The M-V-P chants shower Kyrie Irving as he toes the line for two free throws. The point guard is putting the finishing touches on a 35-point masterpiece against the Atlanta Hawks, and the crowd bellows with praise from every corner of the arena.
This kind of hero worship is commonplace for the star of the home team having a good night. Except this is an away game for Kyrie. The Celtics are playing in ATL, not Boston.
Irving is that good. He looks like a Harlem Globetrotter and Houdini all in one, darting and dazzling through Atlanta double-teams from start to finish. Down the stretch, he’s masterful. When the Hawks go up 100-99 with 3:07 remaining, Irving single-handedly outscores them the rest of the way to help ice the game for his new team. He walks off the floor, untying his Nikes and handing them to a throng of adoring fans.
It’s around this time that LeBron James grabs his phone and sets the basketball world ablaze.
After the M-V-P chants for Irving, James feels compelled to type “Mood…” into his Instagram and posts that meme of Arthur the Aardvark’s clenched fist. Whether it was LeBron’s intent to nod to Kyrie or not, the post makes it clear: Irving is right there, on top of the basketball world circa November 2017.
It might be too early to talk about Irving’s MVP candidacy, but there’s something different about Kyrie right now. His already skinny frame is noticeably trimmer—gaunt, almost. But he’s outlasting everybody—not just the Hawks.
In late-game situations while other players are gassed, Irving has looked bouncier than ever. So far this season, in clutch situations (games within five in the final five minutes), his numbers are unfathomable. In 24 minutes of action, he’s tallied 41 points on 57 percent shooting while handing out seven assists with no turnovers. Yes, that’s 41 points in what amounts to one half of basketball.
This development has caught the eye of some basketball people and health fanatics around the NBA. Why? After a preseason game on ESPN, Irving announced something intriguing to Chauncey Billups and the NBA Countdown crew, who noticed how much…thinner he looked:
“Been on more of a plant-based diet, getting away from the animals and all that,” Irving told the broadcast team. “I had to get away from that. So my energy is up; my body feels amazing.”
So, is it possible that the secret to Irving’s hot start is…that he’s gone vegan? B/R Mag asked him just that.
“I think we can credit that in the win column,” Irving told me after the Hawks game, rocking a gray sweatshirt inside a slim-tailored navy suit. “We lost the first two games, won the last nine games. I haven’t changed any diet. I don’t plan on changing anything in my diet. It’s working out great so far.”
Indeed, the Celtics are now an NBA-best 13-2, ripping off 13 straight wins without the injured Gordon Hayward, thanks in part to Irving’s heroics.
“He’s had great energy all year,” Boston coach Brad Stevens says of Irving. “The nutrition side is huge.”
“I wanted to eat cleaner,” Lillard told The Oregonian this offseason. “Also I want to play lighter this year and be easier on my joints and feet. I’m getting older, you know what I mean?”
Irving and Lillard aren’t the only ones. Wilson Chandler, Al Jefferson, Garrett Temple, Enes Kanter, JaVale McGee and Jahlil Okafor have all made the switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet in the past year or so. For the uninitiated, vegans don’t eat animals or animal-derived products like eggs or milk. A vegetarian can order the omelette with cheese; a vegan goes for the oatmeal with soy milk.
The rise of plant-based diets in the NBA follows a worldwide uptick in meat-free meals. According to research firm GlobalData’s report, 6 percent of U.S. consumers identify as vegan, up from just 1 percent in 2014. In the United Kingdom, veganism rose by 350 percent from 2006 to 2016, largely from the country’s younger demographics.
And now some of the NBA’s very best have ditched meat. So, is veganism the NBA’s new performance-enhancing diet? Is this even a thing? Or is it just an empty-calorie fad aligned with the league’s shifting stars and skinny point guards?
Harvard stat gurus have discovered a trend in the NBA. The study, published November 1 by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective in a blog post titled “Maybe We Should Call It Skinny-Ball,” found that there has been a subtle shift in the league: Teams are getting faster…and lighter.
It’s a recent phenomenon. The weight of the league (adjusted for minutes played) rose by seven pounds per player from 2000 to 2013, but has fallen three pounds on average per player over the last four years.
While small ball has become a leaguewide buzzword, there is no evidence that the NBA is actually getting shorter. But skinnier? Now we’re talking. And the link is stronger for the faster teams.
“This may seem like an incredibly obvious result,” the Harvard analytics group concluded, “but it highlights another efficiency that NBA teams have gravitated toward in the last five years. Teams are slimming down and using their athletic advantages to run the heavier teams off the floor.”
