UK Men's Basketball

Ex-Creeker Sparks gets his shot in Rupp

For former Tates Creek High School standout Michael Sparks, Virginia Military Institute's game at Kentucky Friday night represents a 48-hour furlough in basketball heaven.

"It's a dream come true, honestly," he said earlier this week. "Obviously, it's anybody's dream to play in front of that many people against the University of Kentucky."

Sparks hoped to lead Tates Creek to the Sweet 16 in Rupp Arena. That didn't happen, which heightens the importance of this season's opener.

Now as a freshman at VMI, Sparks might need all of his still-developing military discipline to achieve the goal of treating his first collegiate game as just another basketball experience.

"It might be a little bit hard to do," Sparks said with a chuckle.

Among the advantages of a VMI education is learning to deal with adversity.

"Rats," as VMI freshmen are called, are not permitted televisions or video game players in their barracks. No cell phones or I-pods either.

Upon awakening before dawn, they fold up their four-inch mattresses, stow away their wooden cots and are not permitted to reassemble the bedding until 11 p.m. Sleep is a luxury.

Rats may go on a five-mile run in camouflage and boots before breakfast at 7 a.m. Otherwise, like all VMI students, they must wear uniforms whenever on campus or in the county, come to formation for breakfast and dinner and march in military parades each Friday. Oh, and go to class.

When asked about text messaging, Sparks said, "You don't want to get caught texting."

Is a firing squad formed?

"No," Sparks said in playing along with the attempt at humor, "but it's pretty close."

There's "hell week," which VMI basketball spokesman Wade Branner described as "a pretty intense" introduction to freshman orientation.

"It's like living hell," Sparks said of the high-decibel, highly charged welcome to VMI.

"Hell week" gives way to the "rat line," which Branner described as "rigorous" discipline applied by upperclassmen until late January/early February.

Think of the scream-fest females had to endure in integrating The Citadel. Only there's one big difference: The Citadel does its "Knob Line" Tuesdays and Thursdays; VMI's rat line comes daily.

"It's a tough life," Sparks said before adding a few minutes later, "The coaches all told me about it. They told me it'll be the toughest time of your life. I went into it trying to prepare mentally for it. But there's no way of preparing yourself without going through it because I had no idea of doing any military-type of thing.

"They don't say it's the toughest thing you'll go through in your life just to say it. It really is."

VMI Coach Duggar Baucom noted another distinction. His basketball players do not live together. At VMI, students are segregated by class. Other than practice and games, the players are rarely together.

Baucom wondered aloud about developing team chemistry. But Sparks suggested the military discipline made for a "unique bonding experience."

"It's the closest team I've ever been on," he said.

At Tates Creek, Sparks broke Derrick Wilson's career scoring record. He averaged 19.1 points and 8.5 rebounds as a senior while winning the team's award for highest grade-point average.

Sparks narrowed his college choices to VMI and Gardner-Webb. Baucom and the VMI coaches made him feel wanted. He also liked the Keydets' high-scoring philosophy of offense.

Sparks committed to VMI last fall after learning that the Keydets had beaten Gardner-Webb in a scrimmage.

"That sort of helped out," Sparks said of his commitment. "But that was not a major factor."

A week later, Gardner-Webb became the toast of college basketball by beating UK.

"I was actually pretty impressed," Sparks said of the upset. "Anybody that can go to Kentucky and be up 15 or 20 (points) the whole night, obviously, is doing something right.

"I remember watching that game. After watching it, I didn't have any second thoughts about my commitment."

Sparks acknowledged second thoughts after he went to VMI. More than once. "Every morning I woke up for hell week," he said.

Basketball has been a respite. Freshmen are not rats on the team. The rat line gives way to the baseline and sideline. There's a television in the locker room.

"Having an outlet like basketball is a great thing," he said.

After missing the team's first scrimmage because of a concussion, Sparks played in VMI's scrimmage at Marshall. Baucom expects the former Tates Creek standout to play against Kentucky.

"He's tough," Baucom said. "He does all the things I like. He plays hard. He goes to the boards and he gets to the rim. If he does those things, he'll play a lot for me."

Sparks sees beyond the rat line and basketball. He sees the value of a VMI education that produced such diverse achievers as Gen. George C. Marshall and comedic actor Fred Willard.

When asked, simply, are you happy, Sparks said, "I mean, yeah, I'm happy because I know when I graduate from here, then I'll be in real good shape."