Every professional athlete can look back, with a twinge of embarrassment, and recall a few “rookie mistakes”–those moments when a lack of experience led to unfortunate, maybe game-losing, gaffes.
But rookie mistakes don’t always happen on the court. For Celtics superstar Paul Pierce, those youthful indiscretions took place in the kitchen.
“Rookie Paul Pierce would probably wake up, have a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, then probably after practice, go to Burger King or something,” the longtime Celtic said of his diet as a young player. “I could see myself doing Burger King for lunch and dinner, since I lived by myself and I didn’t know how to cook.”
Pierce visited the University of Massachusetts Boston earlier this month to talk sports and nutrition with university students and Boston-area community groups. He was joined by Red Sox team nutritionist Tara Mardigan on a panel moderated by Boston Globe columnist emeritus Bob Ryan. The event was sponsored by the Division of Athletics and Recreation, Special Projects, and Programs, and the Undergraduate Student Government.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can be challenging for anyone, but even more so for young athletes, who work strange hours, eat too late, and sleep too little. Early in his career Pierce adopted many of those bad habits, but in his late 20s he realized a change was needed.
“As I got older, I started understanding about being healthier, about being better, about living better,” the 15-year NBA veteran said.
Gone were the late-night meals in unfamiliar cities and the red velvet cupcakes that had been his vice. In their place: a healthy meal every day at noon and plenty of green vegetables.
“I started changing the foods I ate, I started changing the way I rested, and I saw a difference in my play. I saw a difference in my energy level,” Pierce said. “And I was like, ‘Wow, this is something I can use to help influence other people, other kids.’”
In 2002, Pierce founded a charity called The Truth Fund to offer enrichment activities to underserved kids. Soon after, he embarked the Truth on Health campaign, an effort encouraging young people to adopt the same healthy principles that helped Pierce become a likely NBA Hall of Famer.
Pierce said the bad habits of his early career were a result of “me not really having the knowledge and understanding of what was right for me.” Truth on Health was created to give young people the information he didn’t have.
“When you look around America, there’s not enough knowledge out there, and there’s such an epidemic on childhood obesity, and people not understanding what are the right foods, what’s healthy for you, what’s not healthy for you.”
Mardigan, the nutritionist for the Red Sox since 2004, said she sees a generational gap in health knowledge.
“The younger guys are coming up to me and they’re asking me lots of questions and they are becoming almost leaders for some of the older players, which is great,” she said. “So the culture is definitely shifting.”
Mardigan cited Dustin Pedroia, Alfredo Aceves, and Ryan Kalish as Red Sox who’ve shown a commitment to healthy eating. And the players aren’t the only ones who benefit – players who eat well play better, leading to more wins and more profit for team owners.
“If we can keep Paul Pierce on the court for longer,” Mardigan said, “then that’s a really good investment for the Boston Celtics.”
Pierce has stayed on the court–missing only 18 games in the last six seasons. And at age 35, he just passed Charles Barkley to become the No. 20 scorer in NBA history.
“I mean, you don’t see a lot of 35-year-olds in the league today playing at a high level, and I think that’s because of the change I made in my eating habits, my rest, and the things that I’m doing on and off the court to preserve what I’m doing on the court,” Pierce said. “It’s made a huge difference.”