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NBA and Diabetes: Gary Forbes on Taking His Shot

Published: 11/28/23 8:56 am
By Anna Brooks

Gary Forbes Kobe BryantFrom professional basketball to published author, former NBA player Gary Forbes shares his journey with type 1 diabetes and how the diagnosis didn’t stop him from living out his dream.

Ever since childhood, Gary Forbes dreamt of playing in the NBA.

He started practicing at age 3 on the hoop his father – who like him, also has type 1 diabetes – built for him and his brothers in Colón, Panama, where Forbes was born.

After moving to Brooklyn, New York, as a child with his family, Forbes remembers watching his first Michael Jordan game. That sealed the deal. Just like Jordan, he was going to be a professional basketball player. 

Once Forbes started playing high school ball, it was clear it wasn’t just a pipe dream; Forbes was a top player, which earned him scholarship offers to universities around the country.

His diabetes diagnosis didn’t come until after his freshman year at college. The now 6-foot-7 Forbes was playing for the University of Virginia (where he ranked No. 4 on ESPN’s list of top shooting guards) when he started experiencing health problems. 

Competing against tougher, high-caliber college athletes, Forbes remembers drinking special Gatorade shakes to put on weight. 

“They had 54 grams of sugar and 18 grams of added sugar. I still remember how the nutrition label looked,” Forbes said. “My father warned me not to drink those, but being a young man not really listening to your parents, I was like ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

Despite the Gatorade and drinking gallons of water a day, Forbes said he constantly felt thirsty and frequently had to use the bathroom. In just one week, he lost 20 pounds. Forbes went to the doctor and the then 19-year-old was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

“I remember the doctor pulling the shades down and telling me that I may have to stop worrying about basketball and focus on my education,” he said. “I took that as a challenge. Plan B was to make Plan A work. I was going to make it to the NBA, despite having this health challenge.”

And eventually, he did. 

Forbes started taking long-acting insulin to manage his diabetes and went back to playing college basketball. He transferred to the University of Massachusetts where he achieved a career-high in points scored and was named A-10 Player of the Year. In 2008, he fought for a spot in the NBA draft but wasn’t selected.

However, after competing in a summer league with the Houston Rockets and a training camp with the Denver Nuggets, Forbes was signed by the Toronto Raptors in 2011. Forbes ended up playing for the Rockets, Nuggets, and Brooklyn Nets, and overseas on top-tier teams in China, Italy, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, and his birthplace of Panama.

Along with other NBA players Adam Morrison and Chris Dudley and WNBA player Lauren Cox, Forbes is one of the few professional players known to have diabetes. 

“I always looked at diabetes as my superpower because I can do everything that these other players are doing and I have diabetes,” he said.

Despite the challenges of living with diabetes as a professional athlete – including many low blood sugar episodes and a harrowing experience falling into a diabetic coma – Forbes said he never missed a practice or game.

“I remember waking up from the coma and my first words were, ‘Can I go back to practice?’ The doctors were like, ‘This guy is kind of crazy…’” Forbes said. “But I think my father's optimistic mindset was passed on to me and has helped with managing my diabetes.”
Type 1 diabetes runs in the Forbes family; his father lives with the condition, and his grandfather passed away from diabetes complications. Forbes’ father worked as a welder and diver in the Panama Canal and also achieved athletic acclaim as an Olympic weightlifter.

“I never saw a weakness with my father having diabetes,” he said. “I watched him lift weights and do so many athletic things. He never made it a crutch. That was someone who I idolized and someone who did great things with type 1.”

Today, Forbes aims to do the same, which is to inspire people living with health conditions that they can achieve whatever they set their minds to. 

Following six knee surgeries and several serious hypoglycemia episodes, Forbes retired from professional basketball in 2019. But he’s moved on to the next chapter of his life: writing. 

In 2023, he launched a comic book series called “The Sole Survivors,” which follows the story of superhero children battling conditions like autism, cancer, and diabetes. He hopes the books will encourage confidence and build resiliency, plus educate others and spread awareness about the daily challenges those living with chronic conditions face.

“I created these characters as superheroes because kids who go through these health challenges are superheroes,” Forbes said. “I want to show people that despite diabetes or whatever health challenge you have, you can do great things.” 

Read more personal stories about living with diabetes here:

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About the authors

Anna Brooks is a Managing Editor at diaTribe. She has a master’s degree in journalism with a specialization in health and science. Originally from Calgary, Anna has worked as a... Read the full bio »