In a post-Calipari world, it’s hard to imagine a Wildcat hero being a bald, white dude. It’s hard to fathom the Kentucky faithful cheering on a point guard that stands at 6’0 (and that’s being generous). It’s hard to see a fan in Big Blue nation seeing the clock tick toward zero and hope that a Western Kentucky transfer gets the last shot. Believe it or not, Patrick Sparks embodied all of this. He was short, rocked the Dr. Evil haircut (or lack thereof), and was as homegrown as bourbon or Ale8. And yet, he gave the Kentucky Wildcats one of their most memorable moments in recent memory.
Patrick Sparks was never a star, by any means. After a successful two years at Western Kentucky University, he transferred, and spent his final two years of eligibility being a serviceable Division-I point guard. In his two years with Tubby Smith’s wildcats, he averaged 10.4 points, 3.5 assists, and 2 rebounds per game. While these stats are admirable, nothing about the Sparks’ numbers had NBA agents or scouts clamoring for his phone number. But there was something about Patrick Sparks that endeared him to the Wildcats’ fans.
For one, he was simply a Kentucky boy. Tubby Smith didn’t exactly recruit in-house, either, so it was a rare commodity when the Kentucky faithful got to see one of their own in the spotlight. Hailing from Central City, Sparks was a local hero with a story of hard work and daring to dream paying dividends. This attitude of never giving up was reflected in his game play. He was scrappy. He played the game with the ferocity of an angry Chihuahua, hustling after loose balls and never fearing to stand up to men who were taller, more athletic, and “better” than he was. Sparks was the underdog. As much as UK fans love to win, they also love to root for the underdog. Sparks was the best of both worlds. And then, he gave his fans one of the most memorable tournament moments from the past decade.
Nothing personifies March Madness like Patrick Sparks’ buzzer beater in 2005. Kentucky faced Michigan State in the Elite Eight, and when all seemed impossible, Sparks found a way to get behind the line and sink the shot that sent the game into overtime. The entire state of Kentucky was rendered breathless as the ball cruelly lingered on the rim, and when it finally succumbed to gravity and fell through the net, they jumped in unison. It was unbelievable –so unbelievable that CBS and the referees had to replay the play upwards of one hundred times, zooming in with what looked like FBI precision. The basket was good. Even with Kentucky going on to lose in overtime, Sparks solidified his place in Kentucky infamy within 1.5 seconds, a rebound, and an implausible shot.
Since leaving UK, Sparks has never returned to that stage of fame or audience. But basketball is still his life. 6’0 and scrappy was not enough for the NBA, so he ended up, instead, being drafted by the CBA’s Indiana Alley Cats in 2006. His CBA stint was brief, and coupled with a time away from basketball and a DUI arrest in 2008, it looked as if Sparks’ basketball career was facing an early and anti-climactic end.
Not so fast. Sparks’ career has had a resurgence in the unlikeliest of places. No longer is he the local boy endearing himself to fans. Sparks has taken his hard-nose brand of basketball across the pond –to Ukraine. In a short European career, he’s already played in Greece, Germany, and Portugal, but he seems to have found a level of success and stasis in the Ukrainian Basketball League. In 2009, he officially became a professional all-star, making the UBL’s team in 2009. Currently a member of BC Odessa, Sparks finished last season averaging 9.3 points, 4.8 assists, and 3 rebounds per game, while shooting an astounding 87.5% from the free throw line.
The stats, once again, may not look amazing. But I can’t help but find myself imagining a Ukrainian crowd finding something impressive about this point guard who goes hard in the paint. The Kentucky faithful shouldn’t be surprised if, someday in the near future, Sparks shows up on YouTube, nailing an odds-defying buzzer-beater to bring BC Odessa a victory.
Then, Wildcats’ fans can once again relive 2005’s most exciting shot, when a 6’0 boy from Kentucky stood upon the biggest stage, and took their breath away.