Joel Embiid and Robert Covington can’t wait to ambush T.J. McConnell. It’s mid-February and McConnell, a 26-year-old undrafted point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers, is about to give a postgame on-court TV interview after notching his first career triple-double. But before McConnell can get a word out, Embiid and Covington fly into view and give him an impromptu shower.
“Triple-doublllllllle!” The Process shrieks.
McConnell is drenched. And cold. But he doesn’t seem surprised by their celebratory beverage of choice: alkaline water. The Sixers are one of the league’s most water-mad teams; they stock their team plane and practice facility with Essentia, and McConnell has been drinking the alkaline water since his rookie season. “I was the type of person who thought water is water is water,” McConnell would say later. “I wasn’t educated enough to know the right water to drink.” These days, he gets six cases of Essentia a month sent directly to his house. (He also stuffs his jacket pockets with two or three bottles from flights like a kid smuggling candy.)
“It’s the best,” McConnell said. “It’s all I drink, really.”
The Sixers’ water exploits are just one example of the water brand hysteria currently sweeping through NBA locker rooms. The playoffs are in full swing, but so, too, are the high-end water wars. Players are choosing sides. The Miami Heat’s Hassan Whiteside has long caped for Team Fiji Water. (His Snapchat is littered with mentions of the squared bottled water; one post, in 2016, showed a refrigerator door stacked with 29 Fiji Water bottles next to a lonely Heinz.)
So has Carmelo Anthony, who often drinks from a taped-up Fiji bottle on the bench to avoid sponsorship conflicts. And you can spot his pal LeBron James also concealing his water beverage from time to time. (At a recent game, a Cavs staffer whispered that James “is a Fiji guy” like it’s a state secret.) Others, like the Washington Wizards’ John Wall and Kelly Oubre, are Essentia devotees. “Not only is the water good, but I like their vibe,” Oubre says.
Milwaukee’s Jason Terry says Eternal alkaline water has helped him play in the NBA through age 40. “There’s no supplement for water. People always say Gatorade, but it just doesn’t work,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last season. “The kind of water I use is kind of special to me. It has a high pH level and natural electrolytes. Therefore I don’t really need Gatorade or any kind of sugar.”
Some are subtle about their affinities. Others, more vocal. Last year, Kawhi Leonard, in an interview with GQ, recommended that kids exercise caution in the type of water they drink. “Not all water is great for you,” he said. “I drink a lot of water during the day, but I stay away from certain waters because their pH levels are low. Stick to alkaline waters with a higher pH. Trust me."
Sacramento guard Garrett Temple can rattle off the pH levels in each bottled water off the top of his head like they’re his own stats.“Fiji is a 7.7,” he says. Smartwater is “a 5.0 or 5.5.” And what about the bottled water on the team’s Delta charters, Dasani? “4.5,” Temple blurts out. (For those who snoozed through chemistry class in high school, pH levels range from zero to 14, with zero being fully acidic and 14 being fully alkalined.)
What about Smartwater?
“It’s not very smart to drink Smartwater,” Temple claims. “I have to hoard the Fiji and Essentia.”
The NBA isn’t alone in this obsession. For the first time in American history, sales of bottled water exceeded those of carbonated soft drinks in 2016. And that gap widened in 2017. Americans also drank nine billion gallons of bottled water last year, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation. (That seismic shift in the market recently caught the eye of LaVar Ball, who is now selling Big Baller Brand bottled water from Lithuania.)
So what’s behind the water craze? Is alkaline water just a marketing gimmick? Or maybe the real performance benefit is all in your head. Step inside the water wars of the bigger, faster, thirstier NBA.
The NBA’s obsession with water is difficult to trace, but one player who pushed the league’s taste forward is Antawn Jamison. For years, the retired NBA player, who currently works as a scout for the Los Angeles Lakers, sung the praises of water purity. Every jump shot, he would yell “Fiji,” because, as he tells it, “it was water, baby!” He even wrote it on his shoes.
These days, Jamison keeps his Fiji memories sequestered in the cellar of his home near the South Carolina border. His basement walls are decorated with his greatest hits: the shoes he wore when he scored 51 points in back-to-back games in 2000, his All-Star jerseys from the 2004-05 and 2007-08 seasons with the Wizards. And a pair of Adidas with a most peculiar Sharpie’d inscription covering the entire side of his shoes: “FIJI.”
“It,” Jamison says now, “sorta became this thing.”
While he was with the Washington Wizards, Jamison would write F-I-J-I on his shoe before every game. It became a borderline addiction. The training staff supplied him with a Fiji-filled bottle in his locker before, during and after every game. And team executives would give him weird looks. “‘Twan, what’s up with this water shit?” Jamison remembers them saying.
