Credit: Stephanie Rudig

“What time does the plane leave tomorrow?” Jeff Green asks his teammates Austin Rivers and Markieff Morris as he heads for the locker room exit. It’s close to midnight on a Saturday evening inside Capital One Arena. The Toronto Raptors had just given the Washington Wizards their second straight deflating loss of the season.

“11,” Morris replies.

“Nah, be there at 10:30. Plane leaving at 11,” says Rivers.

The following day, the Wizards board a team plane heading more than 2,000 miles to Portland, Oregon, to play the Trailblazers. In all, the team will spend 10 days away from the comforts of home on this five-game West Coast road trip. While the players are relaxing and watching NFL games on their cross-country flight, a team employee walks around to each player and hands them an envelope filled with $1,330—in cash—to cover their meal expenses for the trip. 

Life in the NBA has its luxuries. The players, with their hefty salaries and jetsetting professional athlete privileges, fly on chartered planes while spending their nights in four- and five-star hotels. But anyone who travels can understand that living on the road comes with logistical difficulties. When the average American travels for work, they often receive a per diem from their employer to cover travel and food expenses for the duration of the trip.

The NBA is no different. 

The National Basketball Players Association collectively bargained with the league in 2017 to ensure that players receive $133 per day on the road for food expenses, which is the most of the nation’s four major professional sports. Players are alloted $24 for breakfast, $37 for lunch, and $72 for dinner, a substantial jump from the $7 total the league issued in its first per diem in 1957.

Unlike most professionals, who have to file expense reports documenting each transaction and provide receipts for reimbursement when they travel for business, NBA players have no such obligation and can spend their meal money any way they please. 

Second year player Thomas Bryant enjoys the freedom that comes with getting an envelope of cold hard cash and not having to disclose what he does with the money. “Honestly, I pocket a lot of that money because they already provide food for us in a lot of situations,” he says. “I’m trying to spend this money going out and save up my game checks. Got to be smart with the money.” 

He’s right. The team provides snacks throughout the week for home and away games. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit, yogurt, and protein bars are readily available. A full spread of catered food greets the players in the locker room after games.

When the Wizards defeated the Trailblazers for their first win of the season, players dined, in the locker room, on brisket, rice, pasta, and broccoli that the team paid for before flying to Oakland, California.

Eating food in the locker room after the game is a quick way to pocket some portion of the $72 allotted to cover dinner expenses and can curb players’ appetites late at night, which is no easy task. Players often leave arenas around 11 p.m. and their bodies have been trained to reach peak energy levels in the evening. This means that players are getting back to their hotels close to midnight and risk falling into one of the traps of dining away from home.

“One of the mistakes I made early in my career was ordering too much room service,” says third year guard Tomáš Satoranský. “I was new to America and did not understand a lot about going out, so I would just spend a lot of my downtime in my room. This became bad for two reasons, because not only is most of the room service food not healthy, it’s also really expensive”

Now that he is a seasoned player, Satoranský is more savvy about how he spends his money on food. When the team played their first road game in the preseason against the New York Knicks, Satoranský stopped by his new favorite inexpensive food option: Whole Foods. “I looked up the closest Whole Foods to the team hotel and just walked 10 minutes to get food from the hotbar,” he says. “It’s cheap and it’s healthy, so I love it.”

Satoranský considers himself a “foodie” and enjoys having quick options like Whole Foods, but he also likes trying out the occasional white tablecloth restaurants at which he can spend some of his meal expense money. “A lot of times on the road it will be me, Ian [Mahinmi], and Jason [Smith] and we’ll pick a nice restaurant and go eat,” he says. “I love to go to cities like Los Angeles, Miami, and New York and just trying out the popular restaurants.”

When the trio paint the town on the road, don’t be surprised to catch Mahinmi, a native of France, attempting to introduce his teammates to some fine French cuisine.

Mahinmi, who left the game against the Trailblazers with back spasms, joined the Wizards on a four-year, $64 million contract in the summer of 2016. 

Mahinmi doesn’t particularly need the $133 a day food allowance, but having it presents a new temptation for a man with a sweet tooth. He has cut out sugar from his diet, helping him to lose weight, and he reads the nutritional facts on any purchase with the intensity of a dietitian. “I’m a big-time chocolate guy,” he says. “Chocolate bars, all that stuff. I had to cut that off. I had to really give up the sugar. Nowadays, even if you go to Whole Foods, you look at the back of anything you grab, you are going to see sugar in it. There is sugar in everything.” 

Devin Robinson, a two-way contract player with the Wizards’ G League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go, does not have a multimillion dollar contract and stands to benefit the most from the NBA providing money for food. 

The NBA devised the two-way contract last season as a way for teams to give emerging players the opportunity to play both in NBA and G League games, significantly increasing their earning power. A two-way contract player can earn up to $385,000 a season, a significant raise over the G League’s regular $35,000 but a far cry from the $20 million some established NBA stars can make. 

Robinson eats on the team dime whenever possible and saves his per diem envelope for things that are important to him, like shoes and clothes. 

“I like to pocket my money when I’m with the Wizards and buy something nice for myself, but it’s different in the G League. We only get $50 per day,” says Robinson, who played college basketball at Florida. He is careful with his money when he’s traveling in the G League. 

“You try finding good food in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. In places like that, you leave to go grab something quick to eat like Chipotle or pasta and head straight back to the hotel,” he says.

One day, Robinson hopes to be in position to score a multimillion dollar contract. But until then, he’ll continue to supplement his income with his union-determined funds.