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Around 9 p.m. last Wednesday, N.C. State basketball players celebrated a 68-61 win over No. 15 Virginia inside John Paul Jones Arena.
Afterward, they raced to the showers, while assistant coaches looked over stat sheets and head coach Kevin Keatts went through his media rounds, Chris Zupko was on the phone, already working on the next order of business.
Zupko, in his first season with the Wolfpack, serves as the assistant director of basketball operations. The details of that job include all the major logistics for road games: hotels, practice times at the arena, flights, buses and team meals.
However, Zupko’s biggest role on road trips is a spontaneous one that he never knows he has to do until the game’s final horn.
Zupko is the ice cream man.
Since Keatts’ first season with the Wolfpack in 2018, the team has had a tradition of getting ice cream after every win on the road. It’s something Keatts started when he was the coach at UNC-Wilmington. It’s a fun, lighthearted way to reward his team. And who doesn’t like ice cream?
The responsibility of getting the creamy treats to the players and staff falls solely on Zupko. But in the era of COVID-19 restrictions, it’s not as simple as stopping by a local 7-11 and picking out whatever you want anymore.
Pre-coronavirus, the Wolfpack did just that; they’d find a place that had ice cream, stop the bus there and let the players go in and have at it. Now, the team doesn’t go inside stores because of the pandemic, and that’s made Zupko’s job a little harder. But he welcomes it.
“I enjoy doing it, to be honest with you,” Zupko said. “I wouldn’t say challenging, but it’s fun.”
Preparing so the ice cream doesn’t melt
Zupko’s recon for ice cream usually starts before the team leaves Raleigh. He’ll look at the arena on Google Maps then search what’s nearby. Ideally, Zupko likes to stay within a couple of miles. Since the ice cream has to be delivered to the team at the arena, it’s best to stay close so it doesn’t melt.
Sometimes Zupko checks with his contacts to find popular spots in a certain city. At Wake Forest on Feb. 20, for example, Mayberry’s Ice Cream came on a recommendation from the team dietitian. Zupko sometimes reached out to former staffer Travis Hackert, who had the ice cream job before Zupko arrived.
Zupko likes discovering local, mom-and-pop spots, like Dave & Andy’s Homemade Ice Cream, which has been open in downtown Pittsburgh since 1983.
Once he is set on a location, Zupko calls and give the business a heads up. At tip-off of the game, he tells the owners there’s a chance he will be placing a big order in about two hours.
But he’s very careful with his wording.
“I don’t want to tell them (the owners) it’s after a win,” Zupko said. “I don’t want to give (the team) any bad mojo with that.”
Zupko has learned from making that mistake.
On Jan. 5, the Pack was leaving morning shoot-around in Clemson, N.C. State’s first ACC road game of the season. Zupko mentioned to Keatts he was scouting a nearby place to get ice cream. The Tigers won 74-70 in overtime later that evening.
“I almost fired him,” Keatts jokes. “But I love him too much to do that. You never ask me where we are going to get ice cream before the game, you go find it and just bring it here and we’ll eat it.”
Zupko doesn’t bother the players or ask if they have places they want to revisit. The choice is all his, even down to the flavors. He usually has 32 to-go orders, three scoops, six flavors of one, six flavors of another, always trying to get a variety. The favorites seem to be cookie dough, along with cookies and cream. He hasn’t taken requests, even though freshman Cam Hayes admitted he’s more of a milkshake guy.
“But coach says I can’t get a milkshake until I’m a sophomore,” Hayes said with a smile.
Becoming more efficient
N.C. State has won four ACC games on the road, something the team hasn’t done since the 1973-74 season. The ice cream hunt after those four wins wasn’t created equal.
The first conference road win, Feb. 6 at Boston College, was Zupko’s toughest challenge to date.
“When we were at Boston College it felt like an eternity for me to order it,” Zupko said, “And even longer for it for them to deliver it.”
A longer delivery means more time at the arena, getting to the plane behind schedule and arriving back in Raleigh later than planned. Since then, Zupko has taken advantage of the Pack’s transportation — the team bus — as a way to get the ice cream faster.
“It’s gotten to a point where I’m quick enough to get there and get back,” Zupko explained. “So we aren’t waiting for me to get the ice cream so we can have a smooth trip to the airport and get in the air and go.”
One regular-season road game remains on the schedule, Notre Dame on Wednesday in South Bend, Indiana, where the Pack has gone 4-3 all-time. On Monday, Zupko was in his office in Raleigh, ironing out the final details for the trip and scouting out ice cream in case N.C. State gets its fifth straight ACC road win. It’s a task that has not gone unnoticed around the program.
“I give all the props to Chris Zupko,” Keatts said. “This is his first year on staff and he didn’t ask for this.”
NC State at Notre Dame
When: 7 p.m., Wednesday
Where: Purcell Pavillion, South Bend, Indiana
Watch: ACC Network