When Georgia Tech raids a gas station, honey buns aren’t safe

Georgia Tech guards Jose Alvarado (left) and Bubba Parham (right) compare snacks at a Speedway gas station in Winston-Salem, N.C., February 19, 2020. (Ken Sugiura/AJC)

Georgia Tech guards Jose Alvarado (left) and Bubba Parham (right) compare snacks at a Speedway gas station in Winston-Salem, N.C., February 19, 2020. (Ken Sugiura/AJC)

Georgia Tech guard Bubba Parham’s hands were full, literally. Earlier this Wednesday night, his team had evened its record at 13-13 with an 86-79 win over Wake Forest. Parham had contributed with three points and 25 turnover-free minutes.

Now, Parham stood inside a Speedway gas station convenience mart just down University Parkway from Joel Coliseum. It was about 10 p.m. Parham was clutching, among other items, a box of Little Debbie pastries, two Rice Krispie treat packages, a Snickers bar, a medium-size bag of Doritos and two bags of Flipz dipped pretzels. He was not done.

“Whatever I think I would like in the middle of the night, that’s what I’m trying to get,” he said.

Parham was dutifully observing the Yellow Jackets’ year-old tradition, begun after a road win last January at Syracuse, where the Jackets will play Saturday – when Tech wins on the road, the team hits up a nearby gas station for snacks before flying back home. Parham learned of the ritual only after the team’s win at N.C. State in the season opener in November.

“I was just like, free stuff at the gas station?” Parham said. “Yeah, that’s a plus. You can’t go wrong with that.”

The tradition originated organically. Last January, after upsetting the Orange, the team’s charter plane was behind schedule. With time to kill, coach Josh Pastner took the team to a gas station for snacks as a reward. Until that point, Tech was 2-16 in ACC road games with Pastner, who said his team needed a “road warrior mentality.” Pastner turned the side trip into an incentive for road wins.

It didn’t quite turn things around, as the Jackets lost their next seven on the road. But they beat N.C. State in Raleigh, N.C., to end the regular season, prompting the second gas-station raid. This season, the Jackets have done their part to fuel local economies through road conquests. Tech is 5-6 record in opponent arenas, including 4-4 in league play. It’s the most league road wins since the 2007-08 team went 4-4.

The only Tech team to win more than four ACC road games was the 1995-96 Jackets, who were 5-3 in winning the ACC regular-season title.

Perhaps the enticement of sugar and salt as the spoils of hardwood triumph has played a part.

“It’s like you ransack the city after the victory,” assistant coach Anthony Wilkins said.

Georgia Tech forward Khalid Moore displays his selections at a Speedway gas station in Winston-Salem, N.C., February 19, 2020. (Ken Sugiura/AJC)

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Wednesday night at the Speedway, the Jackets spilled out of the team bus and into the store, each with his own strategy. Center James Banks was on the hunt for fruit yogurt snacks in “the biggest package possible.” His search temporarily fruitless, Banks settled for a bag of Reese’s chocolates before he resumed his foraging.

“Tough decisions,” said Banks, who was later seen cradling assorted bags of chips, candy and two jars of dip in his 7’5” wingspan.

After the Syracuse win last season, players were modest, according to forward Moses Wright. But, he said, with each passing win, they’ve grown increasingly bold.

“Everybody’s just like, it’s free, so you’ve got to take it,” he said.

Wright was waiting in line to check out. Admirably, he had picked out items for his girlfriend, his girlfriend’s roommate and teammate Shembari Phillips, who was at home with strep throat. Wright hadn’t deprived himself – among his goodies was a box of Little Debbie pastries, a consistent selection of his.

“It was always the honey buns,” he said.

As Parham recalled his introduction to the gas-station tradition, guard Jose Alvarado walked by, carrying a large red plastic bin that he had commandeered from the store.

“Yo, are you for real carrying that?” Parham asked in astonishment.

“Yeah, because of my finger,” Alvarado said, with a tone suggesting he found nothing unusual about roaming about a gas station convenience mart with one of the store’s bins. “I don’t feel like carrying a lot of stuff.”

“Coach lets you do that?” Parham asked, still incredulous. “That’s foul.”

Banks weighed in, saying that Alvarado was in violation of team rules.

“If you want it, you’ve got to carry it,” Banks said.

Forward Khalid Moore weighed his choices with more deliberation than Parham. He did, though, already have a canister of Pringles, a share-size bag of Reese’s cups, a bag of Lays barbecue potato chips and a pint of Haagen-Dazs Dulce De Leche ice cream.

“I got it for now,” he said of his cold treat. “I’ve got to eat it before it melts.”

While players, coaches, managers and staff – perhaps a total of 30 – checked out, Pastner stood by the cashier with strength and conditioning coach Dan Taylor, observing the purchases for NCAA rules compliance. Per the NCAA rule book, “an institution may provide snacks to a student-athlete at any time.” No financial limit is stipulated. Pastner was making sure that only food items were being purchased.

“No motor oil,” Pastner said. “No toothbrushes, no deodorants.”

Georgia Tech strength and conditioning coach Dan Taylor shows off the receipt from the men's basketball team's visit to a gas station in Winston-Salem, N.C., after beating Wake Forest Feb. 19, 2020. (Ken Sugiura/AJC)

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As walk-on guard Niko Broadway waited for his turn, he came under Taylor’s wrath. Broadway had evidently been boasting about his intent to de-inventory the store but had ended up with only a handful of items, comparatively speaking.

Parham, for instance, had picked out so much that he was walking around the store using his chin to balance a bag of popcorn on the top of his pile. The waist of guard/forward Jordan Usher’s sweatpants had sagged nearly to his knees under the weight of the cans of energy drink stashed in the pockets.

“Come on, bro,” Taylor said to Broadway. “We talked it through.”

The mood was light. A man walked by offering congratulations to the Jackets, a conspicuous group for their size and team gear, as they waited to have their items scanned.

“High five, high five,” he said. “I bet on y’all.”

And when the last items were rung up, a remarkable thing happened. The final bill was $777.77. Following Tech’s seventh ACC win, no less.

The day may soon come when college athletes will be compensated in a currency more fungible than gummy bears. But, this winter, for a team learning to win and enjoying success away from home, it’s acceptable payment.

“It’s just a plus,” said Usher as he strode back to the bus. His pants were hiked back up to his waist, his snacks having been bagged. “I don’t know why coach decided to do it; I feel like it’s a deficit to him. But I’m all for it.”