It’s a sunny December afternoon in Manhattan, and sunlight filters in through the long windows of the Bramlage Coliseum Legends Room on the concourse level. It’s a quiet, still scene for now, but that won’t last much longer.
The Kansas State men’s basketball team has a non-conference game against Georgia State later in the day, four hours ahead to be exact, so the Wildcats are following their normal game day schedule and making their way upstairs to eat the pre-game meal.
Today, it’s the usual: chicken, steak, pasta, shrimp, potatoes, broccoli, rice and salad, all laid out on tables for each of the 14 players to make plates. They talk and crack jokes as they do so, laughing as they load up and sit down at the several round tables set up around the room. It’s already buzzing with conversation. Pleasant smells waft around.
Graduate assistant Shane Southwell is the first to walk into the room, and he enjoys a laugh with team nutritionist Katie Lemair as he does. Then comes the rest of the team, ready to devour another meal it hopes will help fuel the beginning stages of a fruitful season.
That’s come to fruition thus far. K-State is in first place in the Big 12, on a record-breaking nine-game win streak in conference play and in position to win its first league title in six years.
There’s still work to be done, but the Wildcats will do a lot of it in settings like these: at tables, in the gym and on the road, making every effort to eat the right foods, drink the right beverages and lift the right amount. It’s a grueling process, one that requires the help of people like Lemair, strength and conditioning coach Ben O’Donnell, director of basketball operations Drew Speraw and lots of others.
“Some people don’t eat very much but are getting much better,” O’Donnell says, laughing with players several feet away. “Some guys are pickier than others. It’s just like any person. Obviously, on game day, some guys have certain routines, so they want to always eat chicken and pasta and fruit or whatever it may be.”
The food selection is particularly important, especially on game days. Nobody on the coaching staff, O’Donnell said, wants to see players lose energy down the stretch of a close game because they didn’t get the proper nutrition.
That’s why Lemair and O’Donnell are so precise about what the team eats. They work closely with the chefs to monitor the details: grilled or fried, some seasoning or none at all, new foods or old choices. The chefs, in turn, will give feedback and decide whether they can meet the requests.
This is where the planning comes in. It often happens at practices, when, if Lemair, O’Donnell and athletic trainer Luke Sauber are all in attendance, they’ll get together and design a blueprint for each week.
Meals are discussed. Snacks are, too. Ideas are bounced around.
Fortunately for the team staff, there are players like sophomore guard Cartier Diarra.
“I’ve never been a very picky person,” Diarra said. “My mom always told me, ‘Boy, you better finish that plate.’ As long as you give me some food, I’m going to eat it. Because I know it’s good for me.”
Diarra, though, doesn’t have to be picky. Nobody on the team does. When the Wildcats eat at the performance table, which is open to all teams from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and located in the West Stadium Center at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, they have a bevy of options.
For breakfast, the team has daily access to pancakes, french toast, scrambled eggs, omelettes, egg whites, sausages, bacon, cereal, smoothies, fruit, yogurt and muffins, among other foods. Biscuits and gravy are served every other day.
In the evening, the menu really opens up. Dinner options include chicken, shrimp, pork, salmon, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, turkey burgers, black beef burgers, salads. There’s also a vegetarian station.
And that’s just on the main line.
Performance table manager Kylie Hanson said she also puts out what she calls an “action station.” These include wing bars, stir-fry bars, pasta bars, burrito bars and taco bars. Those are the more popular ones.
“We highly encourage training table,” Hanson said, “because we know that if they’re coming to training table, they have everything available to them to help feed their energy needs on a daily basis.”
It isn’t always smooth sailing, though. Athletes like different foods. They’re from different backgrounds, different cultures, different families, so their taste buds are scattered like salt on a plate.
So Hanson, who started her job at the performance table in August 2016, had to adapt. She leaves a comment box for anonymous comments on a sheet of paper, which she checks every day. She also distributes a survey at the end of each semester. The goal for both is simple: get to know each student-athlete, the foods they like and the ones they don’t.
“One thing that I learned right away is letting them know I’m not the food police,” Hanson said. “I’m not going to tell them, ‘No, you can’t have this. You can’t have that.’ It’s more if they come to me, or if I’m working with an individual athlete, and we’ve set goals for specific nutrition needs, that I am an accountability person for them. They know that if I’m going to be at a meal, they can come check in with me and ask me if what they have on their plate is adequate, what they should do differently.”
Lemair is like Hanson in that regard. They’re both responsive to the players, and they both maintain relationships with them.
That opens the door for players to tell Lemair the foods they’re hooked on, and the ones they could do without. It also means they’re comfortable nagging Lemair for foods they don’t get very often — like a donut sandwich.
It’s straightforward enough. It’s a donut cut in half, and in between is an egg, sausage patty and cheese. Naturally, Lemair hesitated at first. It isn’t the most healthy, she reasoned.
Then finals week rolled around.
