SAN ANTONIO — You know you’ve discovered something interesting about the Spurs when they won’t talk about it. You know you’ve discovered something really interesting when former Air Force intelligence officer and current Spurs coach Gregg Popovich goes to the trouble of offering up smoke screens.
That’s how we come to find ourselves talking — in hushed tones, in hallways — about the merits of cold-pressed juice. And no, it cannot be photographed for this story.
Kawhi Leonard’s custom cold-pressed juice has been named “Kawhi-Zilla” by Spurs staff, and features strawberry, watermelon, lemon and chia seed. LaMarcus Aldridge drinks one with a label that reads “LaLa Leave My Juice Alone,” which is a mixture of pineapple, orange, strawberry, spinach and secrecy. For the last three years, nearly every player on San Antonio’s roster drinks his own personalized juice whipped up by the staff as an aid to recovery.
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There are limits to when and where the team can supply it; the equipment to make it the right way doesn’t travel well, and it only keeps for 36 hours after being made. So on long road trips it’s often unavailable, and you don’t see players drinking it after every practice and game. But on most nights, you can catch a Spurs player after a game swigging on one of these oddly colored custom concoctions.
It’s one of many things the Spurs do in the name of player health. Does it work? Hard to say. But also hard to ignore, especially if you’re one of the 29 teams that trails the Spurs when it comes to injury prevention. Over the last decade, and despite an older roster, the Spurs have ranked first in the league with only 1,054 missed games to injury. During the 2015-16 season, Spurs players missed only 59 games due to injury, according to In Street Clothes.
Aldridge spent his first nine NBA seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers and says his former team “did some things for extra nutrition, but we didn’t do the whole cold-pressed juice thing like this.” Traditional centrifugal juicers use rapidly spinning blades to tear apart fruit and produce. But those mechanics both heat the fruit and expose the ingredients to air, which is said to decrease the nutrients that actually make it into your body. Cold-pressed juicers, on the other hand, extract juice by pressing and grinding without air exposure or heat.
Several Spurs see their special drinks as an all-important first step to the recovery process that staves off fatigue and injury. “It’s nutrients, veggies, fruits, you know, to replenish what you’ve spent out on the court,” says guard Patty Mills. “It’s just a part of the recovery process, the same thing as eating the right foods after the games. I don’t think as soon as you drink it you feel like Superman.”
“Man, we ain’t gonna talk about that,” Leonard says. “It’s just juice.”
In 2015, Fast Company magazine ranked Precision Nutrition as one of the 10 most innovative fitness companies in the nation. Brian St. Pierre, the company’s director of performance nutrition, works with the Spurs as a consultant and is bursting with news of research into the healing powers of things that come out of expensive blender-like machines.
“There’s some really interesting research on blueberries decreasing soreness and improving recovery as a post-workout option,” says St. Pierre. “Cherry has become a well-known thing for decreasing inflammation and helping to boost recovery. Pineapple has some benefits in terms of joint health, in terms of boosting healing and recovery because of the bromelain.
“People are often having beet juice for the nitrate [as] a pre-workout or pregame [drink] to boost performance. Well, spinach actually has more nitrates in it than beets. So people will use spinach to boost performance or help with recovery, post-workout, because it improves blood flow and things like that.”
In St. Pierre’s view, the ideal recovery drink would be what he calls a “super shake.”
Making such shakes isn’t always logistically possible. So often the team uses the more portable juice instead. “The juices are another option, especially for postgame, where you’re not necessarily going to have the capacity or the time to whip up, like, 15 super shakes. The juices are just a simple way to initiate part of the recovery, just getting some of the anti-inflammatory benefits of the different fruits and vegetables, chia seeds, different healthy fats. It’s just one small way to help attack or help initiate that recovery process, in addition to getting in a Whole Foods meal afterwards on the plane, or afterwards in the facility itself, depending on the location.”
“People like Charles and Larry Bird, and Magic, they must laugh their fannies off just thinking about it.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich
After a road game in November, Spurs guard Patty Mills struggles to remember the ingredients of his custom juice, called “Bala 8” (“Bala” is a term in Mills’ native language that means “brother” and “8” is his jersey number).
“I’ve got a favorite one,” Mills says, and then began to rattle off the ingredients. “It’s celery, ginger, parsley, green apple–“
And that’s when a Spurs staffer cuts him off, interjecting “lots of veggies and nutrients.”
The staffer taps lightly on a black duffel bag, saying: “It’s in there right now, in the secret compartment.”
Popovich, whose team has been on the cutting edge of essentially every technological innovation, from training techniques to wearable high-tech devices, claims to find interest in juice to be hilarious — and changes the topic with yarns from the old days.
“It’s amazing.” he says with a laugh. “I can remember when I first came in, when Larry Brown was unwise enough to hire me as an assistant way back when, and I was doing the weight program for the team: ‘You guys get over there and lift those weights over there. You guys go over here … 10 times, yeah, that’s it. That’s a good weight.’ Seriously, that’s what it was like. Now, I get on the bus, and no sooner than we sit on the bus last night after the game, Will Sevening, our trainer comes on: ‘Water, water, water.’ He’s giving everybody [these drinks and says], ‘The sooner you eat, the sooner you rehydrate, the sooner you get the protein back in and the electrolytes and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, the more you’re gonna recover for tomorrow night’s game.’ And all that sort of thing. So none of that existed back in the day. Not a bit.
“People like Charles [Barkley] and Larry Bird, and Magic [Johnson], they must laugh their fannies off just thinking about it. I saw Stephen Jackson today on [The Jump]. He was holding up pacifiers for all the new NBA guys. I’ll take a pacifier. The veterans must just cringe when they look at everything, including salaries, how these guys are treated, meals in the morning, meals at lunch, meals after shootarounds and all this sort of thing. It’s a pretty good life. So any player that complains, you should remind them about the old days, what it was like.”
ESPN’s Baxter Holmes contributed to this story