This result, however, might be surprising once you look at the bigger picture. The league is richer than ever by a count of billions, but the players aren’t responding to the surge of cash by getting fat and lazy. They’re going the opposite direction, cutting weight and getting faster.
The change has been seismic. According to Basketball Reference tracking, the league-average pace (estimated number of possessions per game) is higher than it’s been since 1989. It’s more of an up-and-down game built on speed and quick decisions. It’s true, however, that teams are generally faster in the opening month before season-long fatigue kicks in. So far, the median team pace is 101 possessions per game. Looking at pace just in November, that’s still six possessions faster than it was 10 years ago, and 11 possessions faster than it was in 1996-97.
In fact, the league’s fastest team in 1996-97 would be the slowest in today’s NBA—by a wide margin:
- Fastest team in 1996-97 (76ers): 95.34 possessions per 48 minutes
- Slowest team in 2017-18 (Grizzlies): 97.76 possessions per 48 minutes
Get this: The average NBA team covers about 3,000 feet of extra ground per game than it did just four years ago, per player-tracking metrics on NBA.com. Or about a half-mile every night. Why?
Call it Warriors copycatting. Quick pace and even quicker threes. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban explains this meteoric rise in pace succinctly: “Because it works.”
And few players represent this speedy shift more than Irving. This season, his average speed has jumped by 0.30 mph, or 26 feet of extra ground per minute on the floor. Among players averaging 30 minutes per game this season, it’s the second-highest acceleration year-over-year.
For Kyrie, most of that increased speed has come on the defensive end of the floor. And that activity has led to results. Long perceived as a poor defender, Irving now ranks top five in both steals and deflections this season. And the Celtics are the league’s top defense by a mile.
David Griffin was Irving’s general manager for three years in Cleveland and the vice president of basketball operations when the team drafted Irving No. 1 overall in 2011. Griffin isn’t surprised at all by Irving’s commitment to vegan food or his energized defensive contributions.
“Kyrie is one of the most—what’s the word? ‘Stubborn’ isn’t the right word. He’s really convicted,” Griffin tells B/R Mag. “If Kyrie decides he’s going to do something, it’s going to get done. He’s really one of those guys who I think has the ability to do anything he puts his mind to.”
Irving would get 10 assists before halftime just to prove he could do it—and then go right back into scoring mode. When the Cavs won the 2016 NBA Finals, Irving averaged 2.1 steals and blocked as many shots in the final five games as any Warriors player (five).
“Kyrie is absolutely capable of being a menace defensively,” Griffin says. “He can be completely unscreenable if he wants to be.”
With his new team in Boston, Irving attributes this energetic output to his nutritional inputs. Call it energy enlightenment.
“It works,” Irving tells B/R Mag. “I mean, I’m not eating a whole bunch of animals anymore. Once you become awake, you don’t see that stuff anymore.”
John Salley opens our conversation about veganism talking about dead basketball players. The four-time NBA champion wastes no time getting to the point, rattling off a stat about how many former players recently died early. The names are piling up. And Salley believes healthier diets could have helped prevent tragedy.
Sean Rooks, 46. Fab Melo, 26. Moses Malone, 60. Darryl Dawkins, 58. Jerome Kersey, 52. Anthony Mason, 48. Jack Haley, 51. Christian Welp, 51. Joe C. Meriweather, 59. Robert Traylor, 34. Devin Gray, 41. Armen Gilliam, 47. Orlando Woolridge, 52. Pat Cummings, 55.
“The oldest being Moses, 60 years old.”
And that is just since 2011.
Salley brings this up because he’s a vegan who is worried about the health of NBA athletes and their lifestyle. He applauds the league and the union for initiating last year what he calls a “life-saving” heart-screening program for former NBA players. Salley is one of the most vocal leaders in pro-vegan lifestyle. In 2015, Salley penned a letter to Michelle Obama, challenging her to go vegan.
“Vegan eating is not just a slam dunk for human health; it’s also the most effective way to combat climate change,” Salley wrote, citing a 2010 report from the United Nations, which has since been removed from the UN’s website.
When Salley was 27 years old, a doctor told him if he ate animal fat, it was going to block his arteries. “And us being so tall, it’s not good to have it blocked all the way down these long legs,” says Salley, who is 6’11”.
That’s when Salley started doing his homework and soon went vegetarian to try to avoid artery-clogging food.
