Thunder: As Kevin Durant and James Harden return to OKC, a look at how their 'Mom Made Pizza Rolls' meme went viral
Mike Stone immediately recognized his photo from 10 years ago.
In it, a 22-year-old Kevin Durant is leaning forward and clenching his fists. A 21-year-old James Harden is staring up at the American Airlines Center rafters and sticking his tongue out.
Stone, then a freelance photographer for Reuters, knew he had the shot. He just needed the Thunder to hold on, which it did in a 106-100 win against the Mavericks in Game 2 of the 2011 Western Conference Finals.
“I wasn’t really having a good game from a photography perspective,” Stone said a decade later. “And then when that play happened it was like, ‘OK, I need the Thunder to win this game.’ Because all I’ve got is these pictures and if they don’t win they’re not really useful.
“Who my allegiance follows is what my best take is.”
Stone’s photo became an icon of NBA internet culture, but until this week the 59-year-old from Royse City, Texas, had no idea why.
And he certainly didn’t know what his picture had to do with pizza rolls.
“It would’ve been funny at the time,” Stone said after hearing the story, “but maybe it’s funnier even in hindsight.”
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Younger NBA fans, especially Thunder fans, will recognize Stone’s work as the “Mom Made Pizza Rolls” meme. It was created back when memes were just photos with all caps lettering overlaid at the top and bottom of the frame.
At the time, the meme needed no explanation. It captured the youthful vibe of the surging Thunder, and it featured two of OKC’s three young stars in Durant and Harden.
The Thunder went on to lose to the Mavericks four games to one in the 2011 conference finals, and then came a 4-1 series loss to the Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals.
Harden of course was traded to Houston, where he became an MVP. Durant left in the summer of 2016 for Golden State, where he won two NBA titles.
At 7 p.m. Friday, a now 32-year-old Durant and 31-year-old Harden will once again play alongside each other in Oklahoma City, only this time as members of the Brooklyn Nets.
It will be a reminder of just how far those pizza rolls days have faded into the past.
While Stone gets credit for the photo, the creator of the “Mom Made Pizza Rolls” meme is still a mystery. No one came forward, and neither a Twitter search nor scrolling through old Facebook accounts turned anything up.
There’s even some debate about the meme’s origin. Some think the Durant and Harden meme was the first of its kind, but others argue that pizza rolls had been used in memes before it.
“While we did not create this original meme back in 2012, it has created a lot of buzz in social and is often recreated by our fans to share their excitement for Totino's Pizza Rolls,” a General Mills spokesperson said in a statement.
The @Totinos Twitter account, which goes by the name Pete Zaroll, assisted in The Oklahoman’s search to find the meme’s creator.
Mr. Zaroll put us in touch with Charlie Hulme, who started working at ESPN in 2011 as a production assistant. Hulme, 32, ran the social media accounts for shows like First Take, Numbers Never Lie and SportsNation.
“It was funny scrolling back through SportsNation’s old Facebook posts in an attempt to find this post, seeing some of the memes that we created back then,” Hulme said. “Cringing at more than half and being like ‘Oh man, this is really not very funny.’ You were just trying to figure out the language of the internet in a lot of different ways.”
Hulme’s best guess is that the Thunder meme started on NBA Reddit.
It made sense for a young demographic of NBA fans on social media to connect with a Thunder team that featured Durant, Harden and Russell Westbrook — a captivating 22-and-under trio.
“A lot of young people on the internet identified with those guys,” Hulme said. “And then you had this sort of I’m-living-in-my-parent’s-basement added layer of like, ‘We’re eating pizza rolls tonight!’
“I don’t know who created it, but it’s so brilliant.”
Memes have certainly evolved since then, into a concept that’s borderline indescribable the older one gets, but the original pizza rolls construct hasn’t gone away.
The Totino’s Twitter account combined memes of past and present last week by using the Bernie Sanders inauguration meme and photoshopping a mask-wearing pizza roll in place of Sanders’ head with the caption: “When mom says no more pizza rolls.”
“Once the meme kind of takes off then people just look for so many variations of it,” said Paul Bae, who spent the last two seasons as the Thunder’s director of social media. “Now we’re seeing that to the nth degree. Now it’s ridiculous. I’ve literally seen over 100 variations of that Bernie meme on the folding chair.”
It’s not just fans creating memes anymore. Official team social media accounts have become more savvy.
“There’s a healthy competition with NBA social teams to try to one up each other,” Bae said. “It’s really a requirement that you keep your fanbase engaged in this way by leveraging pop culture, by having fun.”
Stone didn’t get serious about photography until he was in his 40s. He started taking photos at his kids’ sporting events when they were in middle school, and that’s how a new career began.
Stone was regularly assigned to shoot NBA playoff games for Reuters, including one in Dallas on May 19, 2011 — a date that didn’t mean all that much until he was recently notified about the meme.
“When I first looked at it I said, ‘Yup, that’s mine,’” Stone said. “Then I started questioning the angle, to be honest. I kind of remembered being more down court, and that was more sideways looking.”
So he searched the Reuters website for confirmation. Sure enough, it was his.
Stone finds the path his photo has taken to be quite amusing, and he’s not frustrated at the lack of credit for the viral meme it became.
After all, he didn’t even know it existed.
“It doesn’t upset me,” he said with a laugh. “Certainly not at this point.”