CLEVELAND -- Kevin Love fervently believes you are what you eat. In fact, he literally counts on it.
"Not 10 almonds, not 18 almonds -- 14 almonds,'' trainer Rob McClanaghan says when discussing Love, his most dedicated client. "Kevin is exactly on point. If he's supposed to eat every two hours, then on the days when he wants to sleep in, he'll wake up, eat and go back to sleep.''
Love has so drastically altered his eating habits that his teammates heckle him on social media. He switched to a plant-based diet in 2012, with salmon and grilled chicken as his preferred entrees. He eats five to six small meals a day, and when he was traded to Cleveland in 2014, Love hired a full-time chef who prepares menus that feature organic egg whites, beet juice, shredded wheat with almond butter and protein shakes.
During a team breakfast before Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Cavs players were devouring pancakes, waffles and bacon.
"Kev had two bran muffins and a banana with skim milk,'' Cavs forward Richard Jefferson says. "He eats like an 80-year-old lady who's trying make sure she's regular.''
Love often transports his own meals -- a pair of kale salads and grilled chicken -- on the team plane rather than be tempted by a postgame spread that might be high in calories and carbohydrates. The ribbing, he says, comes with the territory.
"They look at [me] kind of funny when I walk in with a Whole Foods bag or something,'' Love says. "That's not generally the best thing to do when you've got a group of teammates that'll clown on you.''
But Love recognizes he needs to eat this way -- especially as his Cavs prepare to play their 101st game of the season. There's a misconception that NBA players can ingest whatever they like during a long, rigorous NBA regular season that spans six months and 82 games and optimally another two months of playoffs -- yet all that toil and sweat and training does not translate into a free culinary pass.
NBA players, in truth, are just like us. They count calories. They crave late-night snacks. They drink wine, margaritas or a frosty beer, sometimes excessively. When they're stressed, they turn to comfort foods, whether it's the homemade meatballs their mother made when they were young, or the chicken fettuccine Alfredo that Love's mom has perfected.
"People definitely think athletes can eat whatever they want because they run it off,'' says Dr. Mike Roussell, a nutritionist who works with numerous pro athletes, including Lakers center Roy Hibbert. "Even in the front office, some have that belief. I was blown away by the number of [NBA] athletes who were buying chicken fingers at the arena before a game or going to Subway late at night after the game. They are literally just like everyone else.''
But players are now beginning to embrace the notion that proper nutrition provides an edge.
Consider Draymond Green: The Warriors forward dropped to the 35th pick in the 2012 draft in part because his body fat, vertical leap and conditioning were subpar. But after his rookie season with Golden State, Green dropped 20 pounds by eliminating what he called the "bad carbs,'' including his beloved tacos from a Vargas & Sons Tortillas in Saginaw, Michigan. Green says his lighter build has alleviated chronic knee pain, improved his stamina and enabled him to cut down on mental errors.
Even LeBron James, whose chiseled physique is the envy of many of his NBA peers, has undergone what some would call a dietary transformation, turning heads in 2014 when he released pictures on social media of his slimmed-down frame. It was the result, he said at the time, of a low-carb diet.
Golden State center Andrew Bogut dropped 22 pounds after the Warriors won the championship last June by eliminating processed sugars. The catalyst, he says, was an Australian documentary entitled, "Is Sugar the New Fat?" After watching it, Bogut began checking boxes for content. He didn't alter his workout, just eliminated the sugars -- and the "energy crashes" that accompanied them. Bogut says he used to mock "label readers."
"Now," he says, "I'm one of them."
CHARLES BARKLEY SAYS there is one NBA truth that is indisputable: "You can't make a living playing basketball if you are fat or out of shape,'' he says.
Barkley knows all about the slippery slope of weight gain. In fact, he might be the only NBA player in history who purposely packed on pounds to sabotage which team would select him in the 1984 NBA draft.
When Barkley, who at Auburn was aptly nicknamed The Round Mound of Rebound, visited with the Philadelphia 76ers a month before the draft, he weighed 292 pounds. Owner Harold Katz was enamored with the power forward and told Barkley he wanted to draft him, but Katz expected Barkley to slim down before they'd select him with the fifth overall pick.
"Harold said, 'Let's see how dedicated you are,' '' Barkley recalls. "When you come back two days before the draft, I expect you to weigh 284.''
Barkley went to Houston, trained every day, cut out sugars, limited his alcohol intake and loaded up on fruits and vegetables. He whittled himself down to 280 pounds, but a few days before draft, his agent, Lance Luchnick, informed him the Sixers were over the salary cap and would only be able to offer him a contract worth $75,000 (no rookie salary cap existed at the time). Barkley panicked. He didn't want to be shortchanged on his first NBA contract.
