SPRINTING BACK AND forth between the court, weight room and visitors locker room at Staples Center on a mid-November evening, Todd Forcier keeps time.
The Portland Trail Blazers‘ sports performance specialist is running players through warm-ups an hour before they face the Lakers, but his eyes are also trained on the red digits blinking down from an overhead scoreboard. When those digits reach 45:00, Forcier bolts back toward the locker room.
It’s time to make the coffee.
Back in a hallway, in a jet-black carry-on padded suitcase, the necessaries are retrieved: coffee beans from Water Avenue (a Portland roaster), electric grinder, electric kettle, two stainless-steel 16-ounce French press coffeemakers, and powdered, organic, coconut-based “superfood” creamer. And then, in a cramped room adjoining the visitors locker room, Forcier and fellow Trail Blazers sports performance specialist Ben Kenyon get to work, in tandem — grinding the beans, boiling the water, adding one cup of grounds to the press, letting it brew for two minutes, then stirring, pressing the plunger down and adding the creamer — a five-minute process that they have perfected for the past four seasons.
“We’re like baristas on game day,” Forcier says.
It’s a Blazers game-day ritual, carefully timed so that when the pregame meeting starts 35 minutes before tipoff, the players have a hot, fresh cup of java in hand — their pregame pick-me-up.
And good lord, do they need the jolt.
WHEN IT COMES to the toll of travel, the NBA is in a league all its own. NBA teams, according to ESPN Stats & Information’s Vincent Johnson, average 43,534 miles per season, nearly 7 percent more than NHL teams (40,768 miles), 27 percent more than MLB teams (31,993) and 82 percent more than NFL teams (8,049). And over the past 10 full seasons across the four major North American pro sports, no team has traveled as far as the Trail Blazers.
They’ve finished first or second in distance traveled in every NBA season since 2008-09. Over that span, not counting any seasons in any of the sports that were shortened by a lockout, Portland has clocked 542,383 miles, some 40,000 miles more than the second-place team, the Timberwolves, and enough to circle the globe 21 times.
Much of the reason is simple geography — Portland is the only team in the Pacific Northwest. But no matter the cause, the toll is clear.
So how does the league’s most exhausted team fight back? By turning to the same fuel that millions call upon every sunrise. It might feel antiquated, an age in which players invest vast sums in chefs, nutritionists and dieticians to fine-tune and amplify performance. But for several players, the answer to their problems is simply a cup of joe.
And it all began, ironically enough, with the most famous bench-napper in NBA history.
IT WAS THE fall of 2014, prior to a preseason tilt, and Forcier and Kenyon were boiling water to make coffee, as they often did — and the temperature on the electric kettle rose to 220 degrees.
The team’s new center, Chris Kaman, erupted. “No, 190!” Kaman boomed.
He was adamant: The water’s temperature needed to be precisely 190 degrees Fahrenheit — not 189, not 191, but 190 on the dot. From then on, if Forcier ground the beans for one second longer than Kaman deemed necessary, or cut the grinder off a second too early, Kaman would notice. And the beans? They had to be fair-trade, organic. And the grinder? Had to be top-shelf.
Forcier was no stranger to coffee. Still, he says Kaman taught him to appreciate the chemistry that elevates coffee from gas-station swill to something more refined. But ironically, Kaman’s appreciation had only begun one year prior.
In 2013, Kaman had signed with the Lakers, where he met the team’s then-head strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco. A few years earlier, DiFrancesco himself had grown so tired of guzzling down suspect coffee that he’d bought his own equipment and began bringing it with him on team road trips.
“There’s not a lot of perks on the road,” DiFrancesco says. “And when you’re in the locker room on a game day on the road, if you can get me a good cup of coffee, I can basically be happy.”
So he began to travel with a black backpack containing an electric tea kettle, a stainless-steel French press, a thermal carafe and a bag with ground coffee.
It caught on — fast. Staffers of opposing teams caught wind of the coffee and began contriving reasons to visit the Lakers locker room to grab a cup. Luke Walton, during his first preseason game as Lakers head coach, declared: “We have French press coffee here? Oh, my god. This is amazing.” Soon, making coffee became the very first task Lakers staffers did upon entering an opposing arena, roughly five hours before tip. DiFrancesco and an assistant were brewing three batches before games.
At first, Kaman wasn’t a fan of the bitter taste of straight black coffee. But when DiFrancesco and Dr. Cate Shanahan, then the team’s nutritionist, suggested he cut it with organic, full-fat milk or grass-fed butter, Kaman was hooked — not only on the taste, but also on the improvements in focus and concentration.
“I thought it gives more of a good, even energy source than when you take some of the high-sugar, high-carbohydrate drinks,” Kaman says, “[which] really just gives you spikes.”
So Kaman switched. Then Lakers point guard Steve Blake did, too. And then the two joined the Blazers in 2014. And so it went: DiFrancesco to Kaman. Kaman to Blake. Kaman and Blake to Forcier. Forcier to the Blazers’ Damian Lillard … Meyers Leonard … Zach Collins … Maurice Harkless … Jusuf Nurkic. And thus the coffee bug spread through the Blazers.
As Forcier says today: “They’ve become coffee snobs.”
