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Jeff Seidel: NBA players hated the food inside the bubble, so they called in some help
AP

Jeff Seidel: NBA players hated the food inside the bubble, so they called in some help

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Shawn Loving poses for a portrait at Schoolcraft College on Oct. 12, 2017. Loving is the department chair of Schoolcraft College's Culinary Arts program.

Shawn Loving poses for a portrait at Schoolcraft College on Oct. 12, 2017. Loving is the department chair of Schoolcraft College's Culinary Arts program. (Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

DETROIT - All heck was breaking loose.

Several NBA players were complaining on social media about the quality of food after entering the NBA "bubble" in Orlando, Fla.

So the NBA turned to someone who could fix it - chef Shawn Loving, the department chair of Schoolcraft College's Culinary Arts program.

"I got a call from Sean Ford, who operates USA Basketball and he told me the NBA folks were interested in connecting with me to see if I could support the food efforts down in Orlando," Loving said.

The answer came quickly.

"Absolutely," Loving replied. "I'd love to help. I'm not sure how I can, but I'll do my very best."

Loving's summer was open because he was planning to go to Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics to cook for the U.S. men's basketball team. But the Olympics were canceled.

So he went to Orlando in mid-July and basically started a restaurant from scratch.

Now, he runs a kitchen inside the NBA bubble in Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, making 120-140 meals a day for the players.

"It's a lot of movin' and groovin' man but proud to do it," said Loving, a certified Master Chef. "We've hit a stride and we're in great shape."

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Loving, 49, wasn't much of a basketball player, growing up on Detroit's east side.

"That wasn't my calling," he said with a laugh.

No. His calling was food.

"My mom was an excellent cook and she always made great homemade meals and my dad was in the food service business when I was growing up," Loving said. "He was more into the hospital food service type thing. I was intrigued when I would see all of the wonderful Thanksgiving meals my mom would put together and started to understand the chemistry of cooking."

Loving turned his passion into his job. He used to own and run Loving Spoonful, a restaurant in Farmington Hills.

Which led him to an unusual side gig with a Detroit Piston.

After Rip Hamilton was traded to the Pistons in 2002, Loving became his personal chef.

"I took on the job of working for him at his home while I ran my restaurant and owned it," Loving said. "A lot of the players began to come to my restaurant or seek those same flavors."

Loving started cooking for several Pistons, including Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace.

"Then, it got to the point where I started to do all of the airplane flight food for Roundball One (the Pistons team plane)," he said. "And I did that for several years, which included when we won the championship."

His involvement with the NBA started to mushroom - risotto-style.

"From there, I started to get opportunities with Nike and doing things for LeBron (James), catering his commercials, being the personal chef on site for his commercials and stuff like that," Loving said. "And it just grew from that point, word of mouth."

Loving started working for USA Basketball and went to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and Rio in 2016. He's also been to world championships in Turkey (2010), Spain (2014) and China (2019).

"It just started growing," he said.

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When Loving arrived in Orlando, he sent a special breakfast to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

"Coach Pop is here," Loving said. "So I surprised him and sent him his favorite, a crab omelet, and he was so happy. He gave me a call. It's fun to be able to help people you have helped before."

Loving is staying at the Waldorf Astoria Resort on the Disney property. "There are really two bubbles," Loving said. "There is the bubble where the players play. I'm in what would be considered the 'Yellow Bubble.' "

Still, he is under strict rules. "We can't use Ubers," Loving said. "There's three vans that are specifically for me and my team that are to-and-from every day. That's the only thing we get in. Those drivers are tested. It's all tight. My kitchen is distanced - everything is spaced out."

He operates a kitchen with nine other chefs and three sous chefs. They make 125 to 140 meals a day. But they aren't normal meals, because they have pregame meals and post-game meals.

"A pregame meal has everything to do with calorie count, carb count and protein count," he said.

On Thursday afternoon, he rattled off several teams about to play.

"A game-day meal today was a steak cut of halibut fresh fish with mustard and fresh herbs and crumbs on it," he said. "We had a pre-breakfast of a power burrito with roasted sweet potatoes, egg whites and fresh spinach - that was that was one of today's powerful pushes."

Loving said he plans to work in the bubble until the end of the month, so that he can return to Schoolcraft.

"I have a job," he said. "I need to come back home to keep my job. The NBA is asking me if I could come back on weekends and just keep things kind of going."

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The interview was just about over.

Loving said that he was in his kitchen. He put on his mask and was about to get to work.

"I'm going to go butcher some more chickens right now for tomorrow and marinate them," he said, late Wednesday afternoon. "You know it starts in the morning early and I don't usually see if it's light out or nothing. I do hear the thunder when it's storming."

He took a deep breath.

"There hasn't been many bright sides to this pandemic, you know, there's nothing bright about everything we've all been through," he said. "But from a food and beverage perspective, what I'm able to do what I'm doing now, if there's such a thing as a little bright light, you know, a little bright thing for us, I'll always be able to say Detroit was a part of this."

True enough. The Pistons aren't in the NBA bubble.

But Chef Loving has brought a little bit of Detroit to Orlando, dishing out the secret sauce behind this strange NBA season.

Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com

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