UK Men's Basketball

Patrick Sparks, Kentucky's ghost of rivalries past

Muhlenberg County native Patrick Sparks nailed three free throws with less than a second on the clock to lift Kentucky over Louisville in 2004.
Muhlenberg County native Patrick Sparks nailed three free throws with less than a second on the clock to lift Kentucky over Louisville in 2004. Herald-Leader file photo

Increasingly, college basketball is a future-tense business. What's going to happen? Who's going to sign? No time to enjoy current success or savor past success when you must fret about what's to come. Bracketology before Thanksgiving (November Madness?).

Even a rivalry as great as Kentucky-Louisville, which returns on Saturday, dare not dwell on the past. So Patrick Sparks, the hero in the UK-U of L game 10 years ago, can seem a figure from the distant past. His game-winning free throws literally in the final split-second are a misty memory.

When asked Monday to recall beating Louisville for Kentucky in 2004, and also help update fans on what he's been doing, Sparks offered a charming bit of self-deprecation.

"Somebody might read something about me again," he said in a deadpan tone. "Who knows?"

Sparks did not fall off the face of the Earth after finishing his UK career in 2006. He just went to a far corner.

First, he played in Russia and Portugal. Then spent two seasons in Germany. Then three and one-year years in Ukraine. Then back to Germany. Then the last season and a half in Slovakia.

"I don't know how many countries that is," he said, "But it's quite a few."

Sparks has spent the last six months in his native Muhlenberg County waiting to see if a team somewhere in the world will invite him to play this season.

If that call does not come, he'd like to follow his father, Steve, into coaching. "You know, it's in my blood," he said.

Sparks has long since learned how to deal with the language barrier.

"You learn the basics of what you've got to say and what you've got to have," he said. "You try to learn those words first."

The phrases Sparks quickly learned to master?

"'Pass me the ball,' 'Set me a screen,'" he said. "Stuff like that, I kind of learned that pretty fast. 'Where's the food at?' 'Where's the bathroom?'"

Sparks' wife, Mariana, is a native of Ukraine. They have two sons: Ivan, 4, and Patrick (known as "Junior"), 2.

His most vivid memory of Kentucky's 60-58 victory over Louisville isn't of making the winning free throws.

"The biggest thing I remember is us getting whupped really bad in the first half," he said, "and having one of those real, good, strong halftime speeches. You know what I mean? (chuckle). I remember that."

In that 2004 game in Freedom Hall, Louisville led 32-16 at halftime. U of L outrebounded UK 22-13 in the first half. The Cats made only five of 24 shots in the first half.

When asked if then-UK Coach Tubby Smith delivered the "strong" halftime speech, Sparks said, "Oh, yeah. Him and, I think, everybody else on the staff threw in a couple words, too.

"We weren't executing on offense. Not in the right places. Could be Louisville was playing good 'D.' I don't remember. But I do remember that halftime speech."

Kentucky rallied in the second half, but trailed 58-57 when Louisville's Larry O'Bannon made two free throws with 15.2 seconds remaining.

Smith called timeout with 4.8 seconds left. Sparks inbounded the ball, then took a return pass after stepping inbounds. Sparks had the presence of mind to fake a shot, then jump into a still airborne Ellis Myles.

With six-tenths of a second showing on the clock, head referee Gerald Boudreaux checked the sideline monitor to see (1) if time had expired before the foul, (2) if Sparks was inbounds and (3) if Sparks would shoot two or three free throws.

"They were always looking at the monitor in plays I was involved in," Sparks quipped.

In the Elite 8 the next spring, referees had to check to see if Sparks' three-pointer at the buzzer would send Kentucky's game against Michigan State into overtime. It did.

Smith wondered how the delay might affect Sparks, so the UK coach tried to distract the player with talk about Christmas, which was a week away.

But Sparks needed no distraction. He was a 6-foot guard who radiated a can-do belief, and seemed strengthened by those who might doubt his capabilities.

"I was like, 'ain't no way I'm going to miss these,'" he said.

Sparks made all three free throws to cap a 25-point performance and give Kentucky a 60-58 victory.