When Payton Sparks sat behind the IU bench as a guest of the program on January 26, 2020 as the Hoosiers hosted Maryland, he knew he was where he wanted to be.
Not necessarily at Indiana specifically, although that would have been nice, but the then emerging prospect from Winchester, Ind. knew he wanted to play high major college basketball. IU just would have been the cherry on top.
But as it turned out, those high major offers never came, and six months later Sparks committed to Ball State, just over 20 miles west of his hometown.
When Sparks posed for a picture at center court after that game at IU three years ago, could he have ever imagined the journey that would eventually bring him back to Bloomington?
“I’m not sure, I don’t know,” Sparks told The Daily Hoosier. “I just knew that my goal was to get somewhere in the Power Five eventually. I didn’t know where, but I’m glad I made it back to IU.”
Early in his basketball journey, Sparks had size but he needed to lose weight and get stronger before he could begin to realize his athletic potential. That played a role in limiting his college options out of high school.
But Sparks made the necessary adjustments, and when he entered the transfer portal a couple weeks ago, the high majors came calling this time.
And while that in and of itself was rewarding, his experience in high school taught him — this is no time to pat yourself on the back.
“It’s awesome but there’s still a lot of work to do,” Sparks said. “And I still have more dreams to get to. I wouldn’t trade the work I’ve put in for the world — from being a kid to now — and I’m just going to keep working.”
Indiana isn’t just any high major for Sparks. It’s the one he’s always kind of had his eye on.
Sparks says his family isn’t a big IU household, but he became a fan of the program as a child watching the successful teams of the Tom Crean era.
“I remember the Cody Zeller teams, I remember Christian Watford hitting the shot against Kentucky in 2011, and them beating No. 1 Michigan at home,” Sparks said. “The Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo days, Will Sheehey, just watching them, I wanted to be a part of that.”
He is a part of that now, but of course choosing his next step had to be about more than just childhood fandom. And Sparks believes the current IU program is a good match.
“IU was the dream school, and I just felt like it was the best fit overall, both on and off the court with academics and basketball, I feel like I fit in,” Sparks said.
“They wanted me to come down there, they were very interested in me, and I just couldn’t lose this offer. I had to take it.
“I just feel like at this point in time I’m ready to make that jump. I’m just going to work my butt off when I get there.”
Indiana has lost five front court players since the end of the season, so there’s an obvious opportunity for Sparks in Bloomington.
But after starting all 62 games he played in over the last two seasons at Ball State, the 6-foot-9 and 240 pound Sparks knows he’ll have to earn his minutes next season.
That was the message he heard from IU coach Mike Woodson this week, and Sparks liked it.
“He’s old school and I like that,” Sparks told The Daily Hoosier of Woodson. “I like how he’s straight forward about everything.
“They didn’t promise me with any playing time. They just told me to be ready to work.”
Indiana had an ally in its corner at Ball State when it came to Sparks. And it is someone who gets that no nonsense approach Woodson conveyed, and gets the appeal to an in-state player of playing at IU.
Cardinals head coach Michael Lewis was once the IU all-time assist leader.
Sparks put his name in the transfer portal a year ago but decided to come back and play another year in Muncie when Ball State hired Lewis.
This time around, Lewis knew Sparks was ready to pursue his high major dreams.
And when it came to Indiana, Sparks had Lewis’ full support.
“He just told me really that I should go (to IU),” Sparks said. “He said it’s a brotherhood there, and I shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to go play there. He said the people there (at IU) are really great.
“He texted me and congratulated me and said he’s proud of me. And that means a lot. We’ve got a great relationship and he’s a great person and I appreciate him for that.”
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