Sparks Flying

LEXINGTON - He'd just made the game-winning free throws in one of the nation's fiercest basketball rivalries, and a horde of reporters wondered what Patrick Sparks thought of his heroics.

If they wanted a flashy quote, they were disappointed. The Kentucky guard politely answered question after question but declined to gush about his heroics.

"I'm more of a listener than a talker," Sparks said a few days later.

Sparks just doesn't like to talk about himself. Scoring 25 points and making three free throws with 0.6 of a second left in a nationally televised two-point win over Louisville? That's just another day at the gym - one of thousands he has spent in a career that has taken him from a small-town Kentucky high school to a mid-major NCAA Division I program to the upper echelons of college basketball as a starter for the Wildcats.

"He is the same guy that left here," said Sparks' father and high school coach, Steve Sparks. "That's why we love him. He's just a down-to-earth Kentucky guy."

Sparks isn't the most famous name from Central City, Ky., population 5,000 - that title belongs to the Everly Brothers - but his roots in the town run as deep as the state's passion for hoops.

Sparks' great-grandfather, George Taylor, coached basketball at Central City High School from 1926-42 and is a member of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame. Sparks' grandfather, Jack Sparks, played on the Central City team that reached the state title game in 1945.

Steve Sparks also was a player and coach for Central City.

"Basketball is in the blood," Steve Sparks said. "He didn't have much of a choice."

Sparks is accustomed to spending long hours alone working on his game.

"It's just my time to get away from everything else going on and just work on my game," said Sparks, who's averaging 12.1 points and 5.0 assists per game for the eighth-ranked Wildcats (8-1).

He led Muhlenberg North to three straight state tournaments from 1998 to 2000. But few colleges came knocking, despite his gaudy scoring numbers - he led the state with a 31.4-point average as a senior.

Dennis Felton, then the coach at Western Kentucky, fell in love with Sparks the first time he saw him play, as a sophomore in the state tournament.

"The first time I ever saw him was the first time I knew I had to coach him," said Felton, now the coach at Georgia. "I just felt he was a great, great player in the making. From that day forward, we recruited him as if he were a senior, with that intensity.

"He had tremendous skills and a tremendous feel for the game. He played to win. It was easy to see."

Felton gave Sparks his best offer. Auburn considered offering him a scholarship, then backed away. Kentucky asked him to walk on. Louisville showed mild interest.

Sparks made an immediate impact with the Hilltoppers, breaking into the starting lineup as a freshman and helping them to two Sun Belt Conference divisional titles and NCAA Tournament berths. Western Kentucky went 52-13 during those two seasons.

Felton left Western Kentucky for Georgia in April 2003, and soon after, Sparks decided to leave the Hilltoppers. This time, the list of suitors was more impressive. Kentucky. Louisville. Oklahoma State. Kansas. Ohio State. Notre Dame. Stanford. Florida.

"I don't know if he had proved himself or people started realizing what he could bring to a team," Steve Sparks said.

Patrick Sparks and Kentucky coach Tubby Smith agreed that Sparks would pay his own way in school for one year, then receive a scholarship for his remaining two years. The timing was ideal for Smith, who had two senior guards - Cliff Hawkins and Gerald Fitch - the season Sparks redshirted.

"It doesn't get any bigger than UK, and being able to play on this level, you know that night in and night out, it's going to be a tough challenge for you," Sparks said. "These are where the best games are."

Sparks quickly won over his teammates by displaying the work ethic he'd always had.

As a project, Sparks took gangly 7-foot-3 freshman center Shagari Alleyne under his wing. The two spent hours working together in Memorial Coliseum, with Sparks lobbing the ball to Alleyne, helping the big man figure out how to best use his height. This season, that work has paid off, as Alleyne is a key contributor for the Wildcats.

"Patrick Sparks is a great team player," Alleyne said. "He just knows the game of basketball."

Smith continually has praised Sparks' heads-up play, which was evident in the closing seconds against Louisville. First, Sparks called a timeout with 4.8 seconds left when he was pinned on the baseline by a defender.

Then, on the ensuing play, he pump-faked before shooting, drawing a foul from Louisville's Ellis Myles.

Sparks' play against Kentucky has made him a fan favorite. It doesn't hurt, either, that he helped Kentucky beat Louisville.

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