EVERY PLAYER AND coach who lives by the NBA’s sleep-sapping schedule wages battle throughout the season against two opponents. One is the opposing team. The other is fatigue.
The battle against fatigue is Sisyphean — not to be won so much as played to a draw. How each team fights it varies, but to walk into any NBA locker room before a game is to find energy shots in players’ lockers, Red Bulls in nearby fridges — a caffeine infusion always within reach. And despite that potpourri of options on the market, several experts say they’d recommend a cup of joe to weary-eyed NBA players.
“At a pure nutritional level, if you wanted to get more caffeine,” says Ben Desbrow, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at the School of Allied Health Sciences in Griffith University in Australia who has been studying caffeine for the past two decades, “you’d be better off to drink more coffee.”
Consider Lillard, the franchise star, who says that he actually isn’t a coffee drinker — and never was. But two seasons ago, Lillard could feel the season wearing on him, could feel the mental fatigue, knew he needed a lift. Then he remembered how his former Blazers teammate Steve Blake was always sipping coffee before games. So finally, in desperate need of a boost, Lillard gave coffee a try.
“The first time I did, I just felt sharp,” he says. “I remember walking out there for warm-ups, and I was sweating because the coffee made me hot. I just felt focused. My mind just felt locked in. I had no idea that coffee had that effect.”
Like Lillard, Mo Harkless was no fan of coffee.
“I hated the taste,” he says.
But one morning, Harkless was so tired that he turned to Forcier, desperate for help.
“I’ve been doing it ever since,” he says.
The sugar in energy drinks, says Blazers forward Leonard, “is terrible for you. And all the ingredients that they’ve got in there, all the rest of the junk that you read on the can, it’s like … whoa.”
But with coffee, it’s just coffee.
“It’s just much better for you,” he says. “And you get the same type of pop.”
Nurkic, who started drinking it growing up in his native Bosnia, appreciates how far Forcier and the Blazers go to make it.
“For me,” he says, “they make the good coffee.”
But a few years ago, before several Trail Blazers bought in, Forcier had to dispel a notion, since debunked, that coffee was a diuretic.
“The stigma was, someone might drink coffee, they’re going to get dehydrated and collapse on the ground and go into muscle cramping because of coffee,” Forcier says. “And you look at soda — there was not that stigma around soda because the marketing. Then came the Red Bull craze. And all the Amped energy drinks. And people were like, ‘Oh, Red Bull gives you a pick-me-up or whatever.’ Once again, there was no stigma behind it because the marketing behind it was [great]. Once again, coffee was on the backburner, because god forbid an athlete drink coffee.”
Talk to the experts, and they’ll note that there’s a catch: NBA players need something to wake them up, but not so potent that it keeps them awake all night, sabotaging whatever sleep they might be fighting to obtain as it is.
“The half-life of caffeine is five to seven hours,” says Brian St. Pierre, director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition. “It hangs around a long time. This is one of the issues with taking a large dose of caffeine. You might want to use it for an hour of competition, but then you’ve got residual effects in your system for five, six hours after.”
Exhibit A: Walton recalls how maybe five years into his playing career, his teammate Kobe Bryant brought in an energy drink. Walton tried it … and the effects were disastrous.
“I was literally up until like 5 a.m. — just couldn’t sleep, shaking, uncomfortable,” he says. “I felt like I was on crack or cocaine.”
When Walton was a boy, his Hall of Fame father, Bill, used to preach that coffee would stunt his sons’ growth. These days? Luke now swears by a large iced coffee with two added shots of espresso in the mornings — and a black cup of coffee before games.
TRAIL BLAZERS HEAD coach Terry Stotts, who enjoys coffee or a latte on his way to each game, says it’s easy to see why coffee is more widespread. Stotts recalls that when he played in Europe in the 1980s, he’d see players drinking espresso at game time, even halftime. At the time, Stotts wasn’t a coffee drinker, but he started giving it a shot — cappuccinos, cafe au lait and espressos. And now, he says, as the NBA has become more international, the coffee has flowed, in turn.
Consider Portland’s Dec. 23 contest last season: His Blazers were on their second game of a back-to-back set, having lost in Denver the night before, before flying out right after for L.A. to face the Lakers less than 24 hours later. Teams in such situations tend to falter in the fourth quarter, when fatigue takes hold and players’ legs feel like stiffening cement. It was in this period — the game hanging in the balance — that Stotts turned to his bench.
He called on Harkless, a 6-foot-9 forward, who just so happened to have coffee flowing through his veins. The Blazers needed a jolt, and Harkless delivered, scoring 13 of his game-high 22 points in the final frame, including a go-ahead three-point play with 21.4 seconds left.
Harkless gave Portland some breathing room when he sank another free throw with nine seconds, then grabbed the rebound when the Lakers’ game-tying 3-pointer came up short.
And in the locker room afterward, Harkless perked up when asked about his pregame fix.
Office workers, sleepy truckers, hospital nurses on 10-hour shifts, cabbies, students, cops? They’re not the only ones who benefit from a cup, or a few, Harkless pointed out.
“It gets us going, too,” he said.
Vincent Johnson of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report; Dirk Hoag provided NHL travel statistics.