Michael Lewis knew where Payton Sparks’ heart was this time.
Growing up in Jasper, Ind., Lewis dreamed of playing high major college basketball in the 90s. And now the head coach at Ball State, Lewis faced Sparks last month, looking back at him with that same dream.
Lewis finished his high school career in 1996 in 13th place on Indiana’s all-time high school scoring list with 2,138 career points at Jasper. And from there he went 70 miles up the road to Bloomington to play for IU and legendary head coach Bob Knight.
Sparks put his name in the transfer portal a year ago when Ball State made the change that led to Lewis securing his first head coaching job. An Indiana product himself, Sparks decided to stay in Muncie and play for Lewis, and the pair helped lead the Cardinals to their first 20-win season in six years.
But a year later, Sparks was headed to the portal again, and Lewis knew it was different the second time around. Reflecting back on his own time as an Indiana kid with big dreams, Lewis says he encouraged his star big man to follow his heart.
“He walked in and we had a good conversation and he had a strong desire to play basketball at the highest level, and how am I going to sit there and talk him out of it,” Lewis told Kris Norton of WITZ radio in Jasper. “I had that opportunity, I had the same dream that he had, I was very fortunate to be able to live that dream, and now he’s got that opportunity.
“I said, ‘if you want to play the highest level, you have an interest in Indiana, and if they have an interest in you, it doesn’t get any bigger than that dude. You’ve gotta go do this. Don’t overthink it.'”
Sparks did get that opportunity to play at IU, something he described to The Daily Hoosier as an offer he couldn’t pass up. He’ll bring plenty of basketball talents to the program, but according to Lewis, his greatest attributes are away from the court.
“He’s going to walk through the door (at IU) as the best person in the program,” Lewis said. “He’s an unbelievable human being, great kid. I loved coaching him this year. When he walks in a room he just lights up the room. He’s just a really good person. I’m extremely happy for Payton to have that opportunity to fulfill a dream and compete at the highest level of college basketball.”
Lewis knows as well as anyone the opportunities that can come about after a basketball career at IU.
His first big break came when he served as a graduate assistant under Knight at Texas Tech, and he turned that into an 18-year run as assistant coach that included working under Brad Stevens at Butler and Mick Cronin at UCLA.
Lewis says he told Sparks, a Winchester, Ind. product, that playing for Indiana will create opportunities that can last a lifetime.
“I told him, ‘you’re an Indiana kid man, you get a chance to play at IU and you handle your business the right way and make the connections with the people that you’re going to be in touch with, it can change your life,’ Lewis said.
“So I’m just really, really happy for P to get that opportunity.”
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