"I decided," he says now, " 'I'm going to make sure the Sixers don't draft me.' "
Over the next 48 hours, Barkley says, he and Luchnick embarked on what can only be described as an eating bender. They found a Denny's and gorged on double orders of the Grand Slam breakfast -- two pancakes, two eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns and bread. Then, for good measure, Barkley ordered an extra stack of flapjacks. For most of the afternoon, Barkley guzzled soda and milkshakes and feasted on lobster rolls. At dinner, he ordered two T-bone steaks.
"Then we got up the next morning and did it all over again,'' Barkley says.
By the time he arrived at the Sixers' facility for his weigh-in, he had ballooned to 301 pounds. "[Katz] called me every name in the book,'' Barkley says. "He was so mad. Nobody knew about my crazy eating binge, but I figured, 'Hey, it worked.' ''
"People definitely think athletes can eat whatever they want because they run it off. [But] they are literally like everybody else." Dr. Mike Roussell, nutritionist
On draft night, a smug Barkley sat back, waiting to see which unlucky player would go to the Sixers instead of him. He recalls with clarity hearing newly minted NBA commissioner David Stern uttering the words, "With the fifth pick in the 1984 NBA draft, the Philadelphia 76ers select ... Charles Barkley!"
"I'm sitting there f---ing shocked,'' Barkley says. "I can't believe it. I say to my agent, 'Oh, great. Now I'm fat and broke!' ''
Solutions emerged: The Sixers freed up some cap space, and paid Barkley $2 million over four years. And Barkley discovered a lifelong mentor in Moses Malone, who quickly informed him that being fat and lazy wouldn't be acceptable. A chagrined Barkley slimmed down to 255 pounds, and within two seasons was named to the first of 11 consecutive All-Star teams.
FORMER PHOENIX SUNS center Oliver Miller loved pizza.
Danny Ainge, who played with Miller in Phoenix, says the 10-year veteran, who at his peak weighed over 375 pounds, ate so much of it that the Suns took drastic measures, including hospitalizing him and hooking him up to IV fluids.
"But then they found out he was ordering Domino's from the hospital," Ainge says. "They had to put a security guard outside the room.''
Barkley also played with Miller. "When we were on the road, we'd see the [pizza] boxes piled up outside his room,'' Barkley says. "I never understood when guys were making all that money why they couldn't stop eating. It seems crazy to me.''
In his current role as president of basketball operations of the Boston Celtics, Ainge has dealt with players who similarly struggled with weight: Glen "Big Baby" Davis (whose contract with Boston included a weight clause); Jared Sullinger; even former Georgetown big man Mike Sweetney, whom Ainge believed had the skills of a 10-year NBA pro.
"First of all, I don't think anyone that is overweight wants to be overweight,'' Ainge says. "They want to be in great shape, and most of them work at it, to some degree. A lot of big guys, like Oliver and Big Baby, were good players who could all play heavy. That was part of the problem. They could be somewhat effective, but they were never as good as they could be.
"And, eventually, it catches up with you.''
BUT IT'S NOT as easy as simply losing weight. Becoming lighter, in many cases, often doesn't translate into peak performance.
Roy Hibbert, for example, dropped nearly 30 pounds at the request of former Pacers coach Jim O'Brien, who favored an up-tempo playing style. He figured if Hibbert lost weight it would make him faster and improve his performance (it did neither). But when the Pacers hired Frank Vogel, who preferred physical, smash-mouth basketball, in 2011 he asked Hibbert to put the weight back on.
By then, Hibbert, who in his early years ordered from fatty, late-night hotel menus, had hired Roussell, who counseled Hibbert on how to gain back what nutritionists call "clean weight.'' A main tenet of Roussell's plan revolves around one question: Could you eat this same meal in two hours? If not, Roussell says, the portion is too big.
"The hardest thing is when I'm left to my own devices,'' Hibbert says now. "That's why I've taken it out of my own hands.''
Today, Roussell plans all of Hibbert's meals and has them delivered to the team hotels when he's on the road. Occasionally, Roussell will even attempt to satisfy some of Hibbert's cravings. Roussell has, for instance, created a healthy chili cheese dog by finding a chicken hot dog that has only three grams of fat and eight grams of protein ("I spent months looking for it,'' he says), extra lean ground beef, reduced-fat cheese and a high fiber non-refined grain bun. Roussell also devised a healthy lobster macaroni and cheese (whole-wheat elbow noodles are the key ingredient).
Yet even the best nutritionist can't transform everything into a healthy option.
"There's no such thing as a low-calorie red velvet cake,'' Roussell says.
NBA VETERANS, LIKE most everyone else, eventually come to the same conclusion: The older they get, the more diligently they have to watch their diet.
When Jefferson was young he ate steak three nights a week on the road. Those days are over, he says, adding that he also has banned Doritos from his home. "I'm going to be 36 in a few weeks,'' Jefferson says. "I can't afford that stuff anymore.''
