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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Foodies with giant appetites and deep pockets: NBA stars know where to go

Kelly Olynyk, a forward for the Utah Jazz, has frequented thousands of restaurants over the 10 years he has played professional basketball. “Sometimes, if we’re only in a city one night, I’ll go to two dinners,” he said.

By Gerald Narciso

Pick a city, any city, on the NBA’s 30-team circuit, and Kelly Olynyk, a forward for the Utah Jazz, has deep knowledge of the local restaurant scene.

If you are searching for top-tier sushi in Boston, where he spent his first four NBA seasons, he recommends Fuji at Ink Block in the South End. In Charlotte, North Carolina, he will most likely suggest the smoked wings at Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen. Whether you are craving the best Italian in San Francisco or in pursuit of tasty treats in Indianapolis — Olynyk knows a place. He is a 6-foot-11 human version of Yelp.

“You have spots in each city that you love and know you can count on,” said Olynyk, 32, after eating at thousands of restaurants over the 10 years he has played professionally on five NBA teams. “But part of having an interest in different cultures and cuisines and restaurants is trying new ones.”

In a league that consists of 28 cities, roughly 450 players and 1,230 regular-season games each year, NBA business travel is frequent and first-class. Teams fly private and stay in five-star hotel chains like the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton. But they also eat, a lot, and by embracing local culture and institutions with their deep pockets, they have become very credible restaurant authorities.

NBA players are larger-than-normal humans (average height is 6-foot-6) with equally large salaries (average annual pay is $8.32 million), a combination that results in voracious appetites and often in reservations at the country’s most renowned restaurants. Each player also receives a $133 food per diem for days on the road.

“Sometimes, if we’re only in a city one night, I’ll go to two dinners,” admitted Olynyk.

The 2023-24 NBA season tipped off Oct. 24, and in a typical season, each team plays 41 games on the road, visiting each opposing market (that includes 27 U.S. cities and Toronto) at least once. There are additional preseason and playoff games to consider. The Golden State Warriors, for example, traveled to Los Angeles — home of the Lakers and Clippers — seven times last season. That means many meals and time to bond.

“We travel so much around the country that going out to restaurants has always been the greatest way to bring everyone together,” said Karl-Anthony Towns, a three-time NBA All-Star center with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Regardless of which teammates or coaches they choose to dine with, players take notice of the food, service and settings: Word-of-mouth recommendations between players are a major part of NBA restaurant culture.

“We’re a brotherhood, so you’re going to definitely have some honest reviews from your 449 brothers,” said Towns, 27.

Rudy Gobert, a Timberwolves teammate, frequently gives Towns tips on lesser-known eateries with little fanfare on Yelp, Tripadvisor or other recommendation websites. Olynyk enjoys introducing his younger teammates to top restaurants in different cities (and picking up the bill), much as his former teammate Rajon Rondo did for him, treating Olynyk to Strega Italiano in Boston when Olynyk was a rookie with the Celtics.

“It’s kind of like a rite of passage,” said Olynyk, a native of Toronto.

Kevin Love, a veteran forward for the Miami Heat, grew up in Portland, Oregon, a city known for its creative dining scene. As his basketball career — one that has included five All-Star selections and a championship ring with the Cleveland Cavaliers — has advanced, his food knowledge has improved and his network of fellow food lovers has expanded.

“Having a love for food, as well as wine, has brought me into a number of circles where I’ve made really good friends with restaurateurs, chefs and people who have similar interests,” said Love, 35, who is a partner (along with former teammate Channing Frye) in Chosen Family Wines, a wine brand based out of Willamette Valley, Oregon. “That’s a fun world to be in.”

He has leveraged connections in the restaurant industry to organize team dinners, key to building team camaraderie. Before the Heat visit New York City, Love will call area restaurants and design unique dining experiences for his teammates.

“I’m going to take these guys out and show them great food and introduce them to maybe a different cuisine,” Love said.

He still considers Portland one of his top food destinations, naming Kann and RingSide Steakhouse (he strongly suggests the onion rings) as his hometown favorites. In New York City, where he lived in the offseason before recently moving to Long Island, Love lists as favorites Carbone, Sadelle’s, Hometown Bar-B-Que, Fini Pizza and Misi (Sean Feeney, the restaurateur, is a good friend of his), and Eleven Madison Park (Daniel Humm, the chef and owner, is also a friend).

“It’s one of the most unbelievably beautiful kitchens I’ve ever seen,” Love said of Eleven Madison Park.

For many NBA players, supporting minority-owned businesses can be as important as finding establishments with Michelin stars. Towns will also approach local residents to seek restaurant recommendations.

“I’ve always been intrigued by people and cultures,” said Towns, who has Dominican and African American roots. “And the best way to learn about people and cultures is to sit down and enjoy their food.”

In Minneapolis, Towns recommends Soul Bowl, a soul food and Caribbean-inspired restaurant in the city’s North Loop. But it was Fratelli’s Pizza Cafe, in his hometown, Piscataway, New Jersey, where he took his girlfriend when they first started dating.

“‘I got to take you home to a pizzeria that I grew up on,’” Towns recalled saying. “I said, ‘All you need is a cheese slice and I promise you it will change your life.’”

“She agrees with me,” he said with a laugh.

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