From Chinese to Chipotle: An Edible History of the Boston Celtics (Part Three)
Open-Court Basketball & Postmates
Food played a significant role in Paul Pierce's career as he led the team from the wilderness era following Bird, McHale and Parish's departure to the next in which he would join -- or more accurately, be joined -- by Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen for Boston's 17th and most recent banner. Early in his amateur career, a young Truth would play early-morning ball with assistant coach and one-time police officer Scott Collins, who would treat the youth to a "cop breakfast" of coffee and donuts afterward.
"When you look at it, it was kind of nasty because you went to class all sweaty at the time," said Pierce in an interview with the New York Times' Billy Witz. Pierce was a bit chubby at the time, but those donut-fueled workouts gave him the structure he needed to grow into the champion he'd later become.
"It helped me get a work ethic and it helped me sacrifice. Who wants to wake up at 5:30 to go to the gym? I know nowadays I don’t. But when you’re a kid who had dreams and tried to develop a work ethic, those were the things that you wanted to do. Any chance you got you wanted to get in, and that’s pretty much where it all started."
When it came to food, Pierce was a two-way player as he was on the court. So much so, he would later become an instant league legend for coming back from a leg injury in the 2008 NBA Finals to win that 17th banner. What does that have to do with food, you ask? Quite possibly nothing at all, unless you take the Truth at his word when he recently revealed some of a previous meal had found its way out of his body and into his shorts. Which may be a joke. Or not.
Whie he might be better-known to younger Celtics fans as part of the package that brought the second Big Three to Boston, big man Al Jefferson spent three seasons in his early career with the Cs, struggling with his weight in both directions.
Early on, he put on weight that may have been a factor in the little development he showed between his rookie and sophomore season. But a nearly-burst infected appendix put him on a liquid diet for six weeks of his third season, causing him to drop to a lean 240 pounds. Had trainer Ed Lacerte not insisted the young big go to the hospital, he might have missed the rest of the season, not had his breakout, and not been part of the deal that brought Boston's next title.
It wouldn't be Big Al's -- or other Celtics -- last struggle with weight (he would later drop 20 pounds by cutting fried chicken out of his diet), nor the most impactful way food shaped his life (his eponymous father died while swimming on his lunch break). But food -- and respect for it -- have been integral to both Jefferson and his time in the league.
Teammate Delonte West, part of the package that brought Ray Allen to Boston from the Seattle Supersonics, was a bit of an eclectic eater himself. Somehow rail-thin despite an enduring love for Popeye's chicken (he reportedly ate as many as four boxes on team flights) and Cap'n Crunch-coated glazed donuts, West also enjoyed Krispy Kreme, Chick-fil-A, KFC, and pretty much anything bad for you.
Kevin Garnett's arrival in Boston changed the shape of the league, and not just in terms of his impact on the game itself. He also revolutionized pre-game snacking with his love for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. What began as a personal pick-me-up to power Garnett's legendary intensity spread like wildfire across the league, jumping from Boston to the teams players and staff would move onto until it dominated locker rooms across the league.
"He's gonna eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Every game," said Pierce of the beginning of the trend (via Bleacher Report's Howard Beck). "We didn't even have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until he got to Boston. So then he made our ball boys make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for everybody. When KG was eating them, everybody started eating them."
"It spread from there," Said ESPN reporter Baxter Holmes in an interview with NPR's Scott Simon on the bready snack. "And that's not to say that peanut butter jellies haven't been consumed by athletes for a long time, but I'm certainly talking about on a mass-produced scale." And mass produced they were, marked "C" if they had crunchy peanut butter, "G" for grape, and "S" for strawberry, Garnett's favorite. "Even if he didn't eat them, he needed them to be there," said former trainer Brian Doo, talking to Holmes in another interview on the now-iconic snack.
When the Los Angeles Lakers came to town that season, they caught wind of the snack across the arena. "Wait a minute, there's PB&J's in the Celtics' locker room? Can we get some?" they said, according to the Lakers' strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco. It spread across the league like a fire, each team institutionalizing the sandwich in their own way. The Houston Rockets were fans of Jif and Smuckers, and the Portland Trailblazers toasted theirs. The Los Angeles Clippers prefer Whole Foods jelly, and use almond butter too. The Cavs got strategic, offering empty- calorie, premade "Uncrustables" to foes while eating homemade jams and almond butter-and-banana creations.
KG didn't just leave his culinary mark on the NBA in pre-game meals -- he was also a terror to teammates and staff when it came to post-game food. Evidently, the Celtics had a rule about players getting first dibs on the spread provided to recoup all those spent calories, and one time, someone didn't get the memo. Appearing in a Player's Tribune video (via For The Win's Andrew Joseph), Paul Pierce recalled,
"I remember one day after a game — we usually have food laid out for the players after the game. And the game is over, the players have burned so many calories, we’re hungry ... We shower then we have like a buffet ... we jumped out of the shower ... and it was time to eat. And there were some people who weren’t on the team in there — some doctors who we hardly ever see. We see them making a plate with the players’ food, and ... Kevin Garnett was over there, and he kinda knocked the plate out of his hand and said, ‘This is the players’ food!'"
Pierce added he never saw that doctor again.
Garnett impacted his fellow teammates with his dietary choices and tableside manner, with Glen "Big Baby" Davis becoming such a fan of PB&J he'd terrorize his teammates as well if he thought someone had nabbed his pre-game snack.
But it's quite possible Davis needed little help given his legendary appetite, which can be seen in a parody of the big man "carving" a turkey later in his career by simply ripping off a chunk to eat. While the joke was clearly that the man could eat, the truth was that it wasn't so funny.
