The man with 100 birthdays, and a senior about to end his four years playing Coyote basketball, center Austin Sparks is looking forward to finishing his basketball career on a high note.
Sparks said he’s been playing basketball since second grade.
“I was good at it — that’s one of the reasons I got recruited to play D1 basketball,” he said.
Playing for USD has felt like family, Sparks said.
“It’s the team, it’s the guys, they’re a lot of fun to play with,” he said. “It really feels like a family. Everybody likes each other and that’s the best thing about it — we just all enjoy our company on and off the court.”
Head coach Craig Smith said at a press conference on Feb. 8 that Sparks brings a certain energy to the team.
“Everybody on campus loves him, everybody knows him and he’s just a treat to be around,” Smith said.
Sparks’ daily schedule differs depending on what he has going on that day, he said. He usually goes to lift, classes, practice and then does his homework.
Sparks said this balance is hard to maintain sometimes.
“The way I do it is trying to get a lot of my work done in the morning so that I have a fresh mind,” he said. “I try to do homework early because by the end of the day, I’m cashed. I try to get the important stuff done early and coast the rest of the day.”
Sparks, a sport management major, said there’s a lot of time and effort he has to put in to meet volunteer requirements for his major.
“That’s the tough thing as an athlete — we don’t have that time that a lot of other students have,” he said. “It makes it tough to find opportunities to find time to do stuff to prepare you for after college, because they do own a lot of your time when you’re a collegiate athlete.”
Smith said Sparks is always ready and energized on the court or during practice.
“He doesn’t get out on the floor and play a crazy amount of minutes, but that dude shows up every day ready to roll with tremendous energy and passion, and that feeds to our players, whether that’s the weight room, conditioning and certainly on the floor,” Smith said.
Along with athletics, Sparks volunteers with Dakotathon, Nikki’s Run and at the elementary schools.
“I first started volunteering because it was required as a grade at the high school that I went to,” he said. “I then just started enjoying it more and more and eventually started looking for different opportunities to better the community that I lived in and the lives of the people that I came in contact with.”
The athletic marketing department has been showcasing Sparks’ birthday for many sporting events as a running joke. His real birthday, Feb. 11, marked the 100th time the 23-year-old Sparks’ birthday was announced.
“It’s been happening for so long that I just kind of ignore it,” he said. “Then, of course, when it’s actually my birthday they just kind of go a little extra.”
Smith said this running gag shows how grateful many people are for Sparks’ dedication to the team.
“I would do anything in the world for that kid,” Smith said.
During game days, Sparks said he has many ways to prepare.
“I have a lot of superstitions, I do a lot of things, but the one thing I think that sticks out is we pray before every game,” he said.
Smith said the team will miss Sparks when he leaves.
“Austin’s a man of the people,” Smith said. “He’s a tremendous ambassador to our university. He’s such a team guy, and we’re going to really miss his energy.”
During Sparks’ final season playing for USD, he said there have been many ups and downs, but is overall grateful to have played as a Coyote.
“(Being a Coyote athlete) means a lot,” he said. “I was able to really intertwine myself within the community of Vermillion. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine myself in any other place as an athlete or as a student.”