It's summertime in Columbus, Ohio. Jared Sullinger and Evan Turner, two Ohio State All-Americans-turned-NBA millionaires, have just wrapped another grueling offseason workout. They're famished, in need of fuel.
So Sullinger and Turner hop in their sports cars and race from campus to the Easton Town Center for a plate of pasta and Skinnylicious salmon, respectively, at The Cheesecake Factory. Last one there has to pick up the check.
"He has a Ferrari, so he wins that one," Sullinger said. "I think he was setting me up."
Their love of America’s no. 1 ranked casual-dining chain—a model of fiscal excellence, with sales reaching up to $1,000 per square foot—is hardly unusual among their NBA peers. Despite their deep pocket books, pro basketball players have an appetite for The Cheesecake Factory that borders on cult fanaticism. Over the years, attempts to crack this strange code between hoops stars and the cheesecake stalwart have mainly come in the form of speculation from team trainers and sports analysts. Those investigations pointed to portion sizes, consistency, and accessible luxury among prevailing motivations driving pro ballers' passion for Cheesecake Factory.
Some of those same explanations resurfaced, in even crisper detail, when we went straight to the source: the players themselves. To get to the bottom of the NBA’s Cheesecake Factory fetish, we stepped into locker rooms at Staples Center in Los Angeles—the Lakers’, the Clippers’, and the visitors’—to ask nearly 30 NBA players the tough questions. You know, like, “What did you order?"; "Do you get the cheesecake when you go?"; and "Why does everyone love the brown bread?”
“It has to be fresh,” Toronto Raptors forward Jared Sullinger insisted about the brown bread. “It’s got to be right out of the oven.”
Every Cheesecake obsession has its own origin story. Trail Blazers guard Allen Crabbe frequented the Factory long before he landed in the league—let alone re-signed with Portland for nearly $75 million this past summer. “Before I was in the NBA, Cheesecake used to be the little date spot,” he said. “I never wanted to change that or thought I was too good for it.”
For many who start out in the league, The Cheesecake Factory is aspirational. For those who rode basketball out of poverty, like Indiana Pacers center Al Jefferson, it’s a quantum leap forward culinarily, but one that won’t break the bank for those managing the budgets of their rookie contracts.
“I think it’s a five-star restaurant with three-star prices,” Jefferson said.
By and large, players become Cheesecake regulars as a matter of convenience. You’ll find at least one in every NBA city, often near the hotels, practice facilities, and arenas. “I used to go a lot my rookie year because in Utah, a lot of restaurants close early,” Jazz big man Rudy Gobert explained. Before him, Enes Kanter was Utah’s Cheesecake King, calling on blondes to join him at his table via Twitter. Nowadays, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks hold court there.
However hoopers come to their Cheesecake habits, the ones that stick around do so for similar reasons. The quality and reliability of the food from location to location. The giant portions. The extensive menu. All of these factors make the Cheesecake Factory an ideal stomping ground for big athletes with even bigger appetites who dine out in groups. "There’s always this one giant round table for us," says Chicago Bulls center Robin Lopez. "If you’re in a big group sitting at a round table, you feel really legendary."
Here, in their own words, NBA players explain why they can’t get enough of the Cheesecake Factory.