HOUSTON — For UConn players Adama Sanogo, Samson Johnson and Hassan Diarra, a traditional pregame meal before Saturday night’s Final Four matchup against Miami won’t be possible.
The three are Muslims who observe Ramadan and began a strict fast from dawn until sunset daily starting March 22 and continuing through April 20. Ramadan is the Muslim holy month and is a time of deep spiritual discipline and contemplation of one's relationship with God.
With the sun setting in Houston just 10 minutes before the 7:49 p.m. tipoff, the players will barely have time to eat a snack and chug a drink before taking the court against the Hurricanes.
“I’ll drink my coconut water and eat some fruit,” said Sanogo, the team’s leading scorer. “That’s all I need to get ready for the game and I’ll be fine.”
James Doran is the team’s associate head athletic trainer and the man in charge of making sure the three players have what they need to navigate playing basketball while fasting. He said the key is planning.
“All we did was we basically quizzed them all and asked them, 'What do you want coming out of your fast?’ and they all have been doing it so long that they know exactly what they want right out of the fast,” Doran said.
While Sanogo prefers fruit and coconut water, Johnson and Diarra often opt for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sports drinks.
All three say that while fasting during the tournament can be difficult, they’ve been doing it for so long it’s like second nature to them to continue it this week.
“It’s not an easy task … but just have faith and believe in God and everything that you do just gets easier,” Johnson said. “With time I got used to it and it’s a lot easier for me now.”
The players don’t stress out about fasting during the tournament, but the same can’t be said for UConn coach Dan Hurley.
“For me as a coach, navigating it was more like panic,” he said. “And I don’t know much about diet and nutrition and human performance. But we’ve got a great strength coach and athletic trainer that have been able to get up with (Sanogo) early and get some food in him. And then obviously the late tip time helps us more.
“It was a bigger challenge out West because we were playing so early, and it was like really in the middle of (Sanogo) probably being at his weakest in terms of those things.”
For instance, their game against Gonzaga last Saturday in Las Vegas started so early the three players couldn’t eat until halftime. That left them less than 10 minutes to grab some bananas and sports drinks before returning to the court.
All three players said they wake up around 5 a.m. to eat before their daily fast begins. None of them eat breakfast food, with all three opting for meals including steak for their morning meal.
Diarra said it’s not the lack of food that impacts him most but rather that he isn’t able to have a sip of water if a game or practice is during fasting hours.
“It can be very, very, very hard at times,” he said. “The hardest part is not being able to drink or hydrate yourself throughout the game, throughout the practices. It can be challenging at times, but we find a way to push through it and get it done.”
Because of this, Doran and the staff focus on making sure they’re eating and drinking the right things when they can to get through physical exertion.
“We really make sure they’re taking in a great amount of electrolytes during the non-fast,” he said. “Because making sure they’re loaded up on electrolytes will help them retain more water while they’re not allowed to drink or not allowed to hydrate.”
As the scent of food waiting for the rest of the team wafted through the locker room Friday, Diarra was asked if situations like that made fasting more difficult.
He said no, but noted temptations that come from another source.
“It’s mostly on social media,” he said. “You don’t want to think about it, but it just pops up on your newsfeed. Recipes, and great food and restaurants, that’s the hardest part.”
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