“I did put it on the menu,” Lemair said with a smile. “There is definitely a balance there. I’m not pushing chicken, veggies, rice on them 24/7. You need that, otherwise they will get burnt out, and it’s not sustainable, really for a college athlete — or for any athlete in general.”
There’s also the hydration side of things. Like the food selection, it depends on each player and the load each manages in games.
It also has a lot to do with practice. Each player is weighed before and after practice. That way staffers like Lemair and O’Donnell can track the amount of sweat each is losing per practice, then give hydration instructions accordingly.
The players who sweat the most — “heavy-sweaters,” Lemair calls them — are encouraged to down drinks like Gatorade and Propel. For others, water is emphasized. Juice and milk are always available, too.
“If (a player) is continuing to have signs and symptoms of dehydration,” Lemair said, “we just have to kind of tweak our game plan of what works for him — whether it’s Gatorade and water, or we push more fruits and fluids at meals. Or maybe another guy just needs to drink more water, and that’s it. So it just kind of depends on each guy’s individual needs.”
That, though, only accounts for meals when the team is in Manhattan. Road trips are another story.
That’s where Speraw comes in. His job covers a lot: meals on the road, booking hotels and more.
The work begins in the summer, when the non-conference schedule is set. In late August, when the conference schedule was nailed down, Speraw began making hotel reservations in each of the Big 12 cities the team is scheduled to visit this year.
Most of it follows a pattern. Speraw likes to stick to the same hotels most seasons, since he’s familiar with their locations, staffs and prices. Besides, in smaller cities like Ames, Iowa — home to Iowa State — and Morgantown, West Virginia — home to West Virginia — the options are limited anyway.
It’s in the hotel where the team eats its pre-game meal. To arrange it, Speraw coordinates months in advance with the kitchen staff and sends them the menu he’d like his players to have. The chefs respond with their prices, and Speraw names the preferred quantity of each food.
He’ll also make rooming arrangements. That means requesting everything the team will need for its stay: rooms, a suite for head coach Bruce Weber and meeting spaces with projector functionalities. He has to reserve extra space, too — university president Richard Myers or athletic director Gene Taylor might make an impromptu trip with the team.
There are wrinkles, though. One came on Dec. 8, when K-State visited Tulsa — a 3:30 p.m. tip. Remember: the team always eats its pre-game meal four hours before tipoff.
“So then it’s like, ‘Is it breakfast food? Is it lunch food?’” Speraw said. “We also have shootaround before that, so we changed it up and did a lighter breakfast, like a make-your-own taco bar, or a breakfast burrito type thing. So you can put together scrambled eggs, bacon, whatever. That’s not our normal breakfast, but it was just something light before we went to shootaround, because they needed something in their stomach.”
But after each game, when the team is loading up to travel back to the Little Apple, the Wildcats eat like most other K-State students.
“Most of the time it ends up being pizza or Chick-fil-A,” Speraw said, “something that’s easy to get in mass quantities. We’ve got to hand it to them on the bus. They’ve got to eat before we hit a flight. So getting a full meal or any kind of spread like that is not really possible. We find certain ones — Chick-fil-A, Raising Cane’s, stuff like that, that’s easy to just hand them a box, or a pizza.”
That represents a reprieve for the players, most of whom are used to the health demands Division-I college basketball dictates. This K-State team returned all five starters from last year’s Elite Eight club, after all. Experience runs deep on the roster, top to bottom.
Yet there are newcomers, and there are freshmen. Odds are, in high school or at other smaller colleges, their nutrition wasn’t monitored the way it is at K-State. Speraw knows first-hand — in his playing days, he remembers pre- and post-game trips to Wendy’s.
That isn’t the case at K-State. The new players have to get used to a new diet.
“It’s definitely trickier,” O’Donnell said. “I think it’s more of educating them and making sure they understand what’s actually happening when they make some choices that they make and how it can affect them on the court. I think the biggest thing is selling how it could — it’s not even selling — how it literally will affect you on the court.”
That’s an even thornier part, O’Donnell, Lemair and Speraw all said. It’s hard to determine how closely a player’s eating and drinking habits are associated with his performance during games. Maybe he woke up wrong side of the bed, or as Speraw said, he might just be slow that day.
Even years after the NCAA relaxed restrictions on meals players can eat — “You couldn’t give them cream cheese because that made it a meal,” Speraw joked of the old rules — the results are sometimes hazy. Did K-State senior guard Barry Brown Jr. miss a shot because it was contested, or because he didn’t get enough protein that afternoon?
“It’s hard to say,” Speraw said.
It’s an imperfect science, but it’s one those behind the scenes at K-State have worked hard to perfect.
With the Wildcats atop the Big 12 standings in February, it’s hard to argue with them.
“Me and Katie,” O’Donnell said, “we kind of all talk about, ‘OK, what do we have available? What can we make available? Who do we have to cater?’ And we go out and make sure that we’re giving them quality meals, especially game day. We want to give them as much quality food as possible — quality meals, real food.”