Is it possible the biggest mistake Dan Sparks made in all those years coaching basketball was to wear loafers on the sidelines during that game in 1984?
It’s been more than 30 years since the celebrated Vincennes University and Wabash Valley College coach, winner of 869 games in 33 seasons in the junior college ranks, had his Trailblazer team locked in a tense battle with Independence (Kansas) in the quarterfinals of the 1984 National Junior College Association tournament.
By rights a victory in Hutchinson, Kansas, should already have been in hand. But the clock operator forgot to hit the switch after a missed free throw, allowing play to go on with no time coming off the clock for a few seconds. Instead of perhaps getting off a desperation heave from near mid-court, Independence fired twice from close range. The second shot went in at the buzzer, sending Sparks and the Trailblazers to a heart-breaking, 81-80 loss.
What happened next lives on in NJCAA Tournament lore.
“It wasn’t funny that we lost the game,” says Dave Hunter, who has been calling Vincennes University games on radio since the 1982-83 season. “But it’s all kind of funny now.”
As fate would have it the basketball rolled to a fuming Sparks, who was wearing loafers. The coach corralled the basketball and kicked it as hard as he could.
The ball sailed high into the air. Sparks’ shoe sailed just as high, maybe higher.
“I thought the shoe would never come down,” said Hunter, who is still the voice of the Trailblazers on WVUB. “When it did, it landed five or six rows into the bleachers.”
Jerome Brewer, the team’s top scorer that season, waded into the crowd to retrieve the footwear and returned it to his coach, according to Sparks.
“That was a long time ago,” Hunter said. “But I can still see that shoe flying through the air.”
Sparks, who’ll turn 70 in April, said the incident was just an example of his “competitiveness kicking in.”
It was a trait inherited from his father Lowell, and his brother, Dick, three years older, who reached the Triple-A level as a pitcher in the San Francisco Giants organization.
“Dad had played football in high school and my brother played football, basketball and baseball,” said Sparks, a 1963 graduate of Bloomington High School. “Dad tried to push us to be really competitive. I think that’s good, because I think in general people who are competitive are more successful.”
Sparks didn’t immediately go to college after graduation, but instead worked for a year. In April 1964 he made his way to Vincennes, tried out for the basketball team coached by Allen Bradfield, and was offered a scholarship.
So began what was for a while a nomadic journey through the sport.
Sparks played for two seasons at VU, and was part of the team that won the school’s first NJCAA national championship in 1965. From there it was off to Ogden, Utah and Weber State University,
where he played for two seasons under future NBA coach Dick Matta. The Wildcats finished 21-6 during his second season at Weber State, and earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
It was Matta who encouraged Sparks to think about coaching as a career, but not before giving professional basketball a shot.
He bounced around for a couple of seasons, playing for the Miami Floridians and New Orleans Jazz in the American Basketball Association, and briefly for the Chicago Bulls in the NBA.
When it was time to get into coaching, Vincennes University was his first stop. In 1971, Sparks became an assistant to Bradfield — himself a winner of 607 games at the junior college level.
After three years as a VU assistant, the NBA came calling and Sparks jumped at the chance. He spent four seasons as an assistant coach and primary scout for the Kansas City (now Sacramento)
Kings while also coaching in the Puerto Rican professional league for three seasons during the summer months.
He finally settled into a job in the fall of 1979, when with Bradfield retired, he took over the Trailblazer program.
Success was both instantaneous and long-lasting.
Sparks never had a losing season at Vincennes (706-193 from 1979 through 2005) or Wabash Valley (163-86 from 2006 through 2013). Sixteen times he guided the Trailblazers to the finals in
Hutchinson and he took his Wabash Valley teams on two more occasions. Only Gene Bess at Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, has more wins at the junior college level than
Sparks, with 1,169.
Although Sparks never won a national championship, his VU team was second to San Jacinto (Texas) in 1986. There was a third-place finish in 1993 and fourth-place finishes in 1982 and
1992. On five other occasions, the Blazers placed between fifth and eighth.
Why was Sparks so successful for so long?
“He was a player’s coach,” said Jeff Gher, a Lawrenceville, Ill., product who was the point guard on the VU team that placed second in the nation in 1986. “He was tough. He’d break you down, then
build you up again. He was the kind of coach who’d kick you in the butt one minute, then the next minute pat you on the back.”
Hunter says that, simply, Sparks knew the game.
“I think he understood basketball,” Hunter said. “I think he was easily able to teach it to the players and make them successful.”
Gher, who walked on at VU, is one of hundreds of players that Sparks sent on to four-year schools. To this day, he remains grateful.
“He’s 100 percent the reason I was able to go on (to Toledo),” Gher said. “Before my (second) year he asked me to name five schools I was interested in. At
the end of the year, I had offers from all five schools.”
There were other coaching opportunities, of course. Especially in his early days at VU, Sparks often entertained the idea of moving to the Division I ranks.
“I had opportunities to go to fouryear schools,” he said. “But I had a wife (Debbie) and a son (Scott). And my parents used to come to every game. I elected to stay where I was because of my family.”
The wins piled up. He finished with 706 at Vincennes, more than anyone to ever coach college basketball in Indiana. More than Gene Keady at Purdue or Arad McCutchan at Evansville. More than Tony Hinkle at Butler and, of course, his mentor, Bradfield. Even more than Bob Knight, who won 659 games at Indiana.
There were great players, too. Shawn Marion, a multi-time NBA All-Star, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, played for two seasons at VU in the late 1990s and remains close to Sparks. Carl Landry, Tyrone Nesby and Eric Williams also graduated to the NBA after playing for Sparks at Vincennes.
More than the wins, though, Sparks says he most treasures the impact he’s had on young men.
“I really enjoyed being able to work with the young kids,” said Sparks, who in 2000 was inducted into the NJCAA Hall of Fame. “That’s something I always liked doing. I feel like I was able to help
a lot of young men become successful in society. When I look back, I think that’s what I’m most proud of.”
It truly was a remarkable career.
One might even say Dan Sparks has gotten a kick out of basketball.