from it and made his on-floor feats all the more amazing.”
Yes, Adam broke records in high school — despite a severe hypo he experienced at the state championship game. He went national during his three seasons at Gonzaga where he led the nation in scoring as a junior. But many remember his final game most: the Sweet 16 matchup against UCLA, when despite his scoring an incredible 24 points, the team lost in the final minutes and Adam broke down crying on the court — on national TV. A few months later, Adam responded publicly in a commercial for EA Sports’ NBA Live, saying in the spot, ‘Yeah, I cried. I cried on national television. So what? Failure hurts… I hope I never lose that intensity. More people should cry. And when I get to the NBA, more people will cry.’”
Of course, as we now know, it didn’t turn out that way. Although Adam hit the big leagues and was with the LA Lakers for two championships, he didn’t have a lot of play time and his pro career pretty much fizzled thanks to bad luck and injuries unrelated to diabetes. He faded from basketball entirely a few year ago — up until the news last summer that Adam returned to Gonzaga not only as a re-enrolled student, but as assistant basketball coach.
Tom says he remembers that Sports Illustrated article and cover on Adam at least as intensely as I do, and he held on to it as an inspiration.
“I’ve always looked up to those doing well in sports, or just in life, and that’s what I hope my story has meant to some kids,” Tom says.
“It’s inspiring to see that nothing’s held these people back. You can always find an excuse, and with diabetes it’s an easy one to go to. But I like to look at successful people and think, ‘If they can do it, so can I.’ Don’t shy away from your diabetes, and it sure doesn’t have to stop you.”
Thanks Tom, for a ‘YouCanDoThis‘-type message that’s always welcome. And we hope that this tax season treats you well ahead of your CPA exam!