The NBA’s Secret Addiction

The NBA’s Secret Addiction

Overview

by Baxter Holmes

The legend has been passed down by NBA generations, chronicled like a Homeric odyssey. The tale they tell is of Kevin Garnett and the 2007-08 Celtics, and the seminal moment of a revolution. Bryan Doo, Celtics strength and conditioning coach, recalls it as if it were yesterday, how before a game in December of that season, an unnamed Celtic — his identity lost to history, like the other horsemen on Paul Revere’s midnight ride — complained to Doo of incipient hunger pangs.

“Man, I could go for a PB&J,” the player said.

And then Garnett, in an act with historical reverberations, uttered the now-fabled words: “Yeah, let’s get on that.”

Garnett had not, to that point, made the PB&J a part of his pregame routine. But on that night in Boston, as Doo recalls, Garnett partook, then played … and played well. Afterward, from his perch as the Celtics’ fiery leader, Garnett issued the following commandment: “We’re going to need PB&J in here every game now.”

And so a sandwich revolution was born.

At the time, Doo notes, the Celtics not only didn’t provide lavish pregame spreads, they didn’t offer much food at all. But he soon found himself slapping together 20 PB&J’s about three hours before every tip-off, the finished products placed in bags and labeled with Sharpie in a secret code: “S” for strawberry, “G” for grape, “C” for crunchy. Of vital import: Garnett was an “S” man, and woe unto he who did not deliver him two S’s before every game. “If Kevin didn’t get his routine down, he’d be pissed,” Doo says. “Even if he didn’t eat them, he needed them to be there.”

But why? What is it, exactly, about a PB&J?

In dozens of interviews with players, coaches, executives, nutritionists, trainers and others in and around the NBA, the most common explanation offered was the most obvious: PB&J is comfort food, and countless players, like countless other humans, grew up on it. “It’s a soothing memory from childhood,” Shanahan says. It’s “peace of mind,” says Brett Singer, a dietitian at the Memorial Hermann Ironman Sports Medicine Institute, who adds: “You feel good, you play well.” Brian St. Pierre, director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition, who’s consulted with the Spurs, says it’s not so much a placebo effect but “almost more than that. They just simply believe.” Lakers coach Luke Walton has a theory: NBA players are superstitious nuts, especially when it comes to routines. “Athletes are strange people,” he says. “We’ve got weird habits.” Walton, now 36 and in his first season leading the Lakers, still downs a PB&J before every game.

Factor in the NBA schedule — teams flying constantly, red-eyes, bad traffic, rotten night’s sleeps — and on a night-to-night basis, so much is outside a player’s control. It’s all the more natural to cling all the tighter to something quick, cheap and all but impossible to foul up.

Cute theory. But now let’s engage in a little evolutionary anthropology and travel back millennia to when humans began to walk upright and our ancestors developed cravings for certain qualities in hard-to-find calorie-dense foods: fats, sugars, starches, proteins and salts. Today, the smell of these — even the mere awareness of their proximity — still triggers a release in humans of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which once provided our ancestors with an energy boost for the hunt, along with serotonin, the “happiness hormone.” At first bite of a PB&J, receptors detect the food’s chemical composition and report back to the brain — fats! sugars! starches! proteins! salts! — where reward centers release opioids and, after a few minutes, endorphins, which briefly reduce stress. It’s an effect, St. Pierre notes, that’s similar to sex. They also lower the body’s heart rate, a bonus for an anxious hunter or a player just before tip-off. “These are the exact same pathways that make heroin addicts chase their next fix,” says Dr. Trevor Cottrell, director of human performance for the Memorial Hermann Ironman Sports Medicine Institute.

Heroin, sex … peanut butter and jelly. You can see why players might revolt if someone tried to take away their PB&J. So are they actually good for you — or good enough for the physical demands of the most physically taxed athletes on the planet? Perhaps you’ve seen articles in your Facebook feed about the horrors of sugar and carbs. Within that framework, no, PB&J’s aren’t great. The typical PB&J contains roughly 400 to 500 calories, 50 grams of carbohydrates, 20 grams of fat and 10 grams of protein. As Jill Lane, a Dallas-based sports nutritionist who has worked with NBA players, says: “It’s not the best, but it’s not bad.”