It was not like any mobile takeout order I’ve picked up any time recently.
The woman at the front counter was just finishing up with another customer when I stepped through the door one afternoon last week. She smiled as I walked up to the register.
“Hey, how can I help you?” she asked.
“Yes ma’am, I had a mobile order. The name is Trainor,” I replied.
She typed my name into her computer and checked for my order as the lunchtime crowd chatted and laughed in the nearby dining room. She raised an eyebrow when she found it.
“So, uh, just the basketball then?” she asked. I replied that was, indeed, all that I needed.
“Well, here you go,” she said, reaching under the counter and handing me the rubbery, black-and-red orb. “One basketball.”
And with that, I held in my hands, for the first time in nearly 30 years, a brand new Pizza Hut NCAA March Madness mini-basketball.
Unless you have been living in an undiscovered cave in the Smoky Mountains, you are most likely aware that March Madness is, indeed, upon us. The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments tipped off earlier this week, and the zaniness commenced almost immediately, with Greenville’s Furman University, a 13-seed, upsetting national power Virginia on Thursday afternoon in the men’s tourney.
The annual weekslong basketball party, as ever, brought with it the requisite hype and hoopla, including various tie-ins and promotions with businesses and corporations. In one of those tie-ins, Pizza Hut brought back, for the first time since the 1990s, its NCAA Final Four branded mini-basketballs.
Now, for some folks that won’t mean much. But for those of us of a very specific age, the return of the mini-basketballs is a direct shot of nostalgia right into the veins.
Before we talk about why those basketballs were so clutch, you first have to understand the context of the Pizza Hut of yesteryear. With all due respect to anyone who might be involved with Pizza Hut in the modern era, please know that the experience today absolutely pales in comparison to the Pizza Hut of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Remember old school Pizza Hut? When the dining rooms had that low lighting – seriously, it was dark as a mine in there – and comfy booths and there was a jukebox in the corner? When they would bring a pitcher of Pepsi or iced tea to the table, and the waitress would serve the first slice when the pizza came out? When there was a Pole Position arcade machine by the front door?
For a generation of small town kids, Pizza Hut was the closest thing we had to a night out. We went there for birthday parties and after high school football games and on Tuesday nights when they had the discount “Family Feast.” It’s a generation that still remembers the tune to the chain’s former theme song: “Pizza Hut…Makin’ it great!” (You just sang that in your head.)
And the NCAA mini-basketballs in March were a part of that era. Pizza Hut was one of the small handful of restaurants in Abbeville when I grew up there, so those basketballs, of course, became something of a schoolyard status symbol when the pizzeria came out with them. I can still remember friends dribbling them in school breezeways and having contests to see who could spin them on their fingers the longest.
Now, if you remember the Pizza Hut mini balls, there are a couple of things that probably stick out in your mind. One, they were classically cheap rubber basketballs that were prone to getting warped after a while. (Some called that getting “whoppy.”) And two, they smelled extremely rubbery. After picking up the new version of the ball earlier this week, I’m happy to report some things don’t change, it seems. My house smells like an industrial rubber plant right now.
March Madness is here. Mini-basketballs are back. Now all we need is a Pole Position machine, a pitcher of Pepsi and a hand-tossed pie with sausage and mushrooms and we’ll be in business.