“It makes all the sense in the world why the elephant is an herbivore,” Salley says. “Elephants, gorillas, giraffes are herbivores. Huge bodies, they can’t process animal flesh.”
Salley insists that many African-American eating habits remain the result of slavery-era circumstances.
“They used to make us eat chitterlings—the intestines of the pig—because we weren’t allowed to eat the bacon,” he says. “We ate pigs’ feet because they cut them off after they walked in their own shit and they didn’t want to eat the thing. And we would grab them, wash them and pickle them because we had nothing else.
“Only because it was what we were forced to do, it became natural. And that’s where we run into this huge problem.”
Salley is talking on the phone from the set of his latest film, Detox Your Life, when he brings up another health movie, Netflix’s What the Health. The pro-vegan documentary takes on the big-food industry, claiming that meat, fish, poultry and dairy are together making us obese, giving us cancer and essentially injecting toxins into our bodies.
“If you ever see that movie and you still eat meat,” Salley says, “then you’re just stupid.”
This past summer, Sacramento Kings guard Garrett Temple found out about the Netflix doc through his buddies’ group chat. They were picking a spot to go eat wings, but his best friend opted out.
“Nah, I don’t mess with those no more,” Temple’s buddy texted.
Why, Temple messaged back.
“You watched that documentary? I’m trying not to eat meat no more,” his buddy replied.
Temple has always watched his diet. But give up chicken? That seemed extreme to a guy who already prided himself on his nutritional knowledge.
Now 31, Temple gave up red meat and pork five years ago thanks to—of all people—Ray Allen, the future Hall of Famer. Temple signed a training-camp contract with the star-studded Heat in 2012 and latched on to Allen, a fellow guard who, like Temple, was working his way into shape and Erik Spoelstra’s playbook.
“The guy was 37 but looked 27,” Temple says of Allen. “How does he stay in shape?”
Allen told him to stay away from the bacon and the beef. Temple hasn’t touched the stuff since.
Temple didn’t make the Heat’s roster, but Allen’s advice during that training camp stuck with him. Temple focused on leaner meats like chicken, turkey and fish. That is, until July 24, when he tweeted out in shock: “Watched the documentary “WHAT THE HEALTH” on Netflix. So eye opening!!!! Must watch.”
His tweet generated 11 retweets and 40 likes. One of the replies came from the official @PETA account:
— PETA Reminder: 45 mill 🦃s are murdered for Tgiving (@peta) July 24, 2017
Temple began diving in.
“Holy shit, can all this be really true?” he thought to himself.
Temple responded to a reply from a fan: “If we can’t trust doctors to tell us the truth, who can we trust?”
What the Health may have been a wake-up call for NBA athletes like Temple. But the film generated an avalanche of critical reviews from doctors and nutritionists, who questioned the accuracy of some of its claims.
I got on the phone with former three-sport collegiate athlete Marie Spano, who is the sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Falcons.
“The movie itself,” she says, “there was so many ways that the science is misconstrued.”
Still, Spano says she has seen a surge of athletes inquiring about the benefits of plant-based diets, which she sees as a net positive. In the last two years, veganism has “really picked up steam” with her athletes because of documentaries like What the Health and Food, Inc. More recently, she visited with the Braves’ minor league system and got bombarded with questions from up and down the organization.
“They were all talking about it,” Spano says. “That’s when it hit me: Oh, my gosh, this is really a big thing.“
Kip Andersen, the director of the What The Health documentary, says his friends joke that the NBA will soon be called the NVA, the National Vegan Association, because “that’s how many players are going vegan or vegetarian.”
Andersen stands by the claims of the film and directs critics to his website, whatthehealth.com, which provides scientific sources for all 137 of his facts stated in the film.
Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler, who hasn’t eaten animals for two years as part of his vegan lifestyle, says he made the switch to help save his NBA career after a string of injuries. He owes that change to former NBA player and fellow Detroit native Chris Douglas-Roberts, who is also vegan.
Chandler has a regimented meal schedule and preps food constantly, eating personally prepared meals six hours, three hours and one hour before every game. He even eats organic Honey Stinger waffle cookies at halftime to keep his energy and calories up.
“For athletes, it’s tough,” Chandler tells B/R Mag. “It’s not a plant-based world.”
Chandler drinks tart cherry juice every night before bed thanks to a nutritional tip from Orreco, a sports performance company that also serves the Dallas Mavericks.
