Hoyas' Austin Freeman Won't Let Diabetes Slow Him Down
WASHINGTON -- Late in a summer-league game one weekend in late July, Austin Freeman brought the ball up the right side, first casually, then more quickly. He sized up his defender near the 3-point line, leaned in, pounded one hard dribble, then stepped back, rose and launched a high arching three. When it snapped the net, the packed house at Georgetown's McDonough Gym let out a "whoo-oooohhh'' of admiration, and one fan near midcourt turned to his friend and said with glee, "Man, he's all right!''
Five months after receiving a stunning diagnosis of diabetes late in the regular season of his junior year at Georgetown, Freeman agrees with that assessment. "I felt fine,'' he said Thursday afternoon by phone from campus, speaking of his month of playing for the team of all-Hoyas players in the annual James "Jabbo" Kenner League. "Everything was good. No problem with me.''
Freeman added that he felt like he was in great shape, at full strength, and had no ill effects from the adjustment in diet, exercise, medication and habits needed to control his condition. As he played, there were no obvious outward or inward signs that he was dealing with a disease (Type 1, once known as juvenile diabetes) for which there is no cure and which, according to the American Diabetes Association, affects about 5-10 percent of the roughly 24 million Americans overall who have it.
"No, nothing at all,'' Freeman insisted. "I'm just trying to be me, just trying to be myself.''
Just as it is now part of his life and daily routine, it is now a big part of the story of Freeman's career at Georgetown. The 6-foot-4 off-guard was having easily the best season of his career (he eventually was named to the all-Big East second team as he led the balanced Hoyas with 16.5 points a game) for a team that stayed in the top 10 most of the year. Then, in late February, he started feeling the effects of what he and his teammates and coaches thought was a flu bug that was going around. Ironically, he had just played one of his finest games, scoring 24 second-half points in a comeback win at Louisville on Feb. 23.
Yet he barely made it through a home loss to Notre Dame four days later, getting intravenous fluids before the game and playing just 23 minutes, scoring five points. He then had to be sent home from the subsequent trip to West Virginia for a March 1 game.
Freeman got the diagnosis after being admitted for tests at Georgetown University Hospital; his parents, who live nearby in suburban Maryland, were at his side.
In time, and with the help of the hospital's renowned diabetes center, he learned about eating properly, controlling his weight, testing his blood sugar and injecting insulin. Somehow, he never missed a beat on the basketball court or in class. Five days after being rushed back to Washington, he scored 24 points in a rout of Cincinnati before an appreciative, supportive home crowd; he never missed another game, playing in all of Georgetown's Big East and NCAA tournament matches.
"I wasn't really surprised,'' Freeman said of his ability to step right back onto the court and pick up where he had left off. "I just like playing basketball. I just took the chance. It wasn't going to stop me from playing. There was no fear. I was never convinced that anything would keep me from getting back to playing.''
His teammates immediately came to him with their support, which was no surprise to him, either: "We're all friends. We're teammates. We're like brothers. So when one of us goes down, we call come together to pick him up.''
He also heard constant outpourings of affection and questions about his condition from everyone who knew him and many who didn't; he embraced that as well.
"You get used to it,'' Freeman said, admitting that at times he wasn't fond of being asked about it so much. "People want to know how you're feeling. And it could also be a good thing, because it means people care.''
Something else he got used to: injecting himself with insulin daily. No, he said, he had not been comfortable with needles before, adding with a laugh, "Is anybody?''
He said that he has heard from and spoken to several athletes and other personalities with diabetes since the news got out; he himself reached out to two of the most prominent active players with it, Lakers forward Adam Morrison and Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, but has not heard back from them yet.
At season's end, there had been some worry about how Freeman, as a newcomer to the diabetic lifestyle, would handle things while away from the daily monitoring within the program. Those fears seem allayed now. Besides both sessions of summer school (he is on track to graduate next spring) and the six weekends of summer league ball, Freeman also participated in Paul Pierce's three-day Nike Skills Academy Camp in Chicago last month. Contrary to any concern that his illness would take away from his game, Freeman said he feels sharper than ever. He definitely looks as fit as he ever has, more toned and thicker in his upper body, a plus for a player whose greatest attribute is his strength and explosiveness.
His goal coming into his senior season was to not only make another step up as a player, but also as a leader, something he tended to leave to others on last year's senior-less roster. Now that he genuinely feels he is better conditioned than in past seasons, he said he sees the rest falling into place.
"I feel like I got stronger, quicker, all that, from me just working out,'' he said. Even with the departure of center Greg Monroe to the NBA, he envisioned no fall-off by his Georgetown team, with improvement of teammates like junior Julian Vaughn (who becomes the primary inside player in Monroe's absence) and the arrival of freshman like forward Nate Lubick and guard Markel Starks, who looked solid in their own summer-league play.
Plus, Freeman reiterated, he expects more from himself, regardless of his diagnosis. "I feel really, really good right now. I feel better,'' he said. "Physically, mentally -- I'm pretty much better on everything.'' He paused. "I'm feeling pretty good.''