Think the similarities between basketball and barbecue end at their shared first letter? A recent conversation with Ronnie Killen and visiting Harlem Globetrotters “El Gato” Melendez and “Hawk” Thomas sends this theory up in smoke—glorious, woodsy smoke from Killen's Barbecue, no less. "It makes people happy,” said Killen of the unlikely link between well-executed food and good performance. “That's the main thing as far as entertainment and food, they go hand in hand. You can eat while you're watching entertainment and also, it just makes people happy." From teamwork to commitment, attitude to creativity—the parallels between court and kitchen are impossible to miss, though the passion these men bring to both remains unmatched.
Melendez and Thomas are in town this week visiting with fans and media to preview their three-game weekend schedule that will no doubt involve dazzling Houstonians with their on-court style and swagger. But before all that action, the athletes sought sustenance with a midday swing by Pearland to swap tricks and talk pits with local ‘cue celebrity Killen during a typical Tuesday lunch rush. "It's always important for us to go to amazing local spots,” said Aryn Bryant, director of marketing for the traveling team and wrangler of the guys’ social calendars. “We play around the world but most importantly we play locally. We go everywhere that is very cool and this place is very cool. These guys have never actually had Texas barbeque and where would you take them but the best Texas barbecue?” To do anything less would be a crime.
Prior to digging in, onlookers cheered as Killen picked up pointers from the Globetrotters on some of their signature moves, including spinning a basketball on his finger. When questioned whether he’ll make such entertainment a regular part of the Killen’s experience, he laughed good-humoredly and acknowledged though such plans aren’t on the agenda, “I did learn today that it's better to put it on your finger tip rather than on the pad.” Hey, you gotta start somewhere! Of course the tables were turned later when it came time to eat. “I love to cook when I'm at home,” said Thomas. “But even if I was on my best day I would not get anywhere close to what I just ate.”
After the “show” Killen treated the teammates to a tour of his kitchen complete with samples of his pepper and spice blends, which both players promised would be put to good use when they return home. A few minutes later, the pair was gastronomically entranced: "It's delicious,” praised Thomas. “I've been to so many countries across the world, I've been in so many places in the US to eat. And nothing, nothing came close. He said he's number two, in my book he’s number one.”
“Everything's made fresh, made with passion. That's what makes this so good,” added Melendez. “It tastes like us. Everything we do is with passion [and] we love what we do. So this is just awesome.”
As in most successful ventures, teamwork is essential to a winning game, be it sport or business, which all three were quick to point out. "You're not going to find this kind of barbecue in a traditional barbecue restaurant. You're just not going to find it,” emphasized Thomas. “It takes time, it takes effort, [and] it takes a team. He has a great team and when they're in the kitchen they make magic happen." “One person can't do it all,” agreed Killen. “It's all about the team, it's all about the people. You have to train, have the same culture, it's the empowerment that you have.”
Tired of reading and ready to see the Globetrotters in action? “Come out this weekend, bring some family, bring some friends, and I guarantee you're gonna have a great time,” invited Thomas. “I encourage you to come out, come to our kitchen. Let us show you what we do in our kitchen."
Before we parted ways I had to ask, have they performed in a barbeque restaurant before? "No, but we’ll come back to perform here anytime." Game on.