This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May. 07 Mayhem Issue. Subscribe today!
"Bonjour!" chef Clemence Gossett says. Clint Capela's eyes nearly spring from his skull. "You're French!" the Rockets' 6-foot-10 Swiss center exclaims, before they jabber in their go-to tongue. He knew he'd be spending his day off in LA facing me in a bake-off at the Gourmandise School inside the Santa Monica Place mall -- it was his idea -- but he didn't know it would be with a real live French person in charge. Now he feels confident. "You will get destroyed," Capela tells me. "How about loser washes dishes?" I say, to which he replies: "Let's do it. I know you're a microwave guy." This is true.
4 p.m.: LA CLASSE COMMENCE
In a hands-on demo, Chef Clemence shows us everything we need to know about making quiche -- a French pastry I've never tasted but imagine to be like a deep-dish pizza with eggs where the tomatoes are supposed to be. Advantage: the big guy. Capela's love affair with French cuisine dates to his birth in Geneva, the French-speaking Swiss city where he grew up after his African immigrant parents parted ways. Capela discovered basketball at 13, and the game discovered Capela two years later, leading him to a training academy -- and all the quiche he could eat -- in Chalon-sur-Saône, France. It's clear that Houston's 23-year-old hoops wunderkind left his heart there. "I love everything about French culture," he says, before falling into reverie about Paris, healthy savories and romantic rituals. "On dates, I do dinner, a movie and I bring flowers sometimes."
Right now, though, Capela is thinking flour-or he's supposed to be anyway. Chef Clemence interrupts, "Everybody ready? On your marks, get set ...!"
Already we're a mess. "Oh my god," Capela says as he slaps butter to flour, "I forgot what she told us." Sadly, my opponent eats setbacks for breakfast. Capela failed his first driving test in the U.S. -- got into a collision, even -- before acing the second. And as an über-athletic but undercooked rookie in 2014, he toiled with the Rockets' D-League affiliate in Hidalgo, Texas, before working (and eating) his way to Houston the next year. These days, the onetime spring-loaded noodle who couldn't buy a shot just concluded a regular season in which he shot a league-leading 65.2 percent from the field while averaging 14 and 11 for a 65-win Rockets team. Houston's third-best player after James Harden and Chris Paul, Capela could be the X-factor in his team's title run -- if he doesn't burn us all to a crisp in this kitchen. "We do have fire extinguishers," our chef assures me.
While Capela maintains that he hasn't cooked in at least three years, he pounds and rolls dough like a master. "Pastry chefs do have strong arms," Chef Clemence says, implying that I, in fact, do not. "You massage the dough too much," she tells me. "It's not a lady." Capela loves this: "We know you're tender, Sam!" And that -- Tender Sam -- is what they call me for the remainder of the day.
4:50: LINGUA FRANCA
We smash six eggs, add salt and pepper, then whisk. Capela keeps getting cheat codes in French from our chef, but he extends an olive branch by teaching me the most important phrase in any language: "J'ai besoin d'aller aux toilettes." (I need to go to the toilet.) It sounds like Farsi, I tell him, my native tongue. Capela lights up: "Really? You're from Iran? Which city?" "Tehran," I say. "I know people from Tehran!" Capela says. He then nails a quick Farsi lesson ("Bayad beram toilette!") and explains that his international background serves him well in the locker room. "Having friends from Morocco, Chinese friends, I'm used to different cultures, and that really helped my transition to Houston. I can get along with many people." True enough, by all accounts Capela is loved in Houston. Our chef is a fan too, clearly. "He's a natural!" she says of Capela the custard maker. "I'm French, man," he says. "It's in my genes!"
5:10: BAKE AND WAIT
We bide 17 minutes of bake time with a chat about The Beard and CP3. "When I see two guys on my team perform every single night at a high level, it inspires me," Capela says. "Now I feel I can do anything. I want to be an All-Star. I can be a Hall of Famer -- that good." But more than anything, Capela wishes to be a champion, and his road to the 2018 title will almost certainly run through Oakland. When the Rockets took the season series 2-1 over the Warriors, "we showed that we can compete with them," Capela says. "We proved that we're the best team now. But we have to prove that what we did in the regular season wasn't random." Speaking of random -- we have a few minutes to spare. Is Capela thinking what I'm thinking? "Let's do it," he says with a laugh.
5:20: FOOTIE WITH THE FOODIE
We buy a soccer ball from the store next door and start hitting headers in the middle of the outdoor mall. "My first love," Capela says wistfully. "I'll show you a trick." He flays his legs out like nunchakus and slaps the ball my way. I attempt the same move and nearly drill a lady in the head. "Maybe this is a bad idea," Capela says.
5:27: FAIR AND LEGAL TENDER
Chef Clemence pulls our quiches from the oven and we dig in, one at a time. Then we wait for her to decide which one of us has done less damage to the reputation of French cooking. "I'm nervous, man," Capela says. "Are you nervous?" "Um, yeah," I say. "I'm freaking out." "You guys remind me of my three children," Chef Clemence says, before delivering her verdict: Capela's custard is tastier, but my crust is flakier, and crust trumps all, so ... "That's not fair," Capela complains.
5:35: FROM STAR TO SCRUB
Houston's rim protector, the guy who aims to join former Rockets bigs like Hakeem Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes and Yao Ming in Springfield, is manning a tiny sink in the back of the kitchen, his giant mitts in filthy dishwater. "It's tough to win on the road," Capela says, shaking his head. Honestly, I'm starting to feel bad for the guy. "Anything I can do to help, big fella?" I ask. "Where can I get a box?" he says. "I'm definitely taking my quiche with me."