In a COVID-19 year, Georgia Tech’s victory celebration is a smash

Georgia Tech forward Moses Wright in the Yellow Jackets' 75-64 win over Nebraska Dec. 9, 2020 in Lincoln, Neb.

Credit: Scott Bruhn

Credit: Scott Bruhn

Georgia Tech forward Moses Wright in the Yellow Jackets' 75-64 win over Nebraska Dec. 9, 2020 in Lincoln, Neb.

The power of tradition, the lure of sugar and the universal frustration with COVID-19 aligned to grand effect Wednesday night in Georgia Tech’s locker room at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Neb.

Since January 2019, coach Josh Pastner has rewarded the Yellow Jackets after road wins with a raid on nearby gas stations for snacks, drinks and candy. With health and safety protocols putting the brakes on continuing the tradition this season, Pastner tried something new after Tech beat Nebraska 75-64 on Wednesday.

With players seated at their lockers, Pastner unveiled a piñata in the familiar shape of the microscopic image of the coronavirus and then had forward Khalid Moore smash it to the ground. Players hurried out of their seats once Moore ruptured the spherical container with two emphatic slams, causing it to hemorrhage high-fructose corn syrup, as Pastner scooped generous handfuls of more treats out of a cooler onto the floor.

A video of the celebration posted to Twitter by the basketball team spread quickly, amassing almost 450,000 views as of 3 p.m. Thursday. By comparison, a video of Tech’s win over Kentucky on Sunday had been viewed 3,600 times.

“My wife this morning — I guess she got on her phone — she said, ‘We’re on TMZ,’” team director of operations Tyler Benson said.

The pinata was the brainchild of Benson, strength-and-conditioning coach Dan Taylor and graduate assistant Justin Wrenn. Benson said the three of them kicked around ideas of how to transform the gas-station tradition, knowing that it wouldn’t be possible this season.

“It’s our silly thing, and so what was something we could do to keep that going and have a little fun?” Benson said.

Simply handing out candy and snacks would have been a practical replacement, but not nearly as fun. A piñata was Wrenn’s suggestion.

“We looked around and saw some things, and I saw the COVID thing, and I thought it was pretty funny because who wouldn’t want to smash COVID?” Benson said.

After Pastner gave his approval, Benson ordered it and other non-COVID piñatas (“Most of them are for kids’ birthdays,” he said) along with extra candy and snacks, as the items encased in a single piñata can hardly sate the Jackets’ cravings for sugar and salt. For instance, after beating Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C. in February, Tech ran up a bill of $777.77 (after the team’s seventh ACC win, remarkably).

“My thing was, as much stuff as the guys have had to go through, even outside of basketball, with everything, if they want to celebrate and smash something and have some fun, I think it’s good,” Benson said.

Before the reveal of the tweaked tradition late Wednesday night, Benson said he wasn’t sure how the team would receive it. After all, who would have thought that going to a gas station for snacks would turn into an anticipated ritual?

The response of players — to say nothing of the tens of thousands viewing the video on social media — suggests that Benson, Taylor and Wrenn have found a winning idea. The Jackets’ next opportunity to destroy an unsuspecting carboard container in honor of hardwood glory comes Tuesday, when the Jackets play No. 20 Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla., in both teams’ ACC opener.

“So the hope is we need a lot more of them,” Benson said. “I’m just glad the guys played well and had a little bit of fun and a little bit of sugar.”

Credit: ACC

Scoring from 3-point range and finding open teammates, Jose Alvarado drove the Yellow Jackets to a 75-64 win over Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb. (ACC)