Diabetes diagnosis steers FIU’s Adrian Diaz back home

#FIU Men's Basketball vs Louisiana Tech (Jan 14 2016)
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It wasn’t that he wanted a nap. It’s that his body kept telling him that it was Rip Van Winkle time. That was new. And wrong. And bad. As Adrian Diaz crashed on the couch, he felt like could’ve slept the dang week away.

In hindsight, if his family hadn’t sought treatment, he might’ve been sleeping for a heck of a lot longer than that.

“If they didn’t rush me to the hospital,” recalled Diaz, the Florida International forward and Conference USA leader in blocked shots (3.1 per game), “it could have done serious damage to me.

“My family, they were there for every step of the way. Thank God I wasn’t there alone.”

Diaz, just 17 and a junior standout at Hialeah-Miami Lakes (Fla.) High School, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. The medics discovered a sugar level in his blood of roughly 700 mg/dL; the optimum level for a patient his age was in the 90-140 range. The next nap he took could well have drifted into a coma.

“I thought I was losing weight because I was working out so much,” said Diaz, whose Panthers host Charlotte in a Conference USA game Thursday on ASN.  “Definitely didn’t feel good.”

And he didn’t want that feeling — that Rip Van Winkle feeling — to return anytime soon. Menus were changed. Schedules were carefully monitored. Diaz takes an insulin injection before every game and regularly checks his sugar levels.

“I was a little bit shocked,” Diaz said. “It kind of hit me a little bit. I then thought, ‘Man, I have to give up most of my eating habits.’ I ate badly, especially when I was a kid. I had to watch what I had to eat consistently.”

Giving up the sweets was one thing. Giving up a game he loved was another. It wouldn’t be easy, but doctors offered up examples of other elite athletes with diabetes, such as Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and former Gonzaga basketball star Adam Morrison.

“They kind of used that as motivation for me,” Diaz said, “that I shouldn’t quit.”

In truth, he’s never looked back. Or looked better. At midweek, the 6-10 Diaz ranked second nationally in blocks (62) and sixth in field-goal percentage (66.5), the big man’s big man. The South Florida native already owns FIU’s single-season record for blocked shots (99, last winter) and earlier this campaign became the school’s all-time leader in career swats.

Last March, Diaz — who went by “Stretch” and “Flaco” (Spanish for “skinny”) in high school and was later dubbed “The Hialeah Hammer” — produced the first triple-double in program history: 14 points, 12 boards and 13 blocks against UAB.

“I mean, (FIU) coach (Anthony) Evans does a really good job explaining that you’re a big threat, always keep your hands up, always anticipate any shot,” said Diaz, who’s averaging personal bests in points (15.7) and rebounds (8.3) per game. “And if you could block the shot or alter the shot in any way, he told me I could help the team win a lot of games. That’s just what I’m trying to do.”

Diaz had originally committed to Frank Martin up at Kansas State but was used only sparingly as a freshman, then even more sparingly as a sophomore under new coach Bruce Weber. Seeking more minutes and more face time with his family — it’s a 3,100-mile trek, round-trip, from Miami to Manhattan, Kan., and back — he transferred to FIU after two seasons with the Wildcats.

“Basically, I wanted to start something new here at FIU,” Diaz explained. “I could start off a ‘new-year, new-me’ type-of-thing.”

“I think he just really wanted to be home, and the diabetes was a big deal and being away was a big deal,” said Gaston Rodriguez, boys’ basketball coach at Coral Gables (Fla.) High School and Diaz’s AAU coach for three years. “I think some people transfer for different reasons. He really did transfer for the right reasons, which is great.”

A situational reserve in the Big 12, Diaz has excelled in Panthers gold, increasing his field-goal percentage each of the last three seasons (53.1 in 2012-13; 60.3 in ’14-15; 66.5 this year) while dropping his rate of turnovers per 100 possessions (19.4 in 2012-13; 19.3 last winter; 14.0 this one). The Hammer posted six double-doubles over the season’s first 14 contests, including a 23-point, 15-board performance against Florida Atlantic earlier this month.

“On the offensive end, I’m more patient,” Diaz said. “I’m more patient now. I don’t rush things like I used to do at K-State.”

Diaz took defensive cues from former Kentucky star Anthony Davis, and more than a few footwork cues from volleyball — where, as a high-school freshman, he helped H-ML’s varsity squad win a district championship.

“He’s done a really good job coming into his own and becoming self-confident,” Rodriguez noted. “He’s not just a great defensive player; He’s a great offensive player, too. For a kid that’s 7-foot, he can put the ball on the floor, he can shoot the three. You just wish that other people like him, that other people that are good kids, could have as much success as he’s having right now.”

More than five years removed from his infamous sugar crash, now Diaz wants to be an example, a bridge to help young diabetics chase their muses — athletic or otherwise.

“I try to get the message out to kids that are going through the same thing that I am,” Diaz said. “If I can overcome this, then everybody else can.”

As a senior, the Hammer’s come a long, long, long way. In more ways than one.

Above: The “Hialeah Hammer” Adrian Diaz is back home in south Florida and responding with career numbers after his diabetes diagnosis. (Courtesy Alex Hernandez/FIU Athletics Media Relations)