That “water shit” was a cleansing thing, he says, mind, body and spirit. “When you’re an athlete, psychologically all of this stuff plays a part,” Jamison says. “It made me calm down. It made me feel better about myself.”
The obsession started when he joined the Wizards, in 2004. His agent at the time, Arn Tellem, held a meeting with him at the WMG offices in Los Angeles, and Fiji bottles flanked the conference room. Jamison tasted it and was hooked.
Up until then, Jamison had been a Gatorade guy—he went to Michael Jordan’s alma mater at North Carolina—and he rarely cared about the type of water he drank. But he noticed the silky texture of Fiji Water, which, according to the company, comes from its silica content.
Jamison asked Tellem if he could get some water, and the following week 100 cases were delivered to his doorstep.
“And I had to take one-by-one upstairs, downstairs, in my bedroom,” Jamison says. “Everywhere.”
Fiji quickly became an obsession that bordered on religion.
To this day, Jamison insists he was never paid by Fiji, but he can still blindly pick out the water’s distinct flavor and smell.
Now that players have become more in tune with their bodies, Jamison feels like a man before his time, rotating away from sugar-filled beverages to water.
“This is the norm now,” Jamison says. “I love it. These athletes, they’re so health-conscious. Back in my days, you had chefs but they weren’t cooking healthy stuff. Now, that’s all they got going on. They’re making sure they’re putting the right things in their bodies.”
As NBA teams arm up with sports scientists and nutritionists on their org charts, water has become a fascinating battleground for body optimization. Jamison attributes the current movement to LeBron, a former teammate in Cleveland, who famously treats his body like a temple.
“These young guys see, ‘This is what LeBron does, so I gotta get on it,’” Jamison says. “The dude is unbelievable. It’s about whatever you put in your system is the most important thing. He understands it.”
One of those players who has followed suit is NBA’s leading candidate for Most Improved Player, Victor Oladipo, who has, with the help of healthier drinking habits, undergone a physical transformation. In an interview with Vigilant Sports in March, Oladipo said he now drinks a gallon of water a day—a tip he got from David Alexander, a personal trainer who also advises Dwyane Wade and James. “It’s not as difficult as it seems,” he said. “I just drink. Every time I get thirsty I drink.”
Now, the name of the game is how much H2O to drink, what kind to drink, how often to drink.
The Sixers have been at the forefront of the water revolution. In 2015, the team’s sports science division, under the direction of Sam Hinkie, began monitoring players’ water intakes. The team would meticulously log water consumption using individualized green bottles to ensure that each player achieved appropriate hydration. (Philly has done away with the practice to declutter the pregame process and to caution against dehumanizing its players, sources say. Much less invasively, JJ Redick, the veteran sharpshooter, now keeps a power ranking of different brands.)
Last year, the Wizards implemented a water culture change of their own, when they stocked Essentia in the refrigerator inside the practice facility. Oubre had campaigned hard for the change, and before long, others boarded the alkaline train. In April, when a photo of John Wall wearing a “Yo boyfriend can’t check me” sweatshirt went viral, he was cradling an Essentia bottle in his hands.
But the team hasn’t completely gone Essentia-only. In December, Wall posted an Instagram video showing him giving Rolexes to his teammates at a team meal. The tables were filled with Fiji Water bottles.
Temple is no stranger to the bottled water dilemma. The 31-year-old Kings guard, who adheres to a strict plant-based diet, is a self-proclaimed water snob. On the road, Temple will send his rookie teammates to Whole Foods on a mission to pick up loads of Essentia. (Those runs helped influence De’Aaron Fox’s thinking; he now reps Team Essentia as an ambassador.) If there’s no Whole Foods nearby, Temple dispatches the rooks to the local CVS for a Fiji fix.
Temple’s water infatuation came in the form of a wake-up call, when in October, he passed two kidney stones. His doctor’s prescription was simple. Hydrate better.
“So,” Temple says with a laugh, “I’m drinking a lot of water now.”
And not just any water. Temple doesn’t drink much Dasani—“Awful,” he says—or Aquafina, the leading bottled water brands by beverage giants Coca Cola and PepsiCo, respectively.
So why alkaline water? For Temple, it’s all about mind and body wellness. He says that alkaline helps reduce inflammation and keep the immune system in check.
“The science that I know is that we put so much acidity in foods that you have to balance it out some way,” Temple says. “I’ve also heard reports of the two big [bottled water] brands having brain-eating amoebas in it and things of that nature.” (This could not be confirmed.)
The elephant in the room: So, does alkaline water actually work?
“It’s fine if players choose alkaline water,” Dr. Marie Spano, a nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks, says. “However, they deserve to know the science, or in this case, lack thereof, behind alkaline water.”
