From Charles Oakley to Ayesha Curry to Kelly Olynyk, the NBA is filled with all kinds of foodies. But All-Star Weekend is all about the stars, which is why the League is calling out the big guns for the Celebrity Game.
Among this year’s electric group of stars: Chopped judge and celebrity chef Aarón Sanchez. In addition to being a TV star, Sanchez also owns two restaurants, including Johnny Sanchez in New Orleans.
With the Celebrity Game tipping off Friday night, The Crossover caught up with Sanchez earlier this week. Time starts now!
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Matt Dollinger: I’ll admit there are weeks where I watch as much Chopped as I do basketball. When I saw your name on the Celebrity Game rosters I was thrilled. How much preparation are you doing for the game?
Aarón Sanchez: Thank you! I’m pumped. It’s one of those things, I’m a huge basketball guy, I played in high school and I wasn’t really all that, but I was good back in the day. I’m a basketball guy first, football guy second.
MD: I’d read that you gravitated toward cooking when you were pretty young. How’d you split time between the kitchen and the court?
AS: You know, I come from a basketball family. My dad was a state champion in the '50s in Texas and my older brother played a little bit of D-II and was a local high school legend. Then he coached varsity basketball in El Paso where I’m from. So it was just one of those natural things that basketball was a big part of my life. Growing up later in New York and in the city, I’d go up to Harlem and play and that’s when I really started to get good. When I went to junior high school I went to school in Harlem and that was a big part of my life, playing ball. Every day at lunch we’d go play ball for an hour. Then when I went to private school, we had a little bit of a dynasty, we were city champions in the private school league and we were loaded. I was kind of like the sixth man, I’d come in and I was automatic. I was the guy who was good for 10 points and playing D, that was kind of my thing.
MD: It sounds like you’ve got significantly more experience than the average Celebrity Game player.
AS: Yeah, you know, my whole thing is to go out and have fun and contribute as much as I can. I’m really excited about the team we have. We’ve got Master P and his son… Master P is really good, he almost walked on and played in the NBA, he’s no joke. Anthony Mackie also looks like he can play, so you know, I’m there for whatever they need.
MD: Can you give us an NBA player comparison for your game?
AS: One person’s game that I really like is Jrue Holiday. He’s kind of like aggressive, he’s a big point guard and he’s physical. I also really loved Chauncey Billups. I thought he was just amazing and was just unfazed by anything, and I think I played a lot like Chauncey. A guy who could make big shots. I also like J.J. Redick’s game a lot, he moves, probably, as well as anyone in the league without the ball. He’s just constantly moving, so I just really love his game.
MD: You clearly know the league and the players really well. Are you thrilled to go against Jason “White Chocolate” Williams? Scared? Terrified?
AS: I mean, s---. Let me tell you, that guy, he wasn’t a big guy, maybe he wasn’t the fastest, but he made himself known. Super-quick release I remember, he could shoot really fast. He was like Steph Curry fast. I’m excited to play him. He’s also probably my size too so I’m excited to play him. [Laughs]
MD: Are there any other celebrity chefs or Chopped judges you ball with in your free time? Give us a breakdown of the circuit.
AS: We just played actually, a couple weeks back, we did something for Chase and they had us playing at Madison Square Garden. It was just awesome. I played with Andrew Carmellini, who is a really great chef in New York.
Back in the day, we used to have a restaurant league and Bobby Flay would play in it. Tom Colicchio, from Top Chef, too. And Bobby used to be no joke. Bobby would score like 35 points like it was nothing. He had some knee troubles so he stopped playing, but a lot of chefs play ball, they are really into it.
MD: I feel like it’d be a little frustrating that Bobby Flay was good at basketball…
AS: [Laughs] Yeah, it did! But he’s a native New Yorker you know, so he was always surrounded by basketball. Huge Knicks fan. I’ve been a Knicks fan too, growing up here with the whole Knicks-Heat rivalry, the Reggie Miller rivalry, I have really great memories of that.
MD: You bring up the Knicks, so I can’t help but ask. What did you think of the whole Charles Oakley mess?
AS: It’s funny, a lot of franchises they care about their legends, and I feel like the Knicks could do a better job of taking care of their guys. If Charles Oakley has to pay for a ticket, if there’s one guy that should be exempt it’s him. When we played at Madison Square Garden, Herb Williams was our coach and John Wallace was the other coach and those guys are just invaluable to a franchise. Charles Oakley wasn’t a Chicago Bull—he was a New York Knick. S--- man, it’s about treatment and trying to stay relevant. I think both sides are extremely at fault. Charles could have handled himself better and the Knicks could have handled it better.
Growing up in New York, (James) Dolan is an easy target, but I was there during the Dave Checketts era you know, and they’ve always had issues. There’s nothing like Madison Square Garden when it’s jammed and the Knicks are winning. It’s a magical place. It’s a shame to see them going through their struggles.
MD: And Oakley is an aspiring chef, too…
AS: Yeah, a lot of the guys (in the NBA) are foodies…
MD: Final question: What’s your game plan for Friday night?
AS: I’m going to pass the rock, play some D, and shoot a jumper and maybe a layup, and that’s it.
MD: That’s the celebrity game quadruple double right there.