Baylor's Lauren Cox using basketball spotlight to inspire sister, other diabetics

Lauren Cox hopes to lead Baylor to a second straight NCAA title. But first, she faces her sister in a diabetic awareness game that has meaning for both of them. Jerry Larson/Waco Tribune Herald via AP

FLOWER MOUND, Texas -- Lauren Cox had made the 120-mile drive home from Baylor University often, but this time so many thoughts swirled through her head. She had lived with Type 1 diabetes since age 7. It didn't slow her down as a high-level athlete. A star for the Baylor women's basketball team, Cox had become an inspiration to other diabetics.

But this time she was waiting to find out if one of the closest people in the world to her would also have to deal with the disease.

Just the night before, as her family attended a Baylor game in Waco, Texas, one of Cox's three sisters, then-17-year-old Whitney, was constantly thirsty and frequently urinating -- symptoms of high blood sugar. When the family returned home to Flower Mound, a suburb of Dallas, parents Dennis and Brenda used one of Lauren's old meters to check Whitney's blood sugar, hoping their fears were wrong.

Instead, they headed to the hospital, pausing only to call Lauren and let her know.

"I had practice [the next] morning, and I was crying and couldn't hold it together," Lauren said. "Coach [Kim Mulkey] brought everyone in the locker room and told them what was going on. Then I went home."

Lauren hit the road, knowing Whitney would be OK, but understanding better than anyone just how much more complicated her life had become.

When Lauren arrived home, Whitney was still at the hospital. She waited in the house they'd grown up in, where they'd had so many sisterly squabbles and bonding moments. When Whitney walked in, the sisters locked eyes and Lauren wrapped Whitney in a hug.

"And we just sat there and cried together. Just kind of got it all out," Lauren recalled. "I was really emotional because I knew what I had been dealing with for many years, and I knew that she was going to have to deal with it now.

"And it's for the rest of our lives unless they can find a cure. The good thing is it is manageable if you're responsible with it. I was telling her, 'You know what to do; you've seen what I've done. You can do the same.' "

After their shared grief came a pledge of resolve, something all four Cox sisters have in abundance. Ranging in age from 21 to 15, they can turn anything into a competition, even deciding who sits shotgun in their parents' SUV for the drive to church. Their house at the end of the street has long been a site of basketball contests, bike races, skateboarding, card games and all manner of "anything you can do, I can do better" sibling challenges.

So when Lauren's Baylor squad takes on Whitney's Lubbock Christian team in an exhibition on Wednesday at Ferrell Center in Waco -- 21 months after Whitney's diagnosis -- both will be eager to win this matchup of the 2019 women's basketball national champions in divisions I and II.

It's also Baylor's Type 1 Awareness Game, something the program has arranged previously for Lauren. This season, though, was the chance to have the game featuring both Lauren, a senior for the Lady Bears, and Whitney, a freshman for the Lady Chaps.

"For them to be able to be role models, and for this to be their platform and us to promote it during the game, it's going to be special for their family," Mulkey said.

Lauren has become a spokeswoman for awareness of and research for Type 1 diabetes; in September, she shared her story at a Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund event at Baylor that raised more than $50,000. She also went to Washington, D.C., this past summer for the JDRF's Children's Congress. Lauren was there with others who are called Type 1 role models for their success in various fields.

Lauren was amazed at how young some of the speakers were because she couldn't have imagined doing that at their age. She is naturally shy, and she said that as a child she was embarrassed about being diabetic because she didn't want to stand out as different or have to answer questions about it.

"I'm not someone who wants to be the center of attention," Lauren said.

Dennis chuckled, saying, "Yeah, but look at you now."

Sister strong

When it comes to basketball, Lauren -- one of the top players in the country and an expected WNBA lottery pick in April -- doesn't mind the spotlight. But it's not why she plays. Mulkey was impressed that during the recruiting process, despite being the No. 1-rated prospect in the country, Lauren didn't express any concern about how many other post players the Lady Bears had or ask how much she would get to play.

"I always figured, 'My chance is going to come eventually,' and I wanted to go to a winning program," Lauren said. "I knew that they were going to make me better."

It didn't hurt that Baylor was just a two hours' drive south, a great fit for the family. The Cox kids might battle each other on everything from who could eat their cereal the fastest to who could get the top grades, but they're still super close.

