Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY
Published 10:03 a.m. ET Aug. 7, 2020
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Rip Hamilton arrived in Detroit in 2002 and found chef Shawn Loving’s restaurant, Loving Spoonful. The then-Pistons guard became a frequent diner and asked if Loving was interested in a job as Hamilton’s personal chef.
“At that time, he was a motor and running around a lot. He needed to keep fuel,” Loving told USA TODAY Sports.
One gig led to another, and soon Loving was preparing meals for the Pistons’ in-flight service while traveling to games, then cooking for LeBron James on a commercial shoot and then cooking for USA Basketball at the Olympics and FIBA World Cups, starting with the 2008 Beijing Summer Games and continuing through the 2018 FIBA World Cup.
“We had a successful time, and I continue to do it for both the men and women,” Loving said.
He expected to be in Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics, but with the Games postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, he finds himself instead in the Orlando area. League staffers reached out to USA Basketball’s men’s national team director Sean Ford and asked Ford to gauge Loving’s interest in cooking for NBA players and staff during the league’s restart at the Disney campus.
“When I get the call on this particular assignment, I was thrilled because I love a challenge of making a difference,” Loving said. “As a chef, you have to feed off something. This is my fuel. How can I beat these odds? How can I rally around a group and get some things comfortable over the next 60 days? How can I make this challenge one that will go down in the books that was a great decision on behalf of the NBA to involve me? That’s just an awesome challenge for me.”
You may have seen photos of food posted by players shortly after they arrived at Disney. Not at all Instagram-worthy, those were just quarantine meals when players couldn’t leave their rooms. The NBA has made sure the dining experience improved, including the addition of Loving and delivery from nearby restaurants.
Loving is a certified master chef and culinary arts department chair at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan, 25 miles west of Detroit, and he is a perfect fit in the bubble for several reasons. He knows NBA players, what they like and their nutritional needs, and worked for Disney and helped at Disneyland Paris (formerly Euro Disney).
When Loving arrived in Orlando, Florida, he began stocking a commercial kitchen at Disney’s Contemporary Resort with dried spices, fresh herbs, stocks, broths and vegetables, meat and seafood. He made spreadsheets for menus.
Each team can contribute one culinary member to Loving’s kitchen, and chefs will prepare and deliver food to the campus one time daily, according to a memo sent by the NBA to teams. Distribution of food and post-game recovery smoothies will follow NBA health and safety protocols, and chefs will wear personal protection equipment and undergo regular COVID-19 testing.
Loving gained a following with his creative approach to comfort food and tries to appeal to what players remember eating while growing up. He then adds flair: smoked ribs with honey pineapple barbecue sauce; chicken breaded with brioche crumbs and pine nuts with mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and red onion; fried red tomatoes with fennel, olive, crisp pancetta and pesto cream.
“I build flavors based on something their grandmother or their mom or their aunt cooked that makes their eyes glow. ‘Wow I remember eating this coming up in sports,’ ” Loving said. “Once I capture that, I can tie it to the fundamentals of cookery that I know. You get rooted like that and try to identify exactly what the athlete likes instead of saying you only get a half a scoop of this, a quarter a scoop of that. Then you sneak in ingredients that they don’t know are there but is good for them. Then you win.”
Loving is non-stop right now, just like he is at the Olympics.
“I don’t want to sleep right now,” he said. “It’s game on. Eat a granola bar and keep moving. For chefs, we are a snack-and-go kind of a group, and I would say for myself, all the times I take care of myself prior to times like this, your body is ready and I’m prepared for this. You just go off adrenaline. Once I’m done with this, I’ll crash, just like having a cup of coffee.”
His mission is to support players and staff with quality meals and help make the NBA’s restart a success.
“No. 1 goal is the players,” Loving said. “We’re trying our very best to rally around letting their minds focus why they’re there and not all of the things that could become not so strong as it relates to food and beverage. My goal is to do everything we can to put a meal in front of them to help this particular situation not be a thorn and help them get through this.”
Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter.
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