In 1988, Brian Shaw was a Celtics rookie whose typical pregame meal included a Big Mac, fries and a soda. In 2014, then the head coach of the Denver Nuggets, Shaw was aghast to see pizza and nachos in his locker room before the game, and blamed his team's slow starts on the greasy grub. He swept it all into the trash and replaced it with salads and chicken.
McClanaghan says his client, Derrick Rose, took the NBA by storm and won rookie of the year but was fueled by fast food. "With Derrick, it used to be a Burger King pregame meal,'' McClanaghan says. "The first two years he wouldn't even look at a salad. But now, as he's growing older, he's eased into it.''
Breaking those habits, says Shawn Windle, the head strength and conditioning coach of the Indiana Pacers, requires that players view their on-court performances as by-products of what they consume -- something Windle says is a constant struggle.
"One of the frequent conversations I have with our players is, 'I had pizza before the game and I had 25 [points]. Tell me how it will be different if I eat salmon and broccoli,' '' Windle says. "You try to explain to them they might not have the same energy or stamina, or that the pizza might not show up in the box score tonight, but it may tomorrow.''
Even LeBron acknowledged before Game 3 of the Finals that he has adjusted his diet as he has gotten older. His latest concession? Cutting out junk food.
"But it's very difficult to be in a household with three kids when they run around and put [the junk food]) in your face,'' James says. "Every now and then I dab in it to make them happy -- but actually it makes me happy.''
DALLAS MAVERICKS COACH Rick Carlisle says the one thing he has learned in his 27 years in the league is not to judge a player by his body type. Mavericks guard Raymond Felton, for instance, is more diligent about his diet than Russell Westbrook, yet you'd never know it by a simple eye test. Two basketball players -- two entirely different bodies and skill sets -- can follow the same diet and do the same workouts and still have dramatically different results, simply based on their genetics.
Roussell says LeBron's "genetic gift" is the reason his so-called "low-carb diet" in 2014 generated such quick and startling results.
"They were touting this low-carb eating plan -- except it wasn't low carb at all,'' says Roussell, who has not worked with James. "His 'low-carb' salad had a mango plopped in the middle of it. It had chutney. It had carbs and sugar like nobody's business. But that's not unusual. Even people with the best resources get terrible advice when it comes to nutrition.''
And while genetics certainly play a role in dieting and a players' ability to gain and lose weight, the temptations on the road also bring undeniable challenges. Limiting nightlife is a formidable obstacle to health during the season. Alcohol, a staple of NBA nightlife, has calories and often leads to poor late-night food choices, not to mention a penchant for missing breakfast the next morning. The "after-hours" cycle, two team general managers interviewed for this story admit, is one of the most difficult for their players to break. "If I could keep my guys in at night after games, we'd add five wins to our season,'' one Western Conference GM said.
ALTHOUGH THE CAVALIERS enjoy teasing Love about his meal choices -- "he eats like a woman's fitness champion that needs to be in a bikini flexing,'' Jefferson cracks -- they are quick to add they respect Love for the discipline he has displayed in his efforts to remain lean.
Love didn't always exemplify such dietary diligence. He was once an easily winded, lumbering big man at UCLA who weighed north of 270 pounds. When he first came to the NBA, he admittedly shied away from setting up in the post because he was worried his limited lift wouldn't allow him to get his shot off.
"If I could keep my guys in at night after games, we'd add five wins to our season." Western Conference GM, on the late-night NBA cycle, which often includes unhealthy eating decisions
McClanaghan says Love is more explosive now, better able to create space for himself with his step-back jumper and is a better ball handler, a direct result of improved mental sharpness and reduced fatigue from dropping 30 pounds.
Now during their offseason workouts, Love can train for a solid 60 minutes without bending over, a significant departure from his early days at UCLA and in Minnesota, when his added weight required a change of shirt and shorts hourly because he was sweating so profusely.
"When he first got to the NBA, he'd be shot at the end of games,'' McClanaghan says. "Now he has the same energy the whole time.
"Kevin has made a serious effort with this. He looks at it as an investment. I'd say he achieved it with his [$114 million] contract.''
Love has been counting almonds for more than five seasons now. Bogut has avoided all processed sugars for 11 months, but still craves Cadbury chocolate and Australian Mars bars, a treat he'll allow himself during the offseason, he says. Green, for his part, struggled in the early days of his low-carb crusade, but admits now that's it's simply part of his routine. "Just like eating bad was normal," he says, "now eating healthy is normal.''
As for LeBron, chutney or no chutney, anything that strengthens his game -- low-carb, high-carb or somewhere in between -- should send potential defenders scurrying for their own low-carb program -- sans mango, of course.