With the NBA draft still 18 months away, Willie Cauley-Stein told reporters in late 2013 that he cut short his play in a recent college basketball game because of severe chest pain and shortness of breath due to a genetic disorder called sickle-cell trait.
That condition made Cauley-Stein, a 21-year-old, 7-foot-1, 240-pound forward/center and Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, a potential liability for any team that drafted him. But it didn’t stop the Sacramento Kings, which chose him Thursday as the sixth pick in this year’s draft.
Cauley-Stein and team vice president Vlade Divac said Saturday the condition should not affect his play.
“No big deal,” Divac said he concluded after talking to a team doctor about the condition.
“I don’t see that it had an effect on him” at Kentucky,” Divac told The Sacramento Bee after Cauley-Stein’s introductory news conference at the team’s J Street office adjacent to the arena construction site.
Cauley-Stein said it’s manageable with hydration and nutrition.
“There is no issue. You have to be cautious of it. You have to stay hydrated. You have to eat well. I eat really organic,” Cauley-Stein said.
In 2013, he described his condition to the Lexington Herald-Leader after having to leave the court after 25 minutes while playing in a game for Kentucky.
“My chest starts to hurt,” he said after the game against Boise State. “Some days, just randomly, I’ve had real bad chest pain. I can’t, like, breathe, and my heart rate won’t come down. I have to stop and wait for it to come down.”
Two days later, John Calipari, Kentucky’s head coach, said Cauley-Stein knew how to manage the illness.
“If he gets winded or he feels it, he’ll take himself out,” Calipari said, “He’s pretty good about it.”
So what is sickle-cell trait?
It disproportionately affects African Americans, and sufferers inherit one sickle-cell gene and one normal gene. People who inherit two sickle-cell genes, one from each parent, can develop sickle-cell disease – a more serious condition that causes episodes of severe chest pain, said Paul Kaesberg, a hematologist at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.
People with sickle-cell trait, by contrast, often suffer no symptoms. But the condition can flare up, especially in people who exert themselves and become overheated and dehydrated, Kaesberg said. That brings effects similar to sickle-cell disease, including the potential for sudden death.
For people with sickle-cell trait, red blood cells can get sticky and adhere to blood vessels, which impedes the flow of blood and oxygen, he said.
Competitive athletes with sickle-cell trait are especially at risk, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There’s an easy fix, however. Doctors have found drinking plenty of fluids can prevent ill effects from sickle-cell trait, Kaesberg said.
“Good hydration overcomes the problem,” he said.
Calipari told the Herald-Leader he’s coached other players with sickle-cell trait and was careful to make sure they stay hydrated.