When it comes to kids, either you have a way or you don’t. It takes a special kind of mojo to win the heart and mind of a 10-year-old.
Especially a 10-year-old with diabetes who’s understandably too petrified to poke himself in the stomach.
“You’ve got to own the disease,” Jordy Kuiper said. “I see parents being overprotective in those situations. They’re like, ‘I’ll prick your finger, put your finger in.’ I tell them, when you’re a grown up, you’re not going to have your parents around, so it’s (important), being able to handle it on your own.”
Kuiper has a way. A way and a story. The North Carolina-Greensboro forward is this gentle mountain of humor, patience and empathy, 6-foot-9 with an 8-foot heart, and a Type 1 diabetic since age 9.
“I just started feeling really sick,” recalled Kuiper, a native of the Netherlands whose Spartans visit Furman Monday night on ASN. “I went to the doctor’s office and they said, ‘Well, we should probably check your blood sugar, just to be sure.’”
“And the machine pretty much exploded. And that’s when we got to the hospital and got the diagnosis. It kind of puts your world upside down, though.
“The biggest thing for me was, could I keep playing basketball? I didn’t really care about the disease thing — whatever, I was going to overcome it. I asked, ‘Can I still play?’ In this society now, a lot of kids get piled onto when they can’t do things.”
Kuiper talks to dozens of those same kids now, in person, online or via social media. And his mantra is simple, direct and resolute:
Yes, you can.
Can I play? Yes, you can. Can I run? Yes, you can. Can I do everything I loved, everything I did with my friends, everything that made me feel whole and alive?
Yes, yes, and heck, yes.
“I really didn’t have anyone to look up to,” explained Kuiper, who grew up fast — having measured 6-5 by the age of 14 — in the town of Groningen. “Anyone that could show me that you could do anything you wanted to.”
So he vowed to become that person for anybody else, anybody who needed it, however they wanted it. He found an inspiration a signpost in Bas van de Goor, an Olympic volleyball hero who’d steered the Netherlands to a gold at the Atlanta Summer Games in 1996 and was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes seven years later. Van de Goor launched a foundation to promote awareness and opportunity for diabetics through sports, and as a 15-year-old basketball prodigy, Jordy went to one of the Olympian’s conferences and introduced himself.
“I said, ‘If there’s anything I can do to help your great cause,’” Kuiper recalled, “’I’m willing to do it.’”
Before long, the teen was representing the Bas van de Goor Foundation on the speaking circuit, extolling the virtues of exercise and fitness, independence, and the strength to chase your dreams. Pumps and all.
“(Bas) kind of put the right perspective for me,” said Kuiper, who locked onto the radar of Greensboro coaches after a standout season with Spain’s Canarias Basketball Academy. “He showed me that I was able to use that drive and that passion I had and he provided me a forum and an outlet to kind of reach out to kids all over Holland — and, eventually, all over the world. I didn’t have a role model or anything like that so I decided to just become one myself.”
In 2012, the foundation honored Kuiper as its “Ambassador of the Year,” and the big man continues to spread the gospel in the States through the local chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. He’s helped to get the program on board, too, through promotions such as the Spartans’ annual JDRF Night. And it’s hard to miss the Dutch giant on the bench or at the scorer’s table, using his insulin pump, occasionally tucking the bad boy into his right kneepad for support.
“It’s really just an extension of me,” Kuiper explained. “I kind of don’t even think about it anymore.”
He’s also been more than a little distracted, having suffered a minor tear of the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during an accidental collision at North Carolina State on Dec. 22.
“Even if I’m not playing, I always try to make an impact,” said Kuiper, who was averaging 2.8 points and 2.5 rebounds per game at the time of the injury and has considered applying for a medical redshirt to try to get a season of eligibility back down the road. “I went from starting center to ‘Commissioner of Bench Celebrations.’ But it is what it is.”
After all, pain is relative. Kuiper made that very point to try and help one diabetic youngster work through needle trepidations a few years back, not long after he’d arrived in Greensboro.
“I explained how crazy it was (in Spain),” he said, “how we used to run sand hills in the morning for like three hours straight, just because the coach wanted to.”
The kid’s jaw dropped.
“He’s like, ‘Wow, if you were able to do that, I should be able to shoot myself in the leg,’” Kuiper continued. “And I witnessed him doing it for the first time. He was, like, in awe. A whole new world opened up for him.
“He just started playing ball recently, too. It’s just fun to see it come to reality with little things like that.”
It’s fun to see the light come on, the dawning realization, a grin that could light up a city block.
“You see it across the board with kids, the similar impact every time,” Kuiper said. “It just doesn’t get old.”