Spano, the Hawks’ nutritionist, recommends tart cherry juice for her players complaining of inflammation and general wear-and-tear. But she says going vegan may also be indirectly helping players because of what they’re not eating. Many of her athletes preached the gospel of paleo, Whole30 and other trending diets, but were really just cutting out junk food.
“Well, you stopped drinking beer and eating Cheetos,” Spano says. “Let’s be real here.”
Spano did read about Irving and Lillard’s veganism, but she doubts that larger NBA players will be able to get rid of animal products entirely throughout an 82-game season.
“I’ve never known or seen anyone who’s 250 pounds or higher that’s on a vegan diet and can withstand a season like this,” Spano says. “It could be possible, but it would have to be very well-planned.”
Louise Burke, the head of nutrition at the Australian Institute of Sport, believes a vegan diet can provide all the nutritional needs of the typical NBA player. But the hectic NBA schedule may be prohibitive to keeping it up.
“The average basketball player is going to find it hard to choose from a training table organized for their omnivore teammates,” Burke says. “They will also find it difficult to eat on the road, find restaurants and takeaways at small-town locations in the wee hours of the morning when they have finished a game, and meet requirements for nutrients that are harder to find in a vegan diet.”
Vegan or vegetarian pro athletes may struggle with compensating for the amino acids that are found in animal proteins, but not in plant-based proteins. One essential amino acid for activating muscle-building proteins—leucine—is rich in beef, eggs and poultry. For the vegan NBA athlete losing muscle, she has a tip:
“Even adding eggs and dairy to make it vegetarian would go considerably far to helping meet requirements for energy, high-quality protein, calcium, iron, vitamin B-12 and others,” Burke says.
Temple and Chandler both point to quicker recovery and more restful sleep as the biggest gains since they gave up animals for meals. Temple often gets ribbed by Kings teammates for his diet, but it helps that teammate Skal Labissiere is vegetarian.
“I love chicken wings, so I have those cravings every now and then,” Temple says with a laugh. “It’s a staple in the NBA locker room, at least once a week—somebody gets wings after a road game. They clown on me just for trying to be healthy.”
Temple is posting career-high marks in scoring, three-point shooting and player efficiency rating this season. He’s not planning to go back to eating animals any time soon.
“It’s just my energy level,” Temple says. “I feel great. I honestly don’t do it for the animals. I do it for my body. I just feel good. I feel real good.”
Standing in front of a Saran-wrap-covered wok full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in Atlanta’s visitors locker room, Irving insists that the What the Health documentary wasn’t what caused him to change his diet.
“Nah,” Irving says. “I started becoming more in touch with myself. I did my own research.”
Irving isn’t the only Celtic who’s committed to staying away from animal flesh. In the other corner of the locker room stands Jaylen Brown, who hasn’t eaten red meat or pork for his entire life. In college at Berkeley, Brown went full-on vegetarian, but he’s found it harder to stick to it “outside of Cali.” The 21-year-old plans to go vegan by his 25th birthday.
“That’s my goal,” Brown says. “I just want to do it. I just think it’s a healthier lifestyle. Maybe it can give me a competitive edge on the basketball floor. I think that’s the next step.”
As he’s saying this, Al Horford shouts a protest in his ear.
“An-i-mal protein! An-i-mal protein!” Horford booms.
Brown turns to Horford, a native of the Dominican Republic.
“No, gracias,” Brown replies.
A competitive edge from plant-based diets? Kyrie’s a believer. He notes that his 35-point effort in ATL came on the second night of a back-to-back, a circumstance that had habitually plagued him in his career. For instance, last season Irving shot just 32 percent from three-point range on zero days’ rest compared to 42 percent in all other games.
Irving gathers his stuff and walks out of the locker room with some meatless tacos in a white takeout box. He remarks that his favorite vegan spot in Boston so far is the salad chain Sweetgreen, but he’s on the lookout for more. No more team dinners taking down steak.
“Steak? Nah, I don’t eat that,” Irving says as a parting shot. “It doesn’t come from anything natural, so why would I eat it?”
As he walks down the Philips Arena tunnel, some taco sauce from the takeout box in Kyrie’s hand drips onto his pristine white sneakers. He smiles, grabs a paper napkin, wipes it off and tosses it in the trash. Clean.
Tom Haberstroh has covered the NBA full time since 2010, joining B/R Mag after seven years with ESPN as an NBA Insider and analytics expert. Haberstroh is also a co-founder of Spotlight Media Ventures and regularly hosts The Basketball Friends podcast for the Leverage The Chat multimedia network. Follow him on Twitter: @tomhaberstroh.