Compared to your typical glass of water, alkaline water might not be as beneficial as advertised. Researchers suggest it is almost impossible to consume enough of the stuff to affect your blood alkalinity. And doing so could have adverse effects on the body: The World Health Organization warns that downing high levels of alkaline water can raise gastrointestinal issues.
Spano says that—contrary to popular belief—there is no evidence it helps inflammation, and the human body is evolutionarily hard-wired to naturally keep its acidity levels in check. The body requires acid to digest and break down its food, which is why the stomach is lined with hydrochloric acid. Without acid, human beings would starve.
For Spano, the key to performance lies in the drinking water as opposed to guzzling sugary beverages, such as sports drinks and soda.
“In the search performance and recovery enhancing aids, my first motto is ‘do no further harm,’” Spano says. “However, if you like it, drink it. It does no harm.”
Martin Riese, one of three water sommeliers in the United States, has a slightly different view. He says that purified water companies like Essentia or Aquafina actually end up stripping out the healthy, natural minerals from Mother Nature like magnesium, calcium and sodium—otherwise known as electrolytes.
“For me, it’s mind-blowing when I see people drinking purified water,” Riese says. “It’s coming from a factory, not Mother Nature.”
He adds: “It’s the biggest scam on planet Earth in my opinion.”
In an independent study published in 2012, researchers Joseph Weidman, Ralph E. Holsworth Jr., Bradley Brossman, Daniel J. Cho, John St. Cyr and Gregory Fridman found that alkaline water had a “significant difference in whole blood viscosity” when compared with “standard purified water.” On its website, Essentia founder and CEO Ken Uptain lauded the findings. “These scientific findings reinforce feedback we've heard for several years from doctors, athletes, and all kinds of 'over-achievers' aiming to be at the top of their game. Essentia Water helps them rehydrate better,” Uptain said.
When reached for comment, a spokesperson added that Essentia Water is the only water included in the Physician’s Desk Reference. "Essentia Water’s proprietary ionization process creates a supercharged ionized alkaline water that’s better at rehydrating," the representative wrote in an email.
Some have suggested that the alkaline water fad might simply be clever marketing—a spin on the human body’s natural regulation of its alkalinity-acidity. “Your body needs to be balanced in different ways and your body does a pretty good job doing that—to balance all the different areas what needs to be acidic and what needs alkaline,” Riese says.
He notes that the there is “very mixed science” when it comes to alkaline water, and he is a skeptic. “As a water sommelier, I believe in scientific fact. So this whole alkaline water thing, I don’t believe in it. The only thing I believe in, is what we as mankind detected 400 years ago. And this is the mineral levels. And the higher the minerals, the more beneficial impact on the body.”
So why do players swear by their specific brand of water? Is there something else going on?
“The placebo effect,” Spano mentions, referring to the psychological phenomenon where the mind believes a fake treatment is real, and it feels the therapeutic benefit despite the cold lie.
But if there’s no extra nutritional benefit for guys like Oubre, McConnell and Terry, is it possible there’s a performance-enhancing mind trick that teams should harness?
During the 76ers’ 15-game win streak, David Martin, the team’s director of performance research and development, took a trip to Brisbane, Australia, to deliver a keynote speech at a sports science conference. The lecture was based on a paper he co-authored in 2014 called “Lying to Win—Placebos in Sport Science” that argued there can be clinical benefit in belief.
Among the studies that Martin cited, the human brain tends to feel more pleasure from drinking pricier wines even if they are actually the same wine, which Martin argued had profound implications for sports performance: People’s expectations informed their objective response.
Martin couldn’t be reached for comment for this story. But his findings hint at the power of subliminal messaging that might influence how players feel when drinking pricier water brands. If you’re drinking “purified” or “supercharged” water, you may feel cleaner and healthier, and more powerful on the court.
In other words, you are not just what you drink. You are what you think you drink.
Back in the Philly locker room, things are good for the young Sixers. The team is crescendoing toward the playoffs. The No. 1 overall pick, Markelle Fultz, has just returned after four months on the sidelines.
But something else is on head coach Brett Brown’s mind: water.
He’s fresh off his ritual pregame jog through town, and sitting in the visitor’s coaches office.
He says he’s been thinking recently about The Far Side cartoon. And one sketch that has stayed with him all these years.
“They had this one,” Brown begins, “where they had this crazy son of a bitch, filling up Perrier bottles out of a faucet. He’s laughing and marketing them and pumping it up.”
Brown then grabs a bottle of Dasani—the water brand supplied by their opponent—off his desk. He tilts it in his hand and looks down at the purified water label.
He cracks a smile.
“I wonder if it’s the same thing.”
Tom Haberstroh has covered the NBA full time since 2010, and joined B/R Mag after seven years with ESPN as an NBA insider and analytics expert. Haberstroh is also a co-founder of Count The Dings podcast network and regularly hosts the Back To Back podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @tomhaberstroh.