The NBA's Fancy Coffee Obsession Is Reshaping Basketball, One Cup at a Time

Coffee really can help your hops.

ESPN’s Friday feature about the Portland Trail Blazers’ obsession with coffee is either a charming insight into the pre-game rituals of a middle-of-the-road NBA team or as one Deadspin commentary added, just another story about “mundane things ‘taking over’ locker rooms.” Sure, maybe it’s not groundbreaking that players on the Trail Blazers are using caffeine to stay awake, but the way the team engineers its coffee experience is far from mundane.

Elite athletes turning to caffeine to put up with a grueling game schedule and back-to-back red-eye flights probably isn’t surprising. And the Trail Blazers isn’t the only team in the NBA that widely embraces caffeination. Specifically, the Philadelphia 76ers have been lectured about the importance of pre-game caffeine — and these two teams can’t be alone. The important part about the Trail Blazers’ routine isn’t that the athletes drink coffee, it’s that they’re attempting to perfect what has already been well-established as an ergogenic aid.

basketball caffeine
The Portland Trail Blazers are the coffee snobs of the NBA.

Long before ESPN wrote about the Trail Blazers’ coffee habits, there was already a massive body of research indicating that caffeine improves athletic performance because it is great for the physical strength and endurance aspects of sports. Coffee specifically has been shown to improve power output in cyclists, increase running speed, and increase jump height in basketball players. It also seems to have an effect on some sport-specific skills. A2017 paper published in Nutrients found that caffeination increased the number of successful offensive and total rebounds and assists during a 20-minute game. It also increased the number of free throws attempted and made during the game, but in free throw-specific trials, caffeine had no effect. Generally speaking, caffeine is probably useful for most basketball players. But the trick is getting the right dosage of caffeine at the right time.

Most guidelines suggest that roughly 3-9 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body mass consumed about an hour before an event is good enough to get this ergogenic effect. Any more than that, and performance doesn’t seem to increase — and you run the risk of keeping players awake and jittery post-game and impairing recovery through sleep deprivation. Any lower than this range, and some studies have indicated that the ergogenic effects of caffeine may degrade over time: A 2017 paper in The Journal of Sports Science found that four weeks of low caffeine consumption — less than 3mg/kg — in habitual consumers blunted the performance benefits of an instance of caffeine ingestion.

caffeine consumption coffee
The caffeine concentration of espresso and other coffee drinks depends greatly on the coarseness of the grind and how long it's allowed to brew. 

Chasing that ratio of useful caffeine per kilogram of body weight — or at least a consistent caffeine dose before each game — could be behind the Trail Blazers’ formulaic coffee routine. Brewing coffee is an extraction process, during which certain antioxidants and caffeine are drawn from the beans. Different brewing methods have been shown to create a difference in caffeine content from 50mg-to 143 mg in a 6-ounce cup of coffee — with fine grounds producing higher levels of caffeine, on average, than coarser ones.

The Trail Blazers staff grinds the players’ beans — probably at least one way of attempting to control the dosage the athletes are consuming. Overall, controlling the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee is actually fairly complicated because it’s an interaction between water temperature, ground size, and time. At least from ESPN’s Baxter Holmes’ reporting, it seems like the Trail Blazers are nothing if not consistent with their brewing routine: It’s always brewed at 190 degrees Fahrenheit and steeped for two minutes in a French press. This fastidious routine is probably not just because they’re bonafide coffee snobs; it’s a way to control those variables as much as possible.

The Trail Blazers article is a peek into the world of sport-specific personalized nutrition, a field of research that is beginning to pick up in places like the Massey University’s School of Sport Exercise and Nutrition in New Zealand, where researchers are looking to create more sport- and athlete-specific guidelines for caffeine.

That’s not just “fucking coffee” as Deadspin admonished. At the professional level, the stakes are high, and the details matter. It at least seems like an attempt at brewing for performance — even if it doesn’t show in the Trail Blazers’ record.