Bigger isn't always better, especially in the case of sophomore power forward KENNEDY MEEKS, who has become a formidable two-way force for North Carolina after shedding 47 pounds
KENNEDY MEEKS has never particularly enjoyed talking about his weight, so it was no surprise that last summer, when he wanted to let the world know about all the pounds he had shed, he chose to show rather than tell. Meeks, North Carolina's once portly forward, posted a video on his Instagram account in July that caused many Tar Heels fans to do a delighted double take. Gone was the flabby freshman who arrived in Chapel Hill weighing 317 pounds. In his place was a 6'9" sophomore, looking svelte in a black tank top and shorts as he rose effortlessly for a windmill dunk in the gym at West Charlotte High, where Meeks was once a very big man on campus.
His weight had dropped below 280 pounds by then, and he is now down to 270, as No. 24 North Carolina is off to a 6--3 start. The hope was that with a season under his belt and without his belly hanging over it, Meeks would anchor the Heels' front line, and he has done exactly that. After reaching double figures in points and rebounds twice last season, he had put up five double doubles at week's end while averaging 13.3 points (on 62.3% shooting), 9.4 boards and 1.8 blocks. Meeks has almost reached his initial goal of 265 pounds, but as he draws closer, he now has another target in mind. "I don't have a six-pack yet," he says. "That's the next thing I'm shooting for."
Meeks is one of several big men who have benefited from getting smaller. Iowa State junior Georges Niang was motivated to transform his 255-pound body near the end of last season after a fan yelled at him. "Told me I had bigger breasts than [his] girlfriend," he said at Big 12 media day. "I only ate salads after that." Already one of the better forwards in the country, the 6'8" Niang has been even more effective at a leaner 230. His averages through Sunday of 17.8 points and 6.1 rebounds are up from 16.7 and 4.5 last year.
At Texas, 6'8" senior forward Jonathan Holmes is part of a Longhorns frontcourt that has lost a side of beef. He is 22 pounds lighter this year, at 232, and he has gone from an inside banger to a deadly face-up wing player. A 33.3% three-point shooter a year ago, he had made 43.2% of his threes at week's end while scoring 11.8 points and grabbing a career-best 7.6 rebounds. And 6'9" sophomore center Cameron Ridley has dropped 30 pounds since the beginning of last season to get down to 285.
But none of those players have changed their physiques more dramatically than Meeks. He might not have washboard abs yet, but he has more explosiveness and better endurance, which has allowed him to increase his minutes per game from 16.3 to 22.9. "Everything is easier," says Meeks, who averaged 7.6 points, 6.1 boards and 0.8 blocks as a freshman. "Rebounding, running the floor and getting easy layups, denying the ball on defense. Everything."
In a 90--72 victory over Davidson on Nov. 22, Meeks stole a pass and dribbled the length of the court for a dunk. A year ago a defender probably would have chased him down before he reached the hoop. The play brought a hint of a smile from Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, who isn't about to weigh the lighter Meeks down with a ton of praise just yet. "He's more active defensively, no question about that," Williams says. "Pretty good job. Like to see him keep it up."
THERE WAS nothing easy about building Meeks's new body, not at first. "I had a lot of bad eating habits," he says. "In high school I could eat whatever I wanted and still go out and score a lot of points, so I didn't pay that much attention to my diet. I ate a lot of fried foods, fast foods, a lot of sugary drinks. I loved pizza."
He needed a strong will to break those habits, and strength and conditioning coordinator Jonas Sahratian helped him develop one. In his 11 years at Chapel Hill, Sahratian has worked with point guards like Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton to improve their speed, and with big men like Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough to become leaner and stronger. In Meeks he had literally one of his biggest projects. "He was in horrible shape," Sahratian says. "One of the sloppiest athletes I've seen since I've been here. He really took the cake."
Sahratian was equally blunt when he talked to Meeks. "I told him, 'Your mouth is not a vacuum. It does not have to consume everything that passes by it,' " he says. "Sugarcoating it wasn't going to get us anywhere." He put Meeks on a diet heavy on meat and fish, with strict limitations on carbs. "I basically told him if it didn't walk, swim or fly, don't eat it."
During the first few months Sahratian also had Meeks write down everything he ate. He seemed to be sticking to his dietary instructions, according to the journal, but a weekly report about his meal-plan usage indicated that he was consuming more than he recorded. The scale told the same story. Sahratian asked Meeks what was going on. "That's when he broke down and told me this was the hardest thing he'd ever done," Sahratian says. "That was kind of hitting rock bottom. Once that happened, he was really ready to get to work."
In addition to cutting out high-calorie, nonnutritional food, that work included a change in Meeks's weight room regimen. Sahratian had him concentrate on exercises designed to improve his explosiveness and jumping ability, including weighted squat jumps and medicine-ball dunks. "Fat don't fly," Sahratian says. "That's what I like to tell him. It's not just about getting lighter, it's about getting stronger. We're trying to put a bigger battery in the car."
Meeks has responded well to Sahratian's tough love. "Jonas is the best strength coach in the country," he says. "He has been a major part of this. He's the best at telling me what I need." But that's not the only reason Meeks has been more successful with this weight-loss effort than he was in high school. Before his senior year at West Charlotte, Meeks—who was nicknamed Big Baby in high school in part because his build was similar to that of NBA forward Glen (Big Baby) Davis—spent extra time running on the school track and slimmed down to 290 pounds. He regained the weight by the time he graduated, but his extra bulk didn't keep him from being a highly rated recruit. Kentucky's John Calipari and Georgetown's John Thompson III were among the coaches who visited him at home with the three main women in his life, his mother, Nakhia Meeks; grandmother Rosalie Meeks; and aunt Brenda Richmond. But he realized that he couldn't compete on the college level without a concerted effort to change his body. "Maturity has been a big part of it," he says. "I realized that if I want to make a living at this, I have to be more dedicated to the game."
His teammates appreciate his effort on the court and his restraint at the training table. "I'm really proud of what he's done," junior forward Brice Johnson says. "To lose that much in a year's time says a lot about his commitment."
Meeks is much more than just a number on a scale, which was apparent during "Late Night with Roy," the half-practice, half--talent show that tipped off the season. He hilariously lip-synched Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" for the crowd in the Dean E. Smith Center, finishing the love song with a flourish by rolling on his back, then standing again for the final few notes as the crowd went wild.
After seeing the early results of his weight loss, the Tar Heels have—as Meeks once did—an appetite for even more. With impressive wins over UCLA and Florida diluted by losses to Butler and Iowa, the Heels aren't quite where they want to be yet, and neither is Meeks. "He's come a million miles, but he's got 10 million more to go," Sahratian says. He makes sure to remind Meeks of that in his blunt way: "I tell him, 'You're still fat. Put your shirt on. You look disgusting.' "
North Carolina fans are more charitable toward Meeks, who doesn't have to impersonate Whitney to win their hearts. If he stays slim and keeps putting up double doubles, they will always love him.
Bodies Of Work
Meeks is one of a trio of forwards on power-conference teams whose production went up as their weight came down
Photograph by Chris Keane For Sports Illustrated
EXTRA BOUNCE The slimmer Meeks is averaging a double double—in no small part because he's fit enough to stay on the floor almost seven minutes longer per game than he did last season.
CHRIS KEANE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MEEKS)
ERIC GAY/AP (HOLMES)
MATTHEW HOLST/GETTY IMAGES (NIANG)