By Baxter Holmes | ESPN.com
Kobe Bryant lay crumpled on the court, his left ankle severely sprained after landing on an opponent’s foot. Dr. Cate Shanahan saw it all unfold on TV and immediately picked up the phone. She knew the Lakers’ star needed soup — fast.
Shanahan, the director of the Lakers PRO Nutrition Program, called the chef at the Atlanta hotel where the Lakers were staying that March 2013 night and ordered two bowls of hot chicken vegetable soup to be delivered to Bryant’s room.
This wasn’t your basic, store-bought soup, though. It was made with bone broth, a nourishing concoction rich in nutrient and minerals — and especially collagen — produced by simmering bones (pig, cow, fish, etc.) and other ingredients for hours.
Bryant called the sprain his worst since 2000. His ankle swelled to the size of a tennis ball. He was out “indefinitely.”
He missed only two games.
As Bryant creeps toward the two-decade mark in the NBA, every element of how he prepares, trains and recovers is so much more important, so much more amplified. Including what’s in his soup bowl.
Bone broth has quietly but steadily become a daily staple of Bryant’s diet over the past three years. It’s the foundation of his pregame meal at home and on the road, and the Lakers put in long hours to make sure it’s carefully prepared for him at all times.
“I’ve been doing the bone broth for a while now,” Bryant said. “It’s great – energy, inflammation. It’s great.”
Bone broth isn’t new, but it has gone mainstream. The New York Times wrote last week that it has evolved from “prehistoric food to Paleo drink.” New York City chef Marco Canora recently opened a storefront window in the East Village where it’s served in coffee cups.
The Lakers’ bone broth revolution began when Shanahan, a devout believer in what she calls its “magical” powers, became a consulting nutritionist for the team in the 2012-13 season, working with players remotely, often via Skype or phone. Others on the team’s training/nutrition side soon became believers, too.
“Everybody is looking for a magical elixir or some cure-all,” said Tim DiFrancesco, the Lakers’ head strength and conditioning coach, “but bone broth is where it’s at.”
It takes time — lots of time.
Which is why Sandra Padilla’s workdays begin around 5 a.m.
After commuting from her home in Westchester to the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo, the Lakers’ chef for the past 12 years will fill a large pot with bones, vegetables and more. “Once it starts boiling, I let it cook,” she said. Then she waits.
About eight hours later, she’ll strain the broth and place it in a fridge, where it turns into a gelatinous substance when cool.
And therein lies a key difference between bone broth and most soup.
“You could go into a store and on the shelf you’ve got this carton of vegetable stock or chicken stock, and that’s probably something that’s been flavored with salt and chicken-flavored bouillon cubes or something like that,” DiFrancesco said.
“But there’s no actual vitamin, mineral nutrient value in there. It just tastes good because there’s enough salt in there. But when you make a bone stock the right way, it’s like liquid gold. And the way you know you have real stock on your hand is if you put it in the refrigerator over night and it basically turns into Jell-O.”
The broth is a base for a wide variety of soups: minestrone, beef stew, chicken meatball, chili, a 15-bean soup with kale or what Padilla said is Bryant’s favorite – chicken tortilla.
She changes her menu daily. On game days, she likes soups that are richer in broth but lighter overall. On non-game days, she might serve something a little heartier.
But she said this season’s team prefers more chicken than beef, so she buys free-range, organic whole chickens and de-bones them herself.
Padilla said it’s easy to be intimidated by how long it takes to make bone broth, but DiFranceso stressed how vital that process is, especially for someone like Bryant.
“When you make it the right way, you get the minerals and the exact building blocks of what makes up our joint surfaces,” DiFranceso said. “He’s recognized in the last few years, since sort of pointing him in the direction, of how important that will be.
“And it’s ultra, ultra important for him, maybe more so than the other guys, than a 22-year old who has really pristine joint surfaces and can get away with it and maybe doesn’t need it right now.”
DiFrancesco plans Bryant’s pregame meals on the road, and though he tries to mix up the menu, the basis of that meal remains the same.
“I just start from the soup and then I build something out of it,” DiFrancesco said, adding that Bryant is also served a salad topped with protein (chicken, fish or grass-fed beef).
To make sure the broth is correctly prepared on the road, Shanahan starts working the phones anywhere from a few days ahead to as much as a week, calling the chef at each hotel where the Lakers are staying.
The requests caught some off guard at first, but chefs at the high-end establishments where the Lakers stay — Four Seasons and the like — are classically trained and often meet the team’s request.
A bigger obstacle is the type of cooking oil that hotel chef uses, such as vegetable oil, soy oil or canola oil.
“Those things are all very toxic and inflammatory oils,” DiFrancesco said. “Even if it’s a tiny drizzle of oil, but if you’re eating four of those meals a day, it eventually it adds up to creating a low level amount of inflammation in your body.”
Bryant has become more cautious about what foods might contain those oils, and Dr. Shanahan makes sure to ask the hotels if they can cook without them.
“A lot of the chefs are very accommodating,” DiFrancesco said. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, normally we use vegetable oil,’ and she’ll work with them and say, ‘Would you mind using an olive oil or a grass-fed butter to cook with?'”
In the rare cases the hotels can’t or don’t comply, the Lakers simply adjust. Shanahan will send players a PDF of the hotel’s in-room dining menu with items that they should avoid highlighted in red.
After games, some players eat their way through a mountain of food. Not Bryant. To help re-fuel his body, the Lakers turn to a low-sugar bottle of chocolate milk, one specially prepared by Whole Foods.
“It’s a nice way to get some of those calcium and vitamin D and other magnesium-based vitamins and minerals from a source of dairy, where it’s supposed to come from, versus a pill,” DiFrancesco said. “He really enjoys it”
That’s not to say Bryant is a robot when it comes to his diet.
“There’s definitely times when [Bryant will] text me, ‘Hey, on the in-room dining menu, I’m kind of craving a little bit of a treat right now, what would be the least of the evils?'” DiFrancesco said.
“He’s human. That’s what it’s all about is finding a sustainable diet. Nobody can be perfectly locked in every minute of every day because you’d just go crazy.”
Bryant no longer believes he can eat anything he wants and still perform at a high level. It’s just another part of aging he has had to accept.
“He’s gone from, in the past two, three years, kind of rolling his eyes, ‘OK, Tim. Trust me. I’m Kobe Bryant. I can eat a Big Mac and score 40’ — he’s gone from sort of that mentality to all the sudden, ‘Hey, I went to a restaurant and I saw they had grass-fed beef in there,'” DiFrancesco said. “It’s on his radar.
“Then the move from him is always, ‘OK, I trust you. Make that stuff show up.’ It’s not like he’s going to go out and start looking at the ingredients list like that, but that’s why Shanahan is doing all the work that she’s doing ahead of time.
“Because if he didn’t trust it or believe in it, he would not be saying, ‘Can you order my meal for me?’ That’s how I’ve received the message that, OK, he’s evolved.”
Though wary about bone broth at first, Bryant has stuck with it.
“As an athlete, you want to make sure you leave no stone unturned,” Bryant said. “You want to do the right things as much as possible to give yourself an opportunity.”
Bone broth isn’t the only factor, mind you. But it is an important one.
“It definitely contributes,” Bryant said. “I think it’s a balance of a lot of things, but I think doing the small things all together, it makes a big difference.”
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