In some ways, I have been working on this post for years, just by listening to things that NBA players say. They talk about a massive spectrum of things, of course, from AAU to Zydrunas Ilgauskas. But sprinkled in there among the things players talk most frequently -- you hear it again and again -- is the Cheesecake Factory.
Nowadays, if ever someone tells me that they bumped into an NBA player out in public, I like to stop them mid-sentence and guess: "Was it at the Cheesecake Factory?" It can make you look like a freaking genius, because once in a while, you'll be right. (If that doesn't work, I ask if it was at P.F. Chang's. Those two together account for a ridiculous percentage of player sightings nationwide.)
People always want to know what it's like to be an NBA player. I feel pretty confident that one of the easiest and most accurate things you could do to live just like an NBA player is to eat a meal at the Cheesecake Factory.
Why do so many players love it so? Why aren't they eating at the fanciest restaurants in every town? And what's wrong with room service and a nap? And don't teams cater a lot of meals?
Here are my best guesses:
Some players spend lavishly on meals every day, but most are actually trying to live on some kind of budget. Guys on rookie contracts and those with aggressive financial planners are trying to get all their meals in without spending beyond their per diem, which is a little over $100 a day when the team is on the road. One big room service meal -- fit for a large athlete with wicked metabolism -- at an NBA-quality hotel could leave you eating your next meal out of a vending machine.
Players spend a ton of time in strange cities. Even the city they play in is new to most young players. Big chains like Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang's offer predictability.
Portion sizes! That's the main thing, right? I have never been to the Cheesecake Factory, but I have heard that they do not skimp.
So, unless you're among the millions who have actually seen NBA players at Cheesecake Factories, you're probably thinking to yourself: How do we know that Henry is not just making this up? Are players really eating at the Cheesecake Factory all that much?
Google has my back, although I'm sure this is only the beginning of the evidence one could put together:
Lindsey Hunter is insane for the Cheesecake Factory. Seriously, you have to read this post from Detroit Bad Boys. They even talk about how his teammates try not to let him choose the restaurant, because he always chooses the same one. He says it's because of the food and the strawberry lemonade.
Gary Washburn in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "Getting adjusted to life in the states was difficult, and [Mickael] Gelabale has flourished since his girlfriend and a cousin arrived in Seattle a few weeks ago to keep him company. He still dines consistently at the Cheesecake Factory, where he went Sunday night to celebrate his on-court success.
Mike Wise in the Washington Post: "The day after [Gilbert] Arenas met Mary Francis Robinson, he said nothing about the encounter to anyone. Then he told his Dad. 'We went to the Cheesecake Factory the next night and that's when he pulled me aside and said, 'Dad, what's my mother's name?'"
Gilbert Arenas in SLAM: "I was rooting for Junior Seau and Randy Moss while also rooting for Steve Smith. So it was a 2 against 1 thing. It really didn't matter because I know Steve Smith, but I just like what Randy and Junior have done for the game. I was everywhere. I was in the gym. I was at Cheesecake Factory watching the end picking up food."
Wayne Simien's favorite restaurant is ... (ooh the suspense is killing me.)
Jeff Malmgren in the Fauquier Times-Democrat: "The next day, they watched [J.J.] Redick's Orlando Magic play the Houston Rockets, sitting in the third row next to Redick's younger brother David. Afterward, Redick drove the guys to The Cheesecake Factory for dinner ..."
Bill Simmons in ESPN the Magazine: "[Bobby] Simmons is the likable Clipper who spent four seasons waiting for a door to open, then stormed through like a SWAT leader when it finally did. One Most Improved Player award later, we were sitting at the Cheesecake Factory in West Hollywood. In a few hours, lots of NBA teams would start to court him, many of them the same ones that had shunned him three years earlier."
Andre Iguodala talking to the Sixers' official site: "... I also like the Cheesecake Factory because they serve a lot of food."
UPDATE: Too weird email from TrueHoop reader Neal: "A good friend of mine here in Chicago waits tables at the Grand Lux Cafe on Michigan Ave. NBA players eat there ALL the time. Especially the Pistons. The funny thing? It's owned by the same company that owns the Cheesecake Factory (which, incidentally, is two blocks down on Michigan)."
UPDATE: From an old Chris Palmer ESPN the Magazine article: "Every night starts off the same. Darius Miles and the boys coordinate on two-way pagers and matchbox-size digital phones. 'What y'all tryin' to get?' one of them says. 'Don't make no difference to me,' another responds. Somehow they always end up at The Cheesecake Factory, at this corner table, yucking it up as if laughing gas came with the breadsticks. This is where young friends go when they're hungry."
UPDATE: Wow, Unsilent Majority sent me an amazing Bruce Pascoe Arizona Daily Star article about how when the Arizona Wildcats lost a big game, Lute Olsen canceled a team outing to Cheesecake Factory as punishment. Channing Frye quote: "I love the Cheesecake Factory -- the salmon with teriyaki sauce and rice is off the hook."