Though Davis made light of his voracious eating habits (he's a sucker for Reese's and Chips Ahoy) in videos having him trying baby food (poking fun at his "infantile" nickname), guest starring on Iron Chef, or serving chicken in his native Louisiana for charity, he masked a lifelong struggle with his weight with that humor.
He grew up without a father and a mother with substance abuse issues, meaning for much of his youth, he had to survive on Chips Ahoy, even resorting to stealing food when things were especially bad.
When his first child was born, Davis decided to make a change. Dropping nearly 70 pounds, the Louisiana native learned to make his own healthy meals, becoming so enamored with his success he launched his own video series to help others facing the same issues. "I think about where I’m from and all the people that are suffering from [heart disease], young men who are suffering from it, and people don’t really talk about it," Davis said in an interview with the American Heart Association.
He even started cooking with Ray Allen's wife Shannon on her own healthy cooking show, and even tried to follow the route of Celtics like Wedman, before he fell off the wagon. "I tried to be a vegan for a while,” Davis said speaking to the Los Angeles Times' Chris Erskine. “I tried it for a couple of weeks but I wasn’t getting enough protein to get me through games."
Speaking of Allen, the former UConn star was also a compulsive eater, though of a very different sort. Allen was known for his own obsessive pre-game routine, which included a meal of chicken or salmon and rice with a vegetable, as well as his abstinence from alcohol. "You have all summer to go out. Do it then. Not now. Not with so much at stake," he reportedly counciled Davis and fellow frontcourt resident Kendrick Perkins, according to Boston.com Jackie MacMullan.
Pierce even took on some of Ray's eating habits, recognizing the wisdom of healthy eating to extend careers. "He definitely was an influence on me in that aspect,” Pierce said, speaking to the Undefeated's Marc J. Spears. “I changed the way I was eating and my diet. He influenced a lot of the young guys." He didn't adopt such a rigid approach, though. "If I had to stick to the exact same thing every day, I'd kill myself," Pierce explained. "What happens if you go for your pregame meal and there's no more salmon in the freezer?"
Teammate Jason Terry was also a fan of chicken and rice, though he had to shift to healthier cooking methods as he aged -- no word whether the former Husky was behind the shift, though. Allen and his wife would go on to open their own healthy fast-food chain in south Florida, called "Grown". Inspired as much by Allen's pregame routine as their diabetic son's dietary needs, it received rave reviews upon opening.
Ray was not the only modern Celtic to have followed in the footsteps of Hondo when it came to restaurant investment. Former player and coach ML Carr might have taken a page from Allen's book after becoming a board member of the company which owns UFood Grill, a similarly-healthy fast-food restaurant. And while healthy dining establishments aren't something he's known for, former Celtics big man Shaquille O'Neal might have everyone beat when it comes to being a restaurateur. His most recent project, "Shaquille's", is a Los Angeles-based comfort food joint with a southern vibe, and he's had a restaurant empire to match the size of his colossal appetite.
He owns themed restaurants like Big Chicken Shaq (the opening of which he turned into a reality show), 17 Auntie Anne's pretzel stands, and, at one time 155 different 5 Guys Burgers and Fries restaurants. He recently joined the board of Papa John's pizza, and plans to add nine of their restaurants to his restaurant portfolio this year. You've probably seen him hawking Oreos and donuts, both favorite snacks of the seven-foot-tall, 325-pound giant of a man.
Like many of his Celtic big men predecessors, Shaq's diet may have cost him years on the court while he was a player. His favorite pre-game meal for much of his career was a pair of turkey club sandwiches with extra mayo and fries (though he would eventually shift to steak to avoid the soporific effect of tryptophans) with two pineapple sodas, and his after-game snack would be a chicken sandwich and macaroni. He was known to eat a dozen glazed donuts in one sitting (nowadays, five at a time is more normal), and as many eggs for breakfast.
He's tightened up his diet in retirement, though. While not on par with Ray Allen or Scott Wedman, Shaq is still a volume eater who gives himself cheat...months while using healthier ingredients and a lower frequency for his turkey clubs and sundry other munchie foods. And while his cheat months might seem a frivolous approach to health, he also spends months without eating any bread at all to make up for it. Even when he was eating poorly, he never drank coffee or alcohol, and was once known for leaving a $4,000 tip just because his waiter joked he ought to.
Quite a few Celtics from that era were generous in food-related ways. Shaq donated a ton and a quarter of pasta to local foodbanks during his tenure in Boston, and Jason Terry fed 100 families Thanksgiving dinner and even cooked for other families in need when he came to town. Ever the competitor, Rajan Rondo upped the ante by feeding 200 families the following year. He also helped New Hampshire-area families keep their cupboards filled for good measure, generating enough good will for some to forgive him for sharing a breakfast with Celtics archnemesis Kobe Bryant.
Doc Rivers joined Rondo in making culinary blunders of his own, skipping the celebration after winning a banner with Boston in 2008 to go grocery shopping, of all things. Rivers skipped the raucous party, and instead went out to stock up for an early breakfast with his family. His thinking? "I don't even know why." he explained to ESPN senior writer Kevin Arnovits. But when I saw [a video of the celebration], I thought, 'I'll do it next year.'"
Describing the trip to a local Shaws that evening, Rivers related the surreal moment of such a quotidian act after such an extraordinary one: "When I go in the checkout line, the clerk comes around from the cash register and says, 'What the hell are you doing in here?'" Rivers says. "I said, 'I'm grocery shopping. We need breakfast.' She said, 'That's true,' then started shaking her head. I didn't see it as strange."
That moment of hubris still haunts Doc to this day. "When I look back, I'm like, 'What the hell are you thinking?'" Rivers said. "I have a few 'sorries' in my career, but that would be one of them. But it taught me something -- winning is hard." Indeed it is, and savoring the moment may be one of life's most important lessons, even among us mortals who will never hoist the Larry O'Brien over our heads.