"Yeah, we fight a lot," Lauren said, grinning, "but my sisters are my best friends."

As the oldest, Lauren, 21, is an interesting combination of being the quietest, but also the undisputed alpha dog and most competitive. Whitney, 18, is a math whiz who has her mom's warm smile but won't back down from anything.

Kaylee, who will turn 17 in November, is called "the social butterfly" by her family. She also is the non-basketball player. Her sport is volleyball, and the junior has verbally committed to play collegiately at Missouri. Maddie, 15, is a live wire who bursts with endless energy, the ultimate gym rat in a family of athletes.

The sisters razz each other constantly -- just one more competition -- but out of their earshot, Brenda smiles and says that Maddie idolizes Lauren and hopes to make a big mark in the basketball world too.

The Cox parents were both college basketball players; Dennis at Central Methodist in Missouri, and Brenda at SMU in Dallas. Her former teammates tell Brenda they're reminded of her in watching Lauren. But both Dennis and Brenda shrug and say Lauren is way better than either of them.

"I always say, 'If you're keeping score at anything, you want to be on her team,'" Dennis said.

Lauren always has been a leader at Baylor with how hard she plays and her intense drive to win. She came off the bench and averaged 7.6 points and 4.1 rebounds as a freshman, then started her sophomore year with averages of 15.3 points and 9.7 rebounds. Last year, she helped lead the Lady Bears to the program's third NCAA title, averaging 13.0 points and 8.3 rebounds. She suffered a scary looking knee injury in the NCAA final against Notre Dame, but it was revealed to be a bone bruise, and she has made a full recovery.

As valuable as Lauren is offensively as a 6-foot-4 player who can face up and post up equally well, Mulkey thinks she is even more special defensively.

"She's a defensive presence who has an uncanny ability to be everywhere," Mulkey said. "She blocks shots, plays help defense and is just tough."

Managing Type 1

Lauren has had only one serious diabetes-related issue at Baylor. During her sophomore season, she didn't travel to UCLA after being hospitalized after complications with her diabetes arose when she had strep throat. But she learned something from that experience, and she has been able to manage the illness with a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) and insulin pump.

Lauren's CGM, which she wears on her arm, is changed weekly. The pump, which is on her hip, is changed every four or five days. Whitney has a slightly different CGM and pump combination, but it works about the same. They get shipments of about a 90-day supply for both at a time.

When Whitney was diagnosed, one positive the family recognized was how much technology has improved with diabetes care and management since Lauren was diagnosed as a child. For several years, she and her parents would have to wake up during the night -- sometimes multiple times -- to test her blood sugar, something that isn't needed now with the CGM.

"There were times it was like having a newborn, honestly," Brenda said. "But Lauren never refused to do it or got that upset about it. Even though it's a lot to have to manage, she did it."

As distraught as Lauren initially was about Whitney being diabetic, she also realized they could be a support system for each other. Lauren is returning as a national champion, and Whitney is joining a program that won a title last year. The sisters are bound by so many things, including memories that leave the whole family laughing.

Like the time when they were in grade school and got on each other's nerves during a car ride. The story goes that Whitney landed a punch or a kick, then tried to make a run for it when the car pulled into the driveway.

"You were chasing me around the yard, up and down the street," Whitney said.

As Lauren added, "So I got my hits in, and then Whitney runs inside. And she locks us all out of the house."

Dennis shakes his head, saying, "For like an hour. She would not open the door."

Whitney got in the last word. "I finally unlocked it when they said they were going to call the police," she explained. "But I did outrun her for a while. I'm pretty fast."

Both are now college basketball players, dealing with diabetes and helping others understand how to do that. It's something they'll be able to talk to people about on Wednesday and for the rest of their careers.

"Some kids say they feel embarrassed about it too, like I did," Lauren said. "Others say, 'I don't know what I'm going to do.' I have parents ask me about it on Instagram and Twitter, asking my routine before games and practices."

As Whitney added, "When I first was diagnosed, it was hard. I knew how it does change your life to a degree. But honestly, I was able to accept it pretty fast. I got diagnosed early on a Sunday morning around 2 or 3 a.m. And that Monday, I had a playoff game. I knew I was going to play in it. This wasn't going to stop me."