Preparing to go grocery shopping, Tracey Sparks and his son, Payton, walk toward the Walmart entry doors in Winchester, Indiana.
“Hey, Payton. How are you?” a man walking in the parking lot asks.
“I’m doing great. How are you?” Payton asks the man.
Tracey and Payton continue walking. Tracey then turns to Payton and asks, “Who was that?”
Payton responds, “I don’t know.”
While Payton might not know everyone in his hometown, his face is one easily recognizable to those around him through his basketball experience. As a people person, Tracey said Payton welcomes conversation with people of all backgrounds because it's the type of person he is.
“He was one of those kids in the community that was just kind to everybody,” Tracey said. “In return, most everybody loved him, which was a really great experience for him. A lot of kids that get some success get really arrogant, and that was never Payton.”
Payton grew up in Winchester and started playing basketball in second grade at Jay County Community Center. Last year, he graduated from Winchester High School, where he was named small school all-state and conference player of the year his senior season.
“I loved playing for my hometown,” Sparks said. “The people, they're amazing.”
Sparks began his freshman season with the junior varsity team, but Winchester High School boys’ basketball head coach Dustin Baldwin noticed his work ethic and decided early in the 2017-18 season to move him to varsity.
“[Baldwin] believed in me when I was young as a freshman,” Sparks said. “He played me, but he didn't give anything to me. He made me work hard for my spot.”
Baldwin, 2005 Winchester graduate, said Sparks worked to improve at multiple facets of his game — ball handling, 3-point shooting, free-throw shooting and using both of his hands.
“He was one of our best free-throw shooters on the team,” Baldwin said. “That stuff just doesn't come easy. He worked at it, and I think that was just his thing — he just wanted to get better in any way he could to help our team and help himself.”
Andrew Martin, program director of Midwest Basketball Club, met Sparks as a sophomore in high school at a Crossroads Showcase workout in Indianapolis and recruited him to join Midwest Basketball Club for Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) competition. Due to COVID-19 concerns, Sparks played a limited number of tournaments with Midwest Basketball Club, but Martin said he left an impression on and off the court.
“He's easily one of the nicest kids I've ever met and been around,” Martin said. “I don't know what happens or what gear flips, but as soon as he steps on the floor, he turns into a different beast. The thing that stood out to me the most is just his effort and his energy level. The kid is relentless. When he steps on the floor, the dude is unbelievable — he's just a special talent.”
In summer 2020, Sparks competed in a tournament in Indianapolis with Midwest Basketball Club against Gateway Basketball Club. Facing now-Pepperdine freshman center Sekou Gassama and now-Missouri freshman center Yaya Keita, Martin said his performance marked a turning point in his basketball career.
“He killed both of them,” Martin said. “We already knew he was good, but we didn't know how good he was until then. I think he scored 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] against players that were highly ranked.”
Sparks committed to Ball State in July 2020 and has started the Cardinals’ first 17 games this season. Ball State head coach James Whitford said his attitude in practice has paid off on the court.
“In every drill we do, it looks like he's trying out for the New York Knicks when he does the drill,” Whitford said. “It's why he gets so much better. His work ethic and his process is off the charts. That's what stands out to me the most, is just his daily approach.”
Two months into his freshman season, Sparks said he knew he could achieve success at this level. He is averaging 11.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per game and has recorded double-doubles in three consecutive games. Heading into Ball State, Sparks knew he needed to change his body if he wanted to play. He dropped from 278 to 240 pounds before the season began.
“The first game of the season, it wasn't easy,” Sparks said. “It really opened my eyes because I'm like, ‘I can really play at this level, but there are some big boys out there,’ and I picked up my things and I started rolling. I never doubted myself. I knew I could play at this level — I just needed to perform out there on the court.”
Sparks said he isn't worried about the accolades and stats but is instead focused on doing anything he can to help the Cardinals win.
“I just work hard on the court,” Sparks said. “I’ll do anything for the team — loose ball, dive on the floor, taking charges. I just keep the mindset, ‘The last day might not have been your best, but you keep going the next day — just keep going and going.”’
However, basketball comes second for Payton after school. Even though Payton’s aspirations are to become a professional basketball player, he said, Tracey made it a rule in his house that Payton had “a plan B,” requiring him to give his best effort academically. If he doesn’t play professionally, Payton said he is interested in teaching history and understands his role as a student-athlete.
“I take great responsibility about [academics],” Sparks said. “My parents taught me school first, then ball. I just want to make them proud and do anything I can.”
As Tracey enters Worthen Arena and sits down for Ball State Men’s Basketball games or plants himself on his living room couch to watch road games, he has trouble processing what it's like for Payton while watching him fulfill his dreams.
“Seeing your child get introduced and watching your child do the jump ball and play, it's surreal in a way, because it's very much real,” Tracey said. “It was taken up a level the first time we ever watched him on TV, knowing we're just normal people from small town USA, and you flip on the TV, and there, your child is playing. It's almost so amazing to be watching — it's almost like a fantasy.”