In a perfect world, Lauri Markkanen would be preparing to face Joel Embiid and the 76ers on Thursday.
But even before the COVID-19 virus suspended the NBA season and placed much of the world on hold, Markkanen knew all about imperfect worlds.
Thursday marked the one-year anniversary since Markkanen experienced an irregular heartbeat while facing the Raptors in Toronto, ending his 2018-19 season after just 52 games. A severe elbow injury had delayed his season debut until Dec. 1, 2018.
Last April 11, the Bulls cleared Markkanen to resume all basketball activities after a series of tests at two hospitals revealed no abnormalities in his heart. A team release, citing doctors from Rush University Medical Center and John Hopkins University, reported the cause of Markkanen’s symptoms “to be primarily related to a combination of dehydration and nutrient deficiency.”
This led to some speculation, most of it existing online, about whether Markkanen’s diet contributed to the issue. Markkanen, whose wife is vegan, gave up red meat 2 1/2 years ago and largely has eschewed dairy.
In an interview before the novel coronavirus virus temporarily shut the Bulls and the NBA down, Markkanen denied his dietary choice played a factor and said he was told at the time that his sodium level was too low.
Markkanen had no issues with his heart or dehydration during his 2019-20 season, though he battled nagging injuries throughout. When the virus hit, he had just returned from missing 15 games with an early stress reaction in his right pelvis.
“It wasn’t because of my diet because I was doing this diet a long time before that (heart incident),” Markkanen said in a recent interview. “I have a chef. He makes sure I get the right amount of protein.”
Markkanen pinpointed the very day he made his dietary decision.
“You can look it up. My rookie year, we played at Indiana during December. I went to (a steakhouse) right next to the hotel. That was my last steak,” Markkanen said of the Dec. 6, 2017 game. “I was thinking about it before and that’s when I decided I wanted to move away. I couldn’t move after eating that.
“I felt like I was really stuffed after every time I ate. I couldn’t move and stuff. So I felt it would be better for my body. I feel lighter and I can eat more and still feel good.”
Markkanen, who still eats chicken and fish, said he noticed a difference in the first week of his decision.
“I felt like I could’ve worked out right away after eating,” he said. “Obviously, I wouldn’t. And it’s not the same for everyone. But for myself, meat and dairy really made me sit down for like a half-hour before I moved. I was that full.”
He also said the decision didn’t affect his workouts or offseason ability to add muscle.
“If you had told me when I was in high school that I could gain weight with no meat and dairy, I would not believe you. But I did,” he said. “After my rookie year, I didn’t eat meat all summer and I gained 17, 18 pounds of muscle. You can really work around that stuff. It felt weird to feel stronger without it.”
Back when he was playing, Markkanen said Umami is one of his preferred spots for vegetarian burgers if he’s not at home heating up the pre-prepared meals his chef makes for his family. Chicken enchiladas have also become a go-to meal. A few teammates asked him about his decision to change his diet.
Markkanen, who said he can envision fully going vegan at some point in his life, believes his dietary choices have made him healthier overall.
In fact, his theory about the irregular heartbeat is that it was caused in part by stress. He said he almost got into a serious car accident the day before the incident in Toronto when a car ran a red light and almost hit him broadside at a high rate of speed on Markkanen’s drive to the Advocate Center.
“I feel great, other than some of the treats I eat,” he said, smiling. “Luckily, I like Finnish candy better than here. So it’s pretty easy to